The Red News Reditorial from RN193 - http://www.rednews.co.uk/subscription.php
I wrote after Wayne Rooney's one-two with Ryan Giggs as he adeptly swiveled into the curve of the ball to glide it into the Wembley net in front of the Barcelona fans, one of his most intelligent of goals for Utd, that the world and its stage could now await for our Number Ten. Instead, barely 16 months later, rather than the world at his feet, its eyes are trained on his midriff as we shuffle uncomfortably upon hearing the ultimate putting down of any injury concerns from his manager: “The injury is maybe a blessing because he can concentrate on his fitness now in the gymnasium in particular.” Ouch.
Fergie's man management can come in many forms, an arm around the shoulder, and the older ways of a tea cup hurtling towards it instead; it's just we don't often see either, it's all played out behind closed doors so we often don't get to hear about it until events are all played out; the livening up of a banal autobiography by a player who recalls the time Fergie tried to throttle him. Public criticisms and digs are just not his way, unless it’s an opponent or a journalist, until he feels such a timely grenade is necessary, and after weeks of tabloid speculation which we usually take with a pinch of salt, Fergie seemed to throw the very shaker at his star striker.
With the wages that Wayne Rooney received after his October ultimatum and sudden turnaround, it has often been argued on these pages that such billing and paying should see him raise his game to such world class status and icons. That he did in terms of end result, ironed out inconsistencies with fewer creases, and a scoring season last which matches his very best. Yet there was still the odd raised eyebrow, of a perceived decline or levelling off by some, perhaps more apparent and caused by the way we seemed to over depend on him. If Rooney wasn't playing or well, or even just not playing full stop, then United didn't. That can't go on for very long and the Robin Van Persie arrival has more to do with rectifying that over reliance than anything else, but if we can quibble about how good, great or indifferent Rooney was last season, he's no nearer being on that stage that Ronaldo and Messi occupy each yearly European awards ceremony that some, myself included, hoped and possibly expected he would be.
Some saw the burden of carrying the lofty expectations of the team, and the side itself, as a possible reason for yet another story brewing, others not so forgiving; the events that October though now beginning to become a distant dream (or would be nightmare), the elephant memories that most Reds possess, especially when crossed, makes some feel that whilst encouraging spectators, mere voyeurs to his greater script - if he were ready to use and abuse the greater name of United, they would do the same in return; until any inevitable parting, which some still think will happen, despite the continued protestations, sooner rather than later.
But later is becoming just that, much, he's still here, and whether it be a gradual realignment since Fergie talked of cows and the grass this side being better than t’other, or because in one quick and significant signing, Fergie had devalued the overall importance and reliance of the player he once over depended upon, he’s not the only star in the United sky anymore. Now was the time, if any, when Fergie could swing the axe and raise, in public and private, both whispered or announced, his concerns. Fergie is canny enough to know that.
I was always worried when Rooney himself as far back as two years ago said he doubted he could be playing into his 30s, his style of play the cause he alluded to, as Reds were more inclined to look through any metaphorical bins for diet and fuel habits. It can become a self fulfilling prophecy if you doubt whether you can actually do or achieve something, and whilst Rooney's advisors would ring Talksport a few weeks ago to clarify that his book comments about coming back to training overweight were in fact about 2009, not 2012, let us not forget that in 2011, even with a smile and in a light hearted chat, he admitted on England duty last August that: “The fitness coach gave me a programme to follow over the summer but I left it behind. I honestly didn’t lift any weights, run, nothing. I was a couple of kilos heavier than I should have been but I feel that has benefited me. I can easily put a lot of weight on, so I had to watch what I was eating. But I enjoyed the time with family.”
Matt Dickinson of the Times used the language of Bobby Robson describing Gazza as he tweeted: “Wrote about Rooney fitness, refuelling concerns the other day. Can't say I find his explanation of weight issues in Mirror too reassuring”. We can hark back to the days when we could freely mix with Robbo, Norm and McGrath, but they are gone, and if truth be told it wasn't doing the culture of the club much good let alone the drinking culture - any player not following a well thought out programme, in an age where most players don’t touch a drop, is chasing the pack right from the off. Now Rooney readily talks about adjusting his career as he gets older: “I even think about playing in midfield permanently, but only later in my career. Why? Well, in midfield I don’t have to be as sharp as a forward.” That sort of talk concerns me. A player like Rooney, and any player at United, has to be as sharp as he can for as long as he can.
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We hear David Moyes felt like banging his head against a wall about what Rooney ate - I've heard for the penchant for sausages, and no, don't laugh - and whilst the odd fag and pint won't make that great a difference per say, the game has moved on, and when we're worried as to exactly whose company Rooney will eventually be talked alongside, with any headlines like these, it's almost back down the snakes and ladders board as out come the Gazza comparisons. More journo nonsense of course, but let’s not forget he was dropped for Blackburn last season after issues from a night out. “During the season, I don’t think there’s any harm having a take-away now and then. The club always has someone on hand to talk to me about diet if I need them.” Fast forward a few paragraphs: “When I get up in the morning after a game, I struggle to walk for the first half an hour. I ache a bit. It wasn’t like that when I was a lad.” In the modern game, there can be a connection where once nobody cared, or any were realised. We like saying he's one of us - a real lad, and all that - but the difference comes when you start acting like we do, surely? Piers Moron's missus, Celia Walden writing in the Telegraph of a meal with the two couples in June: “…the boy from Croxteth made his appearance later on when the drinks started arriving in twos, and he fell backwards into an oversized flowerpot at the end of the night, but by then the Roonster had won me over.”
United fans will forgive most things - the Scouse heritage most obvious - and we know Rooney tries on the pitch as much if not more than any, but with him already being observed warily with every step since events back then, it does him no good to lads and lasses working their balls of just to see him and the team play to find suggestions about excess weight, like almost a joke, with not many laughing.
You see we may well see Rooney and Fergie hugging come May, looking as good as gold, as thick as, er, well, you get my point. But we also know in our X Files marked Jaap Stam, Ruud, Beckham and Keano circa the end, that there is always a subplot and story behind the veneer, and only two games into a season the cold reply of why he didn't start the fateful Fulham game was met by a “He wasn't as fit.” You'd have liked to have seen, if anyone of worth was still allowed into press conferences to actually ask, Fergie queried as to why he wasn't fit. Euros there may well have been, but he'd still had a significant pre-season under his belt, or so we thought. Rather than he looking like he needed to re-notch his belt.
Some thought the extracts from his book were fascinating. I found it all still quite bland, if not as bad as Hunter Davies' first book, still quite clearly more the words of the ghostwriter than the subject - “It feels like I’ve put my head in front of a BaByliss Turbo Power 2200.” (as if he said that). But I don't go for this cheap dismissal about his intelligence. His football brain, anyway.
He is a deep thinker about the game, and I was always impressed whilst the likes of Michael Carrick admitted they wouldn't be watching the Rome or Wembley Finals again, he did; to study, to learn. David Winner in one interview for a short feature in the ESPN magazine last May got more significant thoughts about his footballing thought process than a rather dull description of that city game in his book where a highlight is him telling us what the scoreboard said the score is. And the quite ludicrous description of that controversial pre-season return (of ‘09): “The scales in the club gym tell me I've put on a few more pounds than expected – seven. Seven! Then I remember – I drank a few bevvies while I was away. I'm stocky.” ‘I remember I drank a few bevvies’, hmm, hardly Steinbeck eh…
Perhaps Fergie once making his point is now going for the arm around the shoulder approach, public blast achieved, but the problem is you can't quite masking tape repair the gap between player and those who just don't trust him anymore in the stands. Minority some may still be, but it is a significant one. I asked on twitter how Reds now feel about him, if their views had changed, after yet another apology, this time in the book - though his dismissal of it as a ‘bad choice’ and ‘mistake’ were still wide of the mark to how significant it had been, well to us anyway - and the answers were split, if sided towards those who want him to do the business, and just best leave it at that.
He asked himself which had been his best year in the Premiership. One well known Red tweeted him: “I liked the one where you almost joined City. That was a great one.” That's what happens when you ‘play’; with United, it is lop sided towards perceived fans’ trust and who they believe, and whilst I am more forgiving, I don't really trust any of them when it comes to transfer matters (see Rio meeting Cuddly Pete in that Chelsea restaurant to hasten a deal with Comfortable Gill or for ulterior motives), and modern footballers are not that which I grew up with; fewer heroes, less frequent doting.
So I love watching him play, want him to stay as long as he’s great and giving his all, understand some of the pressures he's under as the England toy thing to pick up and then discard by the press when he's in vogue or not, but that's about it. Rooney now says: “It is an episode that I am not proud of but it has helped me because it has given me great desire and hunger to be more successful at this club.” I’m not saying that should be it or good enough or appease, because Reds are allowed to still feel hurt, even though I'd urge it dull a bit, for sanity sake as much as anything as we'll see more like it if the Glazers remain with their false economy, but he has done what he said since then - given his all. Which makes the Super Fat me reality show this summer that much harder to accept. He's running out of time, already, to lift his Pantheon, and any culpableness in slowing down any possible arrival on that UEFA stage is frustrating as fuck.
Take notice then of his own words about Ronaldo in 2007: “Ronnie’s ambition isn’t just talk either. In the changing rooms before the 2006/07 season I notice something different about him. He’s come back from the World Cup muscly and beefed up, like he’s been on the weights all summer. I know one thing: this change hasn’t come about by luck. He works bloody hard.” So do you Wayne on the pitch, but we also fear what you do off it... England didn't help either. Allowing that Vegas lads’ trip so soon before the Euros was madness. ‘These are grown men’. But quite often, they aren't really, are they? That raises questions too about United's approach of getting the best out of their most prized assets and their trust in their training away from Carrington.
Rooney does admit in the book: “I don’t like getting shouted at by anyone. It’s hard for me to take, so sometimes I shout back. I tell ‘Fergie’ he’s wrong and I’m right.” You wonder if SAF, as can be his way, has that in the back of his mind when things aren’t going well. You always fear for a player who doesn’t just ignore the advice when he’s on top of his game, essential to the team, but when the tide begins to turn and he’s no longer as vital - as Becks. and co will testify.
We’re not at that stage now. But this was supposed - I thought it would be - when the world was Rooney’s stage. Instead he is realising the MUFC world waits for no man and however great he’s been, this stage of his career could pass him by in a flash if he’s not too careful. Fergie often talks of not carrying any passengers, of the United bus always moving with momentum; shame then that the one we relied on for so long is having to jog behind blowing to make this season’s journey when he finally could have real quality help alongside him. He should have been waiting, primed and ready.
We don't often defend Neil Custis on these pages but whilst Reds were quick to give him stick about his story that United could - could - offload for £50m, what it did suggest was that something wasn't quite right between the pair. We found that out later with a dismissal of it all like a teacher about a wayward pupil, the relationship once so lopsided to the player, now about turned, Fergie holding the cards, the story still plausible then, Fergie could offload if he wants to. In talking up the new boy, the new game changer, Fergie said: “Van Persie gives us that maturity and experience of a front player and I think we probably needed that.” That as much as anything should have been chilling words to Rooney. It's not just about having a rival, but someone who could now be a short term replacement. None of us want that.
They may well hug, kiss and make up, but it'll now be the player who looks over his shoulder to see if Fergie has his fingers crossed rather than the other way around. As Christopher Davies the journalist put it to me: “The love affair with manager or fans not what it was. No split but sleeping in different rooms.” He is a game changer. He works his socks off and can raise our cockles as much as his. He is often the story, as well as changing and affecting it. But he's also now looking at a clock that has started ticking on him. Fergie provides a glowing foreword to the book: “I’d like to think I’ve made one or two good decisions during my time in football, but there is no question the signing of Rooney from Everton is up there with the best of them.” He wouldn’t have thought in publicising that book, Rooney would have to deny being sold, “if I'm wanted at this club, I'll be at this football club as long as possible.” Game, set and match to Fergie, where hopefully United benefit. Never another summer like this one tho’. Off plan. Wayne Rooney's next move isn't his own, it is Fergie's to make.
It may seem strange debating how good a player is who has scored over 180 goals for United, who we have (over) relied on for so long. Those Reds who still feel betrayed (or feel he publically dissed his team-mates in the dressing room by questioning the greater ambition) don't let on during games about how they feel, and quite rightly so, be it for not wanting to cut open old wounds or harming the greater MUFC collective and impetus, and that's not the dance we're eyeing anymore anyway, more pressing concerns always come, and usually go.
I love watching Wayne Rooney, but I have sometimes feared if Wayne Rooney now loves the game as much as he once did, but we can never question his enthusiasm for playing. Whether a Red in K Stand has forgiven and forgotten is neither here nor there. It's whether Fergie has, again. No Manchester United player should be called for their fitness, or seen an injury considered a ‘blessing’. It's not so much Rooney seeing out his career, or them going out for a nice Valentine's meal all made up that concerns me; it's that each summer I was rather hoping to see Wayne walk up that stage to the applause of his peers in Monaco, not read another headline about ‘who ate all the pies’. It can still happen, his stage, theirs. This might indeed be a ‘blessing’.
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