The stakes were high on Saturday. Houses, mortgages, cars and even lives were being bet on Wayne Rooney
starting at Everton. He was favourite to score first, favourite to score last and ungenerous odds to grab two goals if you fancied a real wager. Little money or possessions either real or verbally were going on the United striker being axed from the Reds XI at Goodison Park. Reason for the one-sided belief that the England hitman would be subjected to the vitriol of his one-time admirers was Sir Alex Ferguson's history. It was not Fergie's style to cave in to the mob. If the player in question would ensure his team was at its strongest to win a match then their name was on the team sheet irrespective of the situation. A teenage Rooney was thrust into the Goodison cauldron in 2005 despite pre-match hype that built the fixture into a hate-filled homecoming'. He'd earlier been subjected to a similar cauldron of vitriol in front of the Kop. He survived and scored the winner at Liverpool. Nasty David Beckham was thrown into the lion's den in 1998 in his first post-World Cup red card away match for United. It was on his own manor in London against West Ham where the nastiest of the anti-Becks reaction had manifested itself. He survived. Five games into his Old Trafford career as a £30m newcomer from bitter rivals Leeds, Rio Ferdinand was back as enemy number one at Elland Road in 2002 to face the malicious backdrop to that event. He survived. It didn't appear that Rooney would be a special case on this occasion, especially as he'd brought the anticipated wicked backlash upon himself. So it was with 100 per cent certainty and confidence that all were prepared to declare that Rooney would start on Merseyside on Saturday. When the spotters returned hastily to inform the press lounge that he wasn't on the United coach, even though he'd checked in at the Lowry Hotel with the squad on Friday night, fanciful theories suggested he'd been whisked in by a back door in a cloak and dagger operation. When the team sheet arrived and he wasn't in the XI the immediate thought was he'd be on the bench. A further glance down the list of names left many open-mouthed. It was a Rooneyless Reds! Fergie appeared on TV to explain: We've made that decision because he gets terrible abuse here and we don't want to subject him to that. Seemed a bit of a mystery considering that Rooney returned as a 19-year-old five years ago. The resulting popular assumption was that he'd really been dropped as punishment. Surely playing him was real punishment! Reds assistant boss Mike Phelan said after the match that Rooney wasn't ready to play. Either way it smacks of a mellower Fergie who no longer seems to be in the Bill Shankly Football is not just a matter of life or death it is much more important than that' camp. As a near 69-year-old, the Reds boss appears to have adopted a softer line by sending last season's talisman but now tormented striker home to sort out his private life. Did it backfire on United? The facts would suggest so. When Rooney was laid low by a stomach bug and missed the last away match at Fulham, the Reds squandered a potential comfortable 3-1 victory with a late penalty miss and then an even later lapse to allow two points to slip from their grasp. Once again without his fearsome play to the final whistle' attitude United allowed Everton off the hook and again critically blew two title points. Criminal They comforted themselves at Craven Cottage by believing that come the end of the season it would be viewed more as a point gained than two lost. The Reds won't be able to spirit this criminal chuck away so easily. The team who have developed late rescuer acts or victories into an art form were suckered into having a taste of their own medicine. Even the Rooney circus was forgotten for the duration of the match as a bizarre afternoon unfolded. Everton were the powerhouse in the first half and yet countering that argument was a John O'Shea shot that shaved a post and two out-of-this-world instinctive stops from Tim Howard that denied from his ex-team-mates Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. As Goodison fans were digesting those miracle saves, Everton took the lead through the lively Steven Pienaar. The opener finally woke United up and Nani's dangerous cross was met superbly with a Darren Fletcher volley on the run to equalise four minutes later. Nemanja Vidic added to his fine defensive display by joining the Reds attack for a corner and Nani's eventual delivery was met with a forceful header for 2-1. A sublime stroked goal with the outside of his right foot from Dimitar Berbatov capped another eye-catching individual display from the Bulgarian. With half an hour to go United were strolling. Unfortunately, that's just what they did. The Reds became lax and lazy. Berbatov and Nani had been so instrumental in putting United on Easy Street. But the striker tried to replicate his cool finish and ended up screwing a chance wide. The winger, who had provided two excellent assists, smashed one over. Fergie was apoplectic. His Portuguese flank man had blown a 3-1 lead at Craven Cottage with a poor penalty and the United manager knew what was coming and a stable Reds defence lost its head in injury time. Rooney's damaging off-field dalliance and United's damaging on-field dilly-dallying has really put the Reds on the back foot.