It takes a lot of bottle to tell your star player that you’re willing to let him go. Even if it’s done via a supposed ‘leak’ through the media – and you don’t really mean it. When something resembling a news coup escapes from Old Trafford, be assured that the arch controller and manipulator of the media knows precisely what is going on. Fergie is nobody’s fool, and every now and then, if a player is to be pulled into line – pour encourager les autres – he has the wit and wisdom to deliver the message.
Don’t be surprised that following United’s harsh dismissal from the Champions’ League at the hands of Mourinho - and the feet of Ronaldo - the following day, the ‘papers were full of a different United story. Machiavellian intrigue is second nature to the red knight. Probably like you, I heard Mike Phelan, wheeled out for the cameras, describing how Fergie was distraught at the injustice of that game in particular, and the game in general. If you think the United manager was sitting in a darkened room, sobbing and wailing in baleful lament however, I think you’re well wide of the mark.
I recall a time a few years ago when a City team, far inferior from the current one, handed United a bit of a Derby beating. Remember “feed the goat and he will score,” and all that? Being interviewed after the game, Fergie was asked whether a defeat like that could lose his team the title. In typical truculent terms, the Scotsman, said no, it could win them the league. Unsurprisingly, he was right. On another day, in the time of Keegan’s first Geordie renaissance United were handed a 5-0 thumping by Newcastle at St James Park. It’s rumoured that a beaming Freddie Shepherd walked around afterwards, telling journalists that they’d “seen the champions out there today.” Of course he was right – but it was Manchester United’s name on the trophy come season’s end, not the Newcastle variety.
The point is that it’s not the the number of times that you get knocked down that counts, it’s the number of times that you get back up again that makes the difference, and if there’s one guy in football who knows how to turn a negative into a positive, it’s the gum chewing Glaswegian in the United dugout. Even through the red mist of perceived righteous indignation, as he strode to the tunnel after the game, I’m willing to bet the plan was forming in his mind. Not for Fergie does the comfort-zone of a fifteen point lead suggest an easing up on the pressure. Feeling the need to reinstall the hunger in his squad that could otherwise have donned the ‘pipe and slippers’ approach and sauntered to the season’s end, hoovering up another Premier League title on the way. He was thinking of a way to both divert attention from the defeat, and re-enrgise the squad.
“Rooney for sale!” screamed the sports pages the following day. Now, I can’t say for definite that England’s premier striker’s time at Old Trafford isn’t up; that Fergie doesn’t really wants to be shot of him. I can’t say that for definite, but I can say that I think it’s nonsense. It’s the sort of ‘Mexican stand-off’ – no, not Hernandez standing goal-side of the last defender - that has worked so well in the past. If I’m right, and any potential suitor for Rooney’s signature realises that it’s all smoke and mirrors, there’ll be no serious bids, Fergie will put his arm around Rooney’s shoulder and tell how terrible the press are, that they’re only trying to get at the club again, and that only at United is he truly loved. Wayne feels valued and on Sunday, he goes out and smashes a hat trick against Chelsea. If not actually, then at least metaphorically.
I could be wrong; it wouldn’t be the first time, but if Rooney’s in the starting eleven on Sunday, don’t be surprised, if he turns in a tour de force performance, don’t be surprised, and if there’s a satisfied smile on Fergie’s face as the cameras pan to the dugout, don’t be surprised. It wouldn’t be the first time that he’s manipulated the pliability of the press and the emotions of his players to achieve his ends – and it probably won’t be the last. So, come season end, just count your medals Wayne, smile and admire the genius of the manager. Just don’t take it personally.