20 October ~ It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that, when in want of a new club, a footballer rarely gets the better of Alex Ferguson. The Manchester United manager, we are told, is the right man to send players on their way. He knows when to protect his players, when to discipline them and when to dispense with them. When a player looks set to leave Old Trafford we are fed the usual line, that Ferguson sells players when it suits him but not when it suits them. Well, Wayne Rooney might just be proving that theory wrong.
David Beckham, Paul Ince and Roy Keane are all trotted out as examples of Ferguson's fine management. They were on the slide and Ferguson knew it, we are told. But the reality is not quite as simple as that. Beckham was treated disgracefully by Ferguson and went on to become both a fans' favourite and La Liga winner at Real Madrid. Although Paul Ince didn't win anything at Internazionale, his time in Italy was no failure. Ince was offered an improved contract by Inter president Massimo Moratti after two years in Milan, but moved back to England for personal reasons.
Even Roy Keane's departure was not an unqualified success. After Keane left, United failed to win the championship and finished bottom of their group in the Champions League, their worst performance in the tournament to date. Keane was said to have crossed the line when he reviewed the performance of his colleagues in an interview on United's television channel. But Darren Fletcher, the player most brutally savaged by Keane's comments, seemed more inspired than deflated by Keane's robust style: "He was our captain, he was our leader and he left a mark – where we are now is down to him, our dedication comes from the standards he set." Keane might have fallen out with Ferguson, but his presence could well have benefited the young players in the United side at the time.
There are more clear cut examples of Ferguson's mistakes when selling players. Ruud van Nistelrooy, the best natural finisher in the club's recent history, scored 46 goals in 68 appearances for Real Madrid after Ferguson showed him the door. Carlos Tévez, the perennial substitute at Old Trafford, has scored 28 of Manchester City's last 60 league goals. The United manager was powerless to stop Cristiano Ronaldo leaving for Madrid, despite claiming he wouldn't sell the Spanish club "a virus". And even Ferguson admits he was hasty in getting rid of Jaap Stam.
Ferguson has been heralded as the master man-manager, but it now seems likely that the best two forwards in Manchester will be playing together in blue only a few years after winning the Champions League together in red. Although continually barracked by the United crowd to sign up Tévez, Ferguson marginalised the player and then tried to appease the fans with the unconvincing line that Tévez had long since decided to join City. Rooney now looks likely to follow him. Although largely silent in the last few weeks, Rooney has consistently stated that he wants and needs to play games to build up his fitness and form. By resting the player Ferguson looks to have put more strain on their relationship.
Perhaps Ferguson's biggest mistake has not been mismanaging his players, but his continual failure to speak out against the club's owners. United now spend more money on servicing debt than they receive in gate receipts. With the Glazers in charge of the club there is simply no way that United can compete with City for financially-motivated players. It would be naive to assume that Rooney has any other concerns than winning trophies and picking up a paycheck. United took him from Everton in 2004 when they offered the safest bet for big wages and trophies. He showed little loyalty then, so why should he be expected to show it now. Perhaps, while scoring all those goals at Old Trafford last season, Rooney noticed the swathes of green and gold and decided to take matters into his own hands.
The idea that Alex Ferguson is an omnipotent being who offloads players only as their star begins to fade is a myth. Ferguson has made mistakes before, but he has always been able to use United's wealth and prestige to attract replacements. But as his club's star begins to fade, the real challenge for the United manager will be to retain and replace players who see their interests served better elsewhere. Paul Campbell