At Old Trafford, 22 October, Wayne Rooney signed a new contract at Manchester United
Twenty-eight days later, Rooney is yet to offer that apology to Manchester United’s supporters, presumably hoping they have forgotten it was supposed to happen – just like, over time, he would probably like to believe the past few months can be airbrushed out of history.
He is back tomorrow; or, at least, he is available for the first time since his mutiny against the club, leaner and fitter after his training camp in the United States and considerably richer too – almost £1m under the terms of his new contract – since his last words on the dispute that nearly saw him leave the club with a blanket over his head.
Nobody ought to expect voluble disapproval – that is not the United way – but the mood inside Old Trafford for the visit of Wigan Athletic will be edgy, at best, and Rooney should not expect to be pardoned with merciful chants. Cristiano Ronaldo was punished with prolonged silence for his own “treachery”, when he tried to force a transfer to Real Madrid in 2008, and Rooney has inspired the same raw feelings: resentment, a sense of betrayal, unmistakable sadness.
The fanzine United We Stand summed it up: “We’ve been left in a state of flux. Delighted he’s staying; sad his United credentials have been so sullied.”
Daniel Harris, author of the acclaimed book On the Road, about following the club, strikes a similar chord. He says: “While I’m pleased that Rooney publicised the despicable state of the club’s finances, there was nothing about the affair that didn’t make me sick to my soul and though there was no reason to expect any different, I do find him less appealing than before. He plays for United, so, accordingly, I hope that he scores infinity goals, but a far hornier fantasy is of him sat impotently at the side, watching his team-mates net infinity plus one.”
Ferguson will examine Rooney’s fitness today before deciding whether the striker should play any part. A late twist cannot be ruled out, but Wigan are certainly preparing to face the man who scored 34 goals for United last season. “You don’t want Wayne Rooney to come back against you,” the manager, Roberto Martínez, has said. “Rooney is one of the best players in world football. It is going to be as if he is a new player, a fresh player.”
Yet Rooney’s last goal for his club from open play dates back eight months, to the Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich, which constitutes something far more serious than what is usually known, in football parlance, as a blip. This is what stung so many United supporters: that he could question the club, challenge Ferguson and bring a swarm of locusts to Old Trafford, at a point when his professional and personal reputation had never been lower.
“It just reaffirms our position,” Andy Walsh, the general manager of FC United of Manchester, said a couple of weeks later, reflecting on the decision to form the breakaway club in 2005.
“That’s the way the game has gone and you wonder where the limit is … players earning a million a month? Rooney’s contract negotiations were described by some as a score draw between player and club, but the losers were the fans because they’re the ones who’ll be picking up the tab.”
Rooney’s contract takes him up to 2015, when he will be 30. Whether he will remain in Manchester that long is another matter. Walsh has his doubts – “I think United have done it to improve his value and they’ll flog him anyway” – and this cynicism is shared by many United supporters, remembering how players such as David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo were given new deals before being sold.
“We can’t nick players, a la Rooney, Rio [Ferdinand] and [Dwight] Yorke, and then be horrified that United are not exempt from the merry-go-round, when there are now bigger spenders in the playground,” Barney Chilton wrote in Red News, United’s longest-running fanzine.
“That said, there are ways to behave, and this was as far away from dignified as you can get.”
Ferguson, in Doha this week to promote Qatar’s World Cup bid for 2022, accepted for the first time that Rooney and his agent, Paul Stretford, may have been fluttering their eyelashes at another club. “He’s had someone on the sidelines keen to take him,” the United manager said. Behind the scenes, the finger is pointing at Manchester City, whose football administrator, Brian Marwood, has close links with Stretford after working previously at Nike, Rooney’s boot sponsor.
Football, as Rooney has shown, is a game where the rich only want to get richer. But what price the prestige, the tradition, the glory of pulling on that red shirt? What we have in Rooney, in Chilton’s words, is a player who thinks it fine to pay £200 for a packet of cigarettes and turn up his nose at money that could fund a local NHS service. “It’s not good, is it? It’s modern football. And why we hate so many aspects of it.”