Wayne Rooney has expressed his gratitude to Manchester United’s supporters for easing his concerns about being openly abused but the striker stopped short of the public apology that Sir Alex Ferguson had stated he would deliver.
Rooney will return to United’s starting line-up in their Champions League tie against Rangers tomorrow for the first time since the contract dispute that almost led to him leaving the club but, before flying to Glasgow, the forward took part in a carefully prepared interview with the club’s in-house television station to show his appreciation for the way the fans had shown they could forgive him.
An element of the Old Trafford crowd booed when he was brought on as a substitute against Wigan Athletic on Saturday but the dissent was largely drowned out by some prolonged vocal backing for the man who now ranks as the highest-paid player in the club’s history.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about the reaction from the fans but, overall, I thought the reception I got was brilliant,” Rooney said. “It was a great feeling, after being out for such a long time.”
Rooney’s sudden volte-face, signing a new five-year contract, had led to suggestions that United wanted to ensure they would get optimum value in the transfer market but the player dismissed that out of hand. “I’ve heard from different people that I’ve agreed a new deal only so the club can agree a higher [transfer] price with a different team somewhere along the line, which is a load of rubbish. I’ve signed a new deal here to stay here. My long-term future is here at Manchester United.”
There was, however, no apology, which was perplexing considering that Ferguson had gone on record saying one would be forthcoming, the United manager adding it was necessary because everyone associated with the club had “been hurt” by the player’s behaviour.
Ferguson was unwilling to expand on the subject when he took his seat for a press conference at Ibrox this evening – “I’ve no idea,” he said when the question was put to him – and Rooney will get another chance in a pre-recorded interview that will be shown on television directly before the game.
The best form of contrition, perhaps, is to return to the scoring form of last season and Rooney, after eight months of questionable fitness, is undoubtedly in better shape after a gruelling week at a training camp in Portland, Oregon.
“My fitness is coming back,” he said. “It was just what I needed. We were leaving for training at nine and getting back at six. I wanted to make sure that, when I did get back into the team, I was fit and ready and that it wasn’t going to take four or five games to get back to my best.”
His return comes at a strange time for United, whose unbeaten run of 27 games masks the fact they have been playing below their usual standard, leading to some self-critical analysis from the manager. Ferguson openly blamed himself for making too many changes – “I don’t think I’ve played the same team enough to get a level of consistency,” he said – and he used this as mitigation when asked about the loss of form that led to Dimitar Berbatov not even making the substitutes’ bench against Wigan.
“In fairness to Dimitar we’ve been changing the strike partners quite a lot this season. I have to accept responsibility for that and perhaps I changed things too much.
“Now we have to look for more consistency in the team. Hopefully we can get Wayne back to his best and I think Dimitar is suited to playing with Wayne.”
The irony is that Ferguson, once again, has taken a calculated gamble, leaving his regular centre-halves, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, in Manchester to prepare for Saturday’s game against Blackburn Rovers, despite United needing a draw at Ibrox to guarantee a place in the next stage of the competition.
Darren Fletcher was also missing from the travelling party, having picked up an injury in the Wigan match, although Ferguson is clearly encouraged by being able to call upon the reigning Footballer of the Year. “It’s been intense for Wayne. It’s not been easy. It’s been difficult, hard work. This game is an ideal opportunity for him in terms of coming back to the level we know he’s capable of reaching.”
Ferguson also cleared up the latest on United’s £3.5m move to sign Anders Lindegaard, the Denmark goalkeeper, from the Norwegian club Aalesunds: “Nothing’s completed at the moment. It will probably happen in the next two or three weeks. The announcement last week was probably a wee bit premature.”Manchester United (possible, 4-3-2-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Smalling, Evans, O’Shea; Scholes, Carrick, Park; Obertan, Nani; Rooney. Subs: Kuszczak, Rafael, Evra, Gibson, Hernández, Giggs, Macheda.