There is, of course, the possibility that Manchester United will be bringing a whole heap of trouble on themselves by denying Wayne Rooney the transfer he wants. How he will react, nobody can be quite sure. There are good reasons why clubs normally move on disenchanted players rather than risk them being corrosive inside the dressing room and it cannot be entirely ruled out that Rooney – described to this correspondent recently as “having long-standing and deep-seated unhappiness” at Old Trafford – has the capacity to undermine David Moyes if he takes it as a personal affront.
Rooney has already been swinging his irons among the exclusive golf clubs close to Chelsea’s training ground in Surrey’s stockbroker belt. Everyone in football knows he wants to play for José Mourinho and, Rooney being Rooney, United are acutely aware he is spiky enough to create all sorts of problems if he does not get his way.
Beyond that, there are other issues here, too, given that his relationship with United’s supporters has been fractured to the extent many of them would rather the club escort him off the premises as quickly as possible. Will they accept him back now it is clear he has tried to force an exit twice in under three years? And will he be able to reproduce his best form when he would rather be playing in blue and there is so much lingering resentment?
And yet, the alternative for United is barely worth thinking about. It boils down to this: to cave in would, by their own admission, make them look weak and vulnerable. It would make Chelsea seem the more ambitious team, the more serious operator, with the greater plans and steeper upwards trajectory. Very possibly, it would also be the signing that simultaneously condemns United’s title defence and sets Mourinho on the way to a triumphant first season back in London.
Whatever the scrutiny on Rooney sometimes, however much he occasionally disappoints, it should not be forgotten he has scored 197 goals for United and is fourth in line behind Jack Rowley, Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton, on 249, in their list of all-time scorers. It is true, perhaps, that he is not the player English football wanted him to be after the exhilarating way he blew through Euro 2004, the English Pelé and all that.
Yet Gary Neville was not exaggerating with his appraisal of his former team-mate this week. “I could argue, in the last eight years, he has been the most important player in the Premier League,” Neville said. “Why would I be over the top stating that? He is one of the most successful players in the last eight years, won the most championships in that period, been an ever-present, played in every single game nearly, every season, scoring 20-plus goals in most of them. Even last year, which you could argue was below his best, playing in midfield, playing right side, left side, there were still lots of goals and assists.”
This is what, behind the scenes at Old Trafford, is driving the decision that Chelsea can offer as much money as they like, and Rooney can stamp his feet as loud as he wants, because it will make no difference. It does not even particularly matter that Chelsea’s bids – first £23m then £25m – have been greeted with bemusement by the Glazer family, the United chief executive, Ed Woodward, and the club’s new manager.
It is a matter of status, of reputation and positioning. More than anything, it is about self-preservation and ultimately, no matter what your allegiance, there is something to be said for the fact we have a club here that is simply not willing, in any circumstance, to give in to player power.
For Chelsea, it will form a hugely damaging blow given how convinced they were about this deal happening. The message behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge all summer has been one of great confidence, openly talking about where Rooney would fit in. “Rooney or bust?” it was put to Mourinho on Chelsea’s pre-season visit to Thailand, immediately after he had taken his first game back in charge. “Yes,” he replied. Had he bid for anybody else? “No, and we won’t.”
Mourinho, filled with misgivings about Fernando Torres, saw Rooney becoming the principal striker of a quartet also featuring Romelu Lukaku and Demba Ba. United, refusing to be backed into a corner, have decided instead that a sulking Rooney would still be worth more to them than one knocking in goals for a direct rival. Rooney’s contract has only two years to run and, after that, his employers could lose him for nothing. But, again, United are more relaxed about that possibility than many people might anticipate. They would rather take their chances than lose face now.
So what happens next? For the most part, that is Rooney’s decision. He could feasibly put in a transfer request, as his camp have been threatening for some time now, but the feeling at United is that the importance of such a move is largely over-egged anyway – or, to put it another way, what difference does it make when everyone already knows he wants a transfer?
After that, next summer might represent Rooney’s last chance of starring at a World Cup. That, at least, gives United hope his mind will be focused on a successful season, even if it is not at the club where he wants to be, and that he will buckle down, with England’s World Cup qualifiers in September and October prominent in his thinking.
Another season in Manchester would take Rooney up to the 10-year mark since joining the club from Everton and, if everything were less complicated, the possibility of a testimonial match. Old Trafford, one imagines, would be pretty empty given the current mood of the club’s fan-base. But United know that can change, and they are hoping Rooney’s attitude will, too.
© Guardian News & Media Limited 2014