As one soap opera ends, another promptly begins. New England Sports Ventures' protracted takeover of beleaguered giants Liverpool was finally completed on Friday. It remains to be seen whether John W. Henry and co. will indeed preside over a resurgence in the red half of Merseyside, and comprehensive defeat to bitter rivals Everton has illustrated that much work lies ahead, but the buyout has at least averted the immediate threat of administration and ignominy of a 9 point penalty. Just as Liverpool's legal battles have disappeared from the back pages, however, the tabloids have now been presented with a new muse: for Wayne Rooney, the jewel in the crown of Manchester United, has effectively stated his intention to leave the Red Devils by announcing that he will not be seeking a new contract at Old Trafford. And earlier today, in an astonishingly candid press conference, Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed that, despite his best efforts, the 24 year old has made up his mind to move on. Set against the backdrop of United's stuttering start to the season, it is a revelation with the potential to sound the death knell for their immediate hopes of challenging for major honours.
It's been a strange start to the season for Sir Alex Ferguson's side. They remain the only unbeaten side in the Premier League, but 5 draws from their opening 8 games have allowed a 5 point gap to open up between this blog's title tip and defending champions Chelsea. A slow start to the season, in itself, will not be cause for too much concern around Old Trafford - it is a well-known fact that United teams rarely hit their stride until after Christmas.
However, it is the nature of the performances which has surprised many seasoned observers of Manchester United this season. In particular, there has emerged a worrying propensity for allowing leads to slip away in matches - as illustrated against Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Bolton and West Brom. The fact that the draw last Saturday against West Brom was the first time in 10 years that United had been held at home after enjoying a two goal lead emphasises how out of sorts they have looked at the back.
The midfield area is another headache for Sir Alex Ferguson. The current side are certainly not lacking in energy, work rate and technical ability in the middle of the pitch, but there is an unhealthy dependence on the excellent but aging Paul Scholes to provide much needed guile and creativity. Darren Gibson and Michael Carrick are solid options, and Darren Fletcher is one of the Premier League's most improved players, but none of the above are equipped with the gifts to consistently unlock top level defences. Brazilian playmaker Anderson arrived at Old Trafford amid much fanfare in 2007, but a combination of injuries and inconsistency has meant that he has not been able to establish himself as the long-term solution.
If the issues listed above pose significant problems for the United manager, Rooney's refusal to negotiate a new contract surely consitutes a crisis. There is no denying the fact that many of the difficulties which the 24 year old now faces in his career are of his own making. All players suffer through periods of bad form, particularly when recovering from injury, but United's talisman has been a shadow of the player who set European football alight last season. Distracted by the fallout from his own off-the-field indiscretions, Rooney appears unable to cope with the media glare which goes hand in hand with the celebrity status which he has actively courted. A nightmare World Cup has been followed with an almost unbroken sequence of tepid displays for club and country, and with the United striker's focus clearly not on his football, Sir Alex Ferguson has seen fit to step in.
The United manager has never felt duty bound to justify his management methods to the media, instead allowing his team's results to do the talking on the pitch. This attitude cannot be faulted for its effectiveness, but it does mean that it is almost impossible for outsiders to know exactly what is going on within the Manchester United squad - a fact which makes the sheer openness and honesty of today's press conference all the more surprising. However, it does appear clear in this case that Ferguson has limited his Rooney's first team appearances recently in order to allow him to get his life in order. After all, a return to last season's prolific scoring form would benefit United just as much as it would their star striker.
However, Rooney, it seems, sees things differently. He shares his manager's desire for a return to form, but the two are completely at odds on how to affect the change. The United striker believes that the best remedy for his frustration lies on the pitch, and that he can play his way back to his best. Consequently, he feels frozen out by Ferguson's refusal to consider him for the starting line-up, and by his manager's assertions to the media that he is carrying an ankle injury. By contradicting Ferguson's comments on his fitness whilst on England duty, Rooney was giving public notice of his opposition to his manager's methods. With his latest announcement, the United striker has completely alienated himself from a future with Manchester United.
There may, of course, be other motivations behind Rooney's refusal to negotiate a new contract at Old Trafford. One particularly cynical theory is that it is all about money. The latest reports are that United would be willing to offer their star striker £150,000 per week - making him the highest earner at the club. But Rooney knows that he could earn even more by moving to one of Spain's 'Big Two', and that Roman Abramovich would probably be more than willing to loosen Chelsea's purse strings in order to bring him to Stamford Bridge. And if he contemplated the unthinkable - a move to Manchester City - then Sheikh Mansour and his associates would essentially allow him to name his price. It is certain that Ferguson and the entire Old Trafford hierarchy are steadfastly opposed to such a deal, but with as little as 18 months left on his contract, Rooney would hold most of the cards.
Rooney may also be beginning to question the level of United's ambition. The sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid was justified on many levels, and it was widely accepted that his Old Trafford career had come to an end. However, one can argue that in Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, United lost two world-class attacking players in the summer of 2009. Their replacements have been acquired on a modest budget, and are therefore somewhat inevitably not of the same quality. Last season, Rooney distinguished himself as the Red Devils' only genuinely world-class attacking player, on some occasions carrying Sir Alex Ferguson's side with 34 goals in all competitions.
New signings such as Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling are showing potential, but Rooney may be worried, and with some justification, about United's growing reliance on him to spearhead their challenge for major honours. He may also share the fans' concerns about the club's estimated £700m debt, and whether financial obligations will hinder the club's aspirations towards major trophies in the years to come. And as much as Rooney knows that Manchester United will never become mere also-rans in Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure, the question of how much longer the 68 year old Scot will go on in the Old Trafford hot seat is as pertinent as ever. Beyond Ferguson, United's future is far from certain.
But to an extent, the United manager will consider the reasons behind Wayne Rooney's decision to leave Manchester United to be no longer important. He has 'left the door open' for the 24 year old to change his mind, but must now plan to deal with the situation as it now is, not as it might become. Ferguson must find a way to prevent Rooney's discontent from impacting any further on the morale of the rest of the squad, whilst still ensuring that United can demand an attractive price for an in-form player come January. Re-introducing him into the first team may not now be an option, owing to the rough reception he will likely receive from the Old Trafford faithful. In any case, the constant speculation which will surround both Rooney and United in the coming months, combined with the absence of a key player from the side, will certainly not create a climate which is conducive to success on the pitch.
By publicly declaring his intention to leave, Wayne Rooney has driven a dagger into the heart of Manchester United's hopes of challenging for major honours this season. Sir Alex Ferguson will now have to use all of his experience and skill in order to stem the bleeding.