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A curious challenge to Ferguson’s authority

October 15, 2010

Had John William Henry II not finalised his takeover of Liverpool (and had the incumbent owners not kicked up such a desperate fuss), the big story coming out of Old Trafford before United’s match with West Brom might have been afforded a little more attention this week.

After England’s draw with Montenegro, Wayne Rooney contradicted his manager’s statement of a fortnight ago by saying he has been fully fit this season. Ferguson left him out for successive matches at Valencia and Sunderland after a string of sub-par performances, citing injury.

It would not be the first time Ferguson has lied (or exaggerated) to protect one of his players. It is conceivable he took a misfiring Rooney out of the team and spared his blushes by saying he was injured. Few would argue that was wrong, yet it is odd for Rooney to be so off-message – and, perhaps belligerently, go out of his way to demonstrate it.

In today’s pre-match press conference Ferguson avoided the issue: “I don’t know where all these things come from. The boy is always in the spotlight and being addressed by the press. It is important how you handle it in my experience. But it just runs off me. It doesn’t mean anything.”

The rumours of a Rooney move to Madrid have started: Ferguson has a record of getting rid of misbehaving players; it’s reasonable to suggest Madrid would want to buy him; United need money to pay off their debt.

Plausible, of course, but not convincing. Dimitar Berbatov’s early-season form does not mean United can cope with the loss of the man who led their domestic assault with such vigour last season (and who, despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s consistent excellence, has been crucial to the side since he joined). Rooney is so important he would surely have to do more than be exposed cheating on his wife and then make a misplaced comment to reporters to become the latest star to be kicked out by his autocratic boss. Still, it is certainly odd.

While Ferguson avoided that issue, he went out of his way to rebuke Owen Hargreaves’s surgeon who had said that his patient would be fit to play against West Brom this weekend: “Owen is not ready. We are having difficulties with the doctor coming out with statements that are not accurate.”

He could simply have said Hargreaves had picked up another injury in training. Everyone would have believed him. Yet he went out of his way to seek confrontation. It has its advantages: presumably Dr Richard Steadman will refrain from commenting publicly on Hargreaves’s progress in the future, and perhaps Ferguson was aiming to train the media’s eye away from Rooney.

Either way, the Rooney story could run for a while – particularly if West Brom play like they did at Arsenal two weeks back and ensure United’s stuttering start to the season continues.

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