There have been many great individuals in Sir Alex Ferguson’s centuries-old stint as the overlord of Manchester United, but aside from one or two notable homegrown players, almost all of the club’s best talents have been moved on to other teams at the peak of their powers. The quality of the team though, or its improvement, has always remained constant.
Perceived wisdom has it that Fergie is happy to allow his best players to leave when their status within the game rises too high, expanding into unpalatable egotism. He is acutely aware that their sponsorship agreements, advertising commitments, affairs, interviews, books, lifestyle choices, clothing ranges and all the other elements of Cirque Du Tawdry detract from a balanced family life and a focused professional approach to the job in hand – things that the manager appears to consider as essential to the running of his football club as ignoring the BBC and the chewing of Wrigley’s sugar-free gum. If you’re a good player but still end up shunted out by Fergie, legend has it that you’ve simply become too big for your bright red boots, but is that perceived wisdom necessarily correct?
While such an explanation was largely accepted – and is probably correct – for David Beckham’s departure to Real Madrid, Ferguson has appeared tolerant towards certain players that enjoy big profiles and heavy extra-curricular activities in the worlds of media and commerce. Witness Rio Ferdinand: despite not enjoying (if that’s the right word) the same level of worldwide fame as Beckham, he’s far from averse to a spot of sponsorship, a modicum of You’ve-Been-Merked-style television, a dash of advertising and a small amount of self-publishing. Rio Ferdinand the man has attempted to turn his name and his number 5 shirt into a brand, right under Ferguson’s nose, and there has been barely a twitch of the nostril.
Pic: A madman’s impression of what a robot Ferguson may look like in the future (circa 2011).
A fit Ferdinand has arguably been as important to United over the years as Beckham ever was, but Ferguson seems accepting of the defender’s dalliances outside the football sphere. So is it merely a case of some players pushing the boundaries of profile too far? It would seem that – outside of the fanciful case of David Beckham’s life – a rapidly-expanding public image is not actually enough on its own to guarantee a path to the Old Trafford exit door.
Wayne Rooney, at the time of writing, is the subject of rumours linking him with a move away from United. The rumours are fuelled by that very same belief that Sir Alex has tired of Wayne’s alleged skankathons being publicly slapped all over the front and back pages of all newspapers, be they red-top or broadsheet. As great a player Rooney has been over the past few years for the club, the hacks are falling over themselves to report that Fergie has had enough, and will collect an astronomical sum from Real Madrid for the striker in the next transfer window.
If – and it’s a big ‘if’ – there is any truth to these rumours, Rooney’s availability may well be due to another reason entirely, rather than the camel’s back being broken under a thousand and one tabloid revelations. It’s possible that personalities and lifestyle choices do not affect such decisions as much as people think, and that Ferguson only ever has the future of his team in mind when he ships out his best players.
Plenty of United players have reason to be happy with their club performances over the past couple of years. Darren Fletcher has improved considerably into an all-action midfielder, Nemanja Vidic has been dependable enough, and Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have rolled back the years with class displayed in both cameos and full appearances. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that they were heavily reliant on Rooney last year, whose fantastic performances for ¾ of the season helped to reduce the effects of a Ronaldo and Tevez-less forward line.
The imbalance of United as a team, reliant on one man, means there are problems for Ferguson to address, and not all of them are obvious. When one player is doing more than his share, is it down to the fact the others aren’t up to the job, or is it because they are simply happy to become more and more reliant on him? The latter is the more likely answer. Rooney’s performances may have helped United to mask a few deficiencies in the short-term, but in the long-term Ferguson is too wily to ignore the fact that his team cannot continue to rely on the scouser, however good he is. The natural path for United’s players, however experienced, would be to continue relying on Rooney, but they could progress further individually and as a team if they’re given greater responsibility in helping to keep United at the top. If that means the removal of Rooney from the United team, then you can bet Fergie will make the call.
Pic: Or, you know, just don’t.
Naturally, if Ferguson did get rid of Rooney, there would be a lot of immediate criticism in the media and from fans. Depending on the timing a reason for a move could be attributed to the player’s lifestyle, and it would be easier for the manager to trot out this line rather than get bogged down in explaining the bigger picture. The problem of relying too much on one player would be solved, and United would eventually be far better off for it. If any club is reliant on one particular player for more than a year or two then eventually that player’s injury, loss of form or the adaptations of other teams will give a manager even greater problems to solve.
If it’s a risky move, it’s one Ferguson will probably be happy to take; over the years enough talismans have left United, for a variety of reasons, and on quite a few occasions the manager has ended up with a better team as a result.
First there was much scratching of the head when he tore apart an excellent side containing a midfield foursome of Andrei Kanchelskis on the right, Giggs on the left and Roy Keane and Paul Ince in central midfield. At the time United looked set to dominate for the next few years at the very least, yet Ferguson chose to offload Ince and Kanchelskis when both players were either at their peak or approaching it. Kanchelskis had been United’s leading scorer in the league before he left, as well, and United were heavily reliant on his counter-attacking speed. Why not wait for a year or two? Personality clashes were given as the reason for both departures, but by getting rid of the players Ferguson reaped a greater benefit than the retrieval of some peace and quiet.
History tells us now that Ferguson knew he had an exceptionally-talented crop of young players coming through. What club bringing Nicky Butt and Scholes into the first team would truly miss Ince, regardless of The Guv’nor’s own abilities? And the then-teenage Beckham would prove a more than adequate replacement for the Ukranian right-winger. But it seems as though Ferguson twigged, before anyone else, that if you were going to welcome in the future you would have to dismantle the structure of the present side first. And that meant big-name casualties.
When Ferguson lost another talismanic player in Eric Cantona in the mid-90s to entirely different circumstances, United again benefitted in the long run. The situation is slightly different in that, due to Cantona’s preference for a suspension or three, Ferguson already had a functioning team that could live without the player’s presence, even if it was improved greatly by the number 7’s inclusion.
Ultimately, over the period of a few seasons and much toiling away in Europe, Ferguson realised that greater firepower was needed to make up for the loss of Cantona, and Paul Scholes’ role in the side increased considerably as the 90s went on, the player developing from a slightly untrusted young benchwarmer (he spent more time there than people remember) to a pivotal figure in the club’s history. It also eventually caused Fergie to amass four strikers (Teddy Sheringham, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) that were as important as each other. The four shared a lot of minutes on the pitch, which would have been a difficult scenario to manage if one striker’s place in the team was untouchable. Post-Cantona, United eventually powered to the treble, and it was no coincidence that the team did not have to rely on one striker – or one player – any more than another in that period.
Pic: Aaaah, the fickle hand of ironic fate could be striking sooner than we all thought.
The signs are there for Ferguson this season already. While Rooney has been out of form, struggling with injury (although the player claims these to be the manager’s fabrication) and left out of the team for his own good on occasion, Dimitar Berbatov is already showing improvement in a United shirt, which is looking like a good example of an underperforming player taking the team onto a higher level of performance when the key man is omitted from the side.
That’s not to say removing Rooney will solve all of United’s ills on the field. Losing the striker 18 months after Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez would give them a serious lack of goals and pace, and that’s something Berbatov and United’s reserve strikers are not capable of compensating for. As classy as he is, Berbatov is getting on in footballer years as well, and can’t be viewed as a long-term solution. The wider point, though, is that United have gone through such changes before under Ferguson, and if Rooney was to leave it could well end up being a blessing in disguise.
What finally influences Ferguson’s decision is anyone’s guess, though. While there’s little doubt that a player’s personality or lifestyle is something he considers, to say it’s the only reason for a player’s departure is to patronize one of the best club managers of a generation. Ferguson will be aware of the bigger picture. He knows the detriment of over-reliance on one player, he’ll know who can be brought in to the club, and he’ll have seen his teams make mockery of diminished expectations in the past. Ferguson has seen his judgement questioned plenty of times beforehand, and yet his United sides have remained competitive for close to two decades. If Rooney does leave, his departure won’t have been helped by his alleged cheating being made public, but it’s unlikely to be the sole reason for it.