It was all going so well and everything seemed to be in place to beat Madrid. Plans, tactics, timing and personnel were bang on as the hour mark approached – then came the defining moment of the tie and United were somewhat unjustly reduced to 10 men. We got a bad decision, one that tipped an already tight game in Madrid’s favour and made things very difficult. Difficult, but not impossible, surely?
Yes, pretty much everyone barring Roy Keane accepted the referee had got it wrong. Though amidst the wailing and chest-beating that took place during the aftermath, I couldn’t help feeling that it was United, not the referee who’d lost the plot. Bad decisions happen in football matches all the time, it’s how you react to them that counts.
The manner in which we appeared so utterly flummoxed by a single injustice surprised me. Fergie was berating the 4th official and attempting to rouse the crowd whilst Mourinho reshuffled; as the game re-started only Rio Ferdinand seemed alert as to what was occurring whilst the rest of the team were simply stood looking at each other. Ryan Giggs meanwhile, continued to harangue the ref during every break in play for the next 15 minutes.
Our previous European Cup victories demonstrate that success at this level often requires an otherworldly level of focus, determination and bloodymindedness. We’ve had to overcome incredible odds before – so in my view, that should be the level of expectation that’s placed upon each set of players tasked with attempting to win it. The current team are surely bigger, better and more experienced than to be so phased by a simple red card?
We were still in a great position with a lead to defend yet completely went to pieces for 10 minutes. Understandable perhaps, but not what we should be striving for. Given the meticulous level of planning that goes into the preparations for these ties, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed by the collective response of the team, before they eventually regrouped and mustered up a final assault at the death. One hopes that these shortcomings were at least touched upon during the dressing room de-brief/Carrington inquest that followed – and defeat wasn’t merely put down to ‘bad luck’ or ‘poor referee’.
One thing pretty much everyone is in agreement of was the decision to omit Wayne Rooney from the starting XL, a move vindicated by another excellent turn from Danny Welbeck. A simple, tactical switch that looked to be paying great dividends up until Nani’s red card, but one that lends further credence to the growing suspicion that Rooney’s United career could be entering its final phase.
Rooney is a puzzling figure these days. On one hand you’ve got a player who’s approaching 200 goals in 400 games for United – who if he remains at OT, in a couple of years time will more-than-likely become the leading scorer in the club’s history before his 30th birthday. He’s 27 years old, and should by rights be in his prime as a footballer – not merely treading water as is frequently the case at present. There persists an uneasy sense that after 9 seasons here, the relationship between club and player has become somewhat stale. Is it time to confront the hard truth and recognise a split should take place sooner rather than later – before things start to get really messy?
I’ll admit now I’ve always been a huge Rooney fanboy. Even at the point Ronaldo went stupid and started scoring 40 goals a season, ‘Wazza’ remained the main man in my eyes. Those two of course were utterly peerless in tandem, the id-ridden superstar and the uncomplaining, selfless foil – in shit 80’s pop terms, Rooney was content to be the Andrew Ridgeley of the duo whilst Ronnie went all George Michaelish.
There was always the expectation that Ronaldo would fly the nest and realise his “dream” of joining Madrid, however October 2010’s news that Rooney wanted out came as something of a hammer blow to pretty much everyone connected with the club. I recall talking to a well known red immediately after the bombshell had been dropped. Genuinely gutted, he put the level of feeling on a par with the Spring of 1984 when rumours of Bryan Robson leaving for AC Milan or Juventus started to circulate.
Some may baulk at this comparison, but it’s true. Post-Keane, Rooney had become the heartbeat of United’s side. Yes, Ronaldo had reached a stratospheric level of performance that nobody ever predicted, but Rooney had developed greatly too. He could (still does) play anywhere on the pitch, his goalscoring reached prolific levels in the season after Ronnie’s departure (he’d racked up 30 by March) and it was only his injury in Munich that abruptly pulled the rug from under United’s season. He was rushed back for the Munich home game, playing when clearly unfit, a decision that led to him missing the games v’s Chelsea and Blackburn that resulted in Chelsea seizing the title initiative. As Duncan White noted in The Torygraph following that Chelsea defeat, “The obvious problem was the absence of a 5’10” lump of squat Scouse gristle.”
Although he’d reasserted himself as United’s star performer, he apparently shared fans’ concerns about the lack of star names incoming and decided top billing at OT wasn’t enough. With the £80M Ronaldo proceeds having disappeared into the Glazerhole as opposed to re-invested in the team, the prospect of losing Rooney wasn’t something anyone saw coming. Fergie included, it seemed. Most players making such a call would rightly expect to be waved out the door, instead Rooney was appeased with a massive new contract and assurances that the club shared his ambitions. The only other players that United had indulged to this extent were Ronaldo himself and before that, Cantona and perhaps Roy Keane – names of the highest calibre that indicate the regard in which Rooney was held.
Unlike Ronaldo, Cantona and Keane, Rooney has never managed to re-establish himself in supporters’ affections following the very public game of brinksmanship that was played out 3 years ago. A regular complaint is that his performances don’t merit the world class salary he’s drawing, not to mention his ongoing struggle for consistency and match fitness. You never know, from one game to the next which Rooney will be on display. One minute he’s pinging a perfect, Scholes-style 40 yarder across the pitch, moments later he’s miscontrolling a simple ball and failing to find a teammate 4ft away. Most agree he’s better suited playing upfront, yet that’s also the position where he’s left exposed and frustrated – on the margins of the action and denied of his natural inclination to roam around the pitch.
One could suggest it’s been a case of ‘careful what you wish for’. Rooney wanted United to sign the best players, which we undoubtedly did last summer with Van Persie’s acquisition. Did he naively believe such arrivals couldn’t possibly jeopardise his own status at the club? Or has he simply reached the stage where he’s not that arsed anymore? Unlikely. As has already been stated, Rooney remains an ego-free presence on the pitch who seems happy to share rather than hog the limelight. Aside from the rumours regarding his deteriorating relationship with Fergie and a couple of other alleged bust-ups, Rooney remains a well liked and popular figure within the dressing room…on the surface at any rate.
Fergie moved to put the recent rumours to bed by assuring one and all that Rooney continues to be an integral part of his plans and his future remains at United. Standard stuff in light of the fact we’re at a critical stage of the season with a potential double on the horizon. Indeed, if we end the season on a high with Rooney continuing his current scoring blitz it’s entirely plausible a contract offer will follow and this recent bout of speculation will be consigned to history. Camp Roo meanwhile, usually never slow to make their thoughts public, have been remarkably quiet of late. With only two years remaining on his deal, expect this one to be resolved sooner rather than later…
Copyright Red News – April 2013