Premier League - Early Doors: Is this the end for United?

Wed, 20 Oct 09:09:00 2010

This feels like the end. The end of Manchester United's mastery of English football. Wayne Rooney is only one player, but his declaration that he wants to leave the club is laden with far greater significance.

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These things creep up on you. There was no precise moment at which Liverpool's era of dominance was declared over.

But one morning they woke up and it was five years since they had won the league. Then 10. Soon it will be 20.

Arsenal's Invincibles did not stage a farewell gig, but slowly drifted away. Suddenly you looked at the team sheet and there was no Henry, no Pires, no Vieira. In fact, none of the players who starred in that magnificent side. And no silverware on the sideboard.

Look, we all know about how Ferguson cut ties with Paul Ince, David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy, and emerged triumphant into an even more trophy-filled future.

But this time it feels different. Rooney is far and away United's best player. Or at least an in-form Rooney is.

After him, who are United's most influential players? Ryan Giggs (36), Paul Scholes (35), Edwin van der Sar (39) and Rio Ferdinand (31). (Incidentally, by some freak of the calendar, all four players have their birthday in the next six weeks.)

Whether or not Rooney goes, they have some serious rebuilding to do.

Lose their talisman, and they will be without a world class player they simply do not have the clout to replace.

They might get £50 million for Rooney, but what use is that when you cannot spend it?

Let us not forget United swear blind they still have the £80m from the Cristiano Ronaldo sale to splash out when the right player comes along.

That money remains untouched - which means we can only conclude none of their prospective big-name targets wants to join them, or their clubs are charging a prohibitive fee.

United were criticised for not getting in the game when Mesut Ozil became available. But when Real Madrid registered their interest, was he really going to go anywhere else?

There is cash in the bank. The unpalatable truth for fans is that if United had the wherewithal to sign Kaka, Ribery or Sneijder they would already have done so.

So what is left? Well, they might get Karim Benzema, a wayward youth with a bad attitude and prostitute-related personal issues. Sounds familiar...

That is why United must put their anger and sense of betrayal to one side and try to thrash out a deal with Rooney.

He might have been presented as treacherous and unprofessional, but he only needs to put pen to paper and all will be forgiven, if not forgotten.

Anyone surprised by Fergie's lack of righteous fury in yesterday's statement to the press hasn't been paying attention.

He can be ruthless, no doubt. But only when it suits him.

Ince was axed to make way for Paul Scholes, and Beckham for Cristiano Ronaldo. Both upgrades.

There was no replacement for Stam beyond an ancient Laurent Blanc, and the consequence was a disastrous season. Ferguson learned his lesson, and the following summer bought Ferdinand.

Keane and Van Nistelrooy were both past their peak, and had become disruptive. Theirs was no great loss.

Much less well documented have been the occasions when Ferguson has opted for reconciliation.

After the triumphant 1998/99 treble-winning season, Keane ('Players are pieces of meat, that's how I look at it') openly considered a lucrative move to Juventus or Bayern Munich.

Fergie broke the bank - and the club's wage structure - by handing his captain a massive £52,000-a-week contract. Although United exacted a small measure of revenge by blaming Keano for the hike in season ticket prices.

And what about when Ferdinand returned from his eight-month suspension for missing a drugs test armed with demands for a massive £120,000-a-week contract?

A messy dispute played out, Ferdinand was booed, but Fergie - chastened perhaps by the Blanc shambles - acquiesced and settled for a £100,000-a-week deal which means he is still the club's highest-paid player.

2000 Keane and 2005 Ferdinand were too important to let go.

And it is hard to argue that 2010 Rooney - the one who scored 18 goals in 14 games before that fateful ankle tweak in Munich - is not more important than both.

And how about Cristiano Ronaldo, whose interminable flirting with Real Madrid became a colossal distraction?

Fergie did not cut his star man adrift. Instead he cut a deal in 2008 that ensured Ronaldo got the move he wanted and United got the right price, plus another year's service into the bargain.

Even though their player wanted out, United stayed in front of the problem, kept him happy enough and reached an outcome that worked for all parties.

That is obviously not the case this time. Rooney's announcement has come out of the blue.

Or rather, it came out of the blue in August - incidentally, five days before Rooney's representative told the Daily Telegraph's Paul Kelso talk of a move to City was "complete bollocks".

Rooney's motive has not yet been properly established, which may be the most depressing thing of all for United.†

Maybe he doesn't need a motive. Gareth Barry and James Milner didn't need motives to leave Aston Villa for Manchester City.

Maybe Rooney and his advisors have simply looked at the next five years and asked themselves which team offers the greatest potential for earning money and winning trophies.

Maybe United have rejoined the ranks of normal clubs.

They remain a money-making machine, but their crippling debt and payments relating to a bond issue turned a £100m profit into an £80m loss this year.

And if they stop winning things, they will stop making money. And if they stop making money, how will they spend enough to win anything?

Manchester United are at risk of spiralling down a vortex that could end their unprecedented run of glory.

Ferguson may never fully knock Liverpool off "their f***ing perch", as the two clubs remain level on 18 league titles each.

It may be decades before somebody breaks the tie.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Even Fergie agrees times are changing: "There is a disappointment a lot of the time when you have to deal with modern-day players. It's not as easy as it was many, many years ago when you were negotiating a contract because then the player had to depend and trust on the manager he worked for. And as a manager, you had more contact with the parents then as well. Yesterday I said to Edwin (van der Sar) who made that mistake on Saturday, 'Well, how are you feeling?' He said the first phone call he'd received was from his father. I said, 'Well listen to him, he's the one you should listen to.' But that's gone now. We're dealing with agents who live in the pockets of players. We live in a different world now and we have to deal with it in a different way. It's a pity but it's there and we have to deal with it."

FOREIGN VIEW: It's official. Racist chants are two and a half times worse than shining a laser pen in the linesman's eyes.

Cagliari have been fined £22,000 after their game against Internazionale was halted because of racist abuse aimed at Samuel Eto'o.

Roma copped an £8,000 penalty after some fool distracted the referee's assistant with his laser pen against Genoa.

COMING UP: There may be more attention paid to the crowd than what happens on the pitch, but Manchester United v Bursaspor should be fascinating. Having its thunder comprehensively stolen is Internazionale v Tottenham Hotspur which should nonetheless be†extremely interesting. And Rangers v Valencia isn't bad. In fact, we've got live text commentary on all eight matches tonight in the Champions League.


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