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United fans shoot the messenger

22 October 2010

The training ground isn't the only place Wayne Rooney went down in a heap yesterday.

The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) have been telling us for a while how the Glazers’ ownership of Manchester United threatens the club’s long track record of success. Their message has been embraced by United supporters, who have adopted the green-and-gold scarves of Newton Heath in large numbers.

Yet when Wayne Rooney passed up the most lucrative contract in the club’s history out of concerns about the club’s commitment to staying at the summit of world football and issued a statement essentially echoing the very same concerns as MUST, the angry mob turned on their former hero and dismissed him as a money-grabbing traitor.

The last few days provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the fanatical supporter — the fan for whom logic and rational thought can only get in the way of their love of the club. These people aren’t actually interested in the real issues surrounding their club’s future. They just want to feel good about it.

If they were actually paying attention to what was going on, they’d be blindsided by what is pretty much an unprecedented occurrence in the world of football. Star players have left elite clubs where they have been loved by supporters in the past. But there’s always been a dispute with management — usually over money — or they leave for a dream club.

Up until Cristiano Ronaldo, footballers did not leave Manchester United. Manchester United got rid of them. But this is the age of player power, and the days of players just signing their contracts and showing up to play are long gone. Today’s footballer is very keen to know who he’ll be lining up alongside, and who may be brought in via transfers, as winning trophies is pretty much the only thing other than money that matters.

Wayne Rooney is taking a look around the dressing room. He sees Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Edwin van der Sar still doing much of the heavy lifting with their storied careers drawing near the end. He sees the fortune recouped from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo sitting in that famous bank account, unused, while the club rummage through the bargain bin for Michael Owen and take fliers on the likes of Bébé.

He’s also looking west on the M62 to Merseyside, where loyal servant Steven Gerrard has watched the level of the talent in his team dwindle to the point Liverpool are in the relegation zone. And just wait until Fernando Torres is sold in either January or the summer.

Finally, he’s looking into Manchester and seeing City’s owner bankrolling a revolution that already has them looking like threats to win the Premier League already this season and possibly the Champions League  in the near future. As much as those rooting against City are loath to admit it, the Sheikh’s riches have brought a hugely talented squad to Eastlands. There aren’t many clubs on the planet that can match City’s starting XI, and the depth of the entire squad is without equal.

With the United veterans still productive, there are enough names out there on the pitch where United teams still look reasonably impressive, as you tend to overlook the lack of a quality right back and a ball-winning defensive midfielder. But Rooney isn’t looking just at this season. He’s wondering what happens next season when one or more of the oldheads calls time on his career, or in a couple years when they’re all likely gone.

Since buying Dimitar Berbatov, United claim to have shifted to an approach of developing talent in house — either from their own youth academy or by buying promising young players from other clubs. That’s why United were able to provide Rooney with the assurances he demanded. They’re hoping they won’t need to spend big in the transfer market and that they can continue to spent the majority of their revenues on areas other than footballing talent.

The problem is that United are not Arsenal. For all his incredible successes, Sir Alex Ferguson simply does not have a strong track record as far as developing young talent. As much as he wants to take credit for developing Rooney, the fact United paid £25.6m for him tells you how far along he was at that time. Making a £10m-plus rising star into a full-fledged star is one thing. Doing so with players costing £10m and under is quite another, and Ferguson’s track record there is full of recent misses like Manucho and Zoran Tošić.

And as for their own youth ranks, the last stars to come out of United’s youth academy are in the twilight of their careers. The only home-grown regular under the age of 30 is Darren Fletcher. Sure there are hopes of Johnny Evans, the da Silva twins, Darron Gibson, and Federico Macheda developing into stars, but at this point they’re all a million miles away from that.

So with Rooney seeking assurances the club will spend the money required to stay at the top of world football, all he received in return was a “Don’t you trust us?” from Ferguson and Gill. And I guess we now know his answer to that question.

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