The loss of five experienced players this summer has robbed the Manchester United squad of more than 2000 appearances for the club. Gary Neville’s decision to call it quits last winter, followed by Owen Hargreaves’ release, Paul Scholes’ and Edwin van der Sar’s retirement and the sales of John O’Shea and Wes Brown this summer has precipitated considerable change at the club. Sir Alex Ferguson’s response has been to oversee an influx of younger players – both those acquired at the cost of £48 million this summer – and the return of last season’s loanees.
While Ferguson’s planning for change has been a long-time coming the loss of experience will undoubtedly be felt at the club. Step forward, then, Wayne Rooney of whom the manager expects a greater leadership role in the team during the coming season. United’s erstwhile talisman – sexual scandal and the ‘October Revolution’ having brought the moniker into sharp focus – has long been the club’s focus on the pitch. The question remains whether Rooney can become an ambassador off it too.
Ryan Giggs – 38 in November – and 32-year-old Rio Ferdinand now claim the mantle as United’s senior citizens. But Rooney, says Ferguson, is ready to assume a leadership role given so many departures in the past year.
“Yes — particularly Rooney,” Ferguson told the media in Chicago before United’s departure for New York today.
“I can see Wayne accepting that role, definitely. He doesn’t worry about that [responsibility] too much and he has great energy. He has been doing really well in training here in America. He’ll want to get last season out of the way, but he is one of our more experienced players now.
“We have lost three players with great experience in Neville, Scholes and Van der Sar, so that is where the expectation may bother us this season. Losing three at once is hard. Maybe there’s a bit of evolution going on.”
Indeed, it is not the first time that those close to Rooney have claimed a new maturity for the 25-year-old Scouser, who has been promoted as a potential captain for both club and country in the past. The events of the past 12 months have laid that argument bare of course but with a new contract signed – and a half-hearted apology offered – it is clear Ferguson has moved on from last autumn.
Now the Scot wants Rooney to lead the new United, which shorn of five players that had performed for the club over the past decade is more vulnerable than in the past. Certainly, United’s advantage during the run-in – the players who had ‘been there and done it’ – was signficant over the club’s rivals. Arguably that is no longer true.
In fact with Ferdinand now firmly in the veteran camp and nursing an ongoing sore back – and Giggs approaching retirement next summer – neither is likely to play more than 30 Premier League games in the coming season. Each may not make 20. While Ferguson retains faith in Peckham-born Ferdinand, both as a key team member and natural leader, the Scot is acutely aware that he cannot rely on the player’s involvement as frequently.
“Rio will have to stay fit,” admitted Ferguson.
“That’s the key for him, but as he gets older he won’t play all the time and we won’t attempt use him in all the games. Rio knows he has to protect himself. We have come to grips with that and we just hope he doesn’t get any more of the back injuries that kept him out for six or seven weeks last season.”
As for Rooney, the player’s leadership role not only involves maintaining the outstanding form of pre-season – he scored a superb lobbed goal against Chicago Fire on Saturday night – but also steering clear of controversy and scandal. Infidelity, contract rebellion, swearing on live TV; each generated both media prejudice and a distracting focus on the club. Nobody can genuinely claim that no effect was brought to bear on the player’s performances so abject was the Scouser during the autumn and winter months.
Yet, if Rooney is able to both put the scandals of the past behind him, and focus on the Scouser’s particular brand of dynamic football, the striker could prove invaluable. After all, where Phil Jones and David de Gea now step as expensive but callow acquisitions Rooney has already been.
Moreover, the player, who has now racked up more than 300 appearances for United, will be one of the more senior voices in the Old Trafford dressing room. Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and others will surely take note.
But Ferguson’s call comes with no guarantees; those supporters who remain wary of Rooney’s attitude will not easily forget last October’s events. The explosive nature of the forward’s personality may yet strike again. Leadership, one hopes, will at last bring out the best in United’s £30 million player. The worst will always be in peripheral vision.