When Luis Figo swapped Barcelona for Real Madrid in 2000, Los Cules‘ supporters responded with a barrage of apples, oranges and, famously, a pig’s head when the Portuguese winger later returned. High in the Camp Nou stands a banner proclaimed “We hate you so much because we loved you so much.”
Such is the nature of fandom. Welcome to the hate club, Wayne Rooney.
A hero to many in the Catalan capital, Figo represented the hope of late ’90s Barça to supersede their hated rivals. To Real, Figo was simply a pawn in Florentino Perez’ Gallacticos Mark I. Barça received a world record £38 million fee but nothing could compensate for the humiliation.
Rooney has not yet taken the fateful step of joining rivals Manchester City but after Sir Alex Ferguson’s extraordinary Old Trafford press conference today, it seems more likely than ever.
“I had a meeting with him, and he intimated to me, in his own way, that he wanted to leave,” Ferguson said in a packed Old Trafford conference suite.
“We had a discussion about the whole situation. I said ‘the only thing I want from you Wayne is to respect and honour the club’s position and its traditions and behave like a proper professional and we will try and see it through’.
“I don’t know that he has done that.”
The temptation in such a scenario is to say the player has already struck a deal with City, much as Figo did with Los Merengues a decade ago. After all, Rooney it has emerged, told United of his intention to break off contract negotiations on 14 August. Just months earlier the player had asked to stay at United for life. Money always talks.
Whatever Rooney’s eventual destination, with Real Madrid and Chelsea the only other realistic options in the world game, he can no longer stay at Old Trafford after Ferguson’s comments today.
Perhaps not even past the January transfer window, even if Rooney attempts to draw a line under the week’s events.
Today’s conference was remarkable not solely for the dramatic developments but the manner in which Rooney’s take on events – at least that of his camp’s briefings in the past 48 hours – were deconstructed by the United manager.
It was masterful stuff from Ferguson. No, Rooney and the manager haven’t fallen out. Yes, David Gill has offered the player a new deal. Yes, Rooney was injured despite conjecture to the contrary. No, the striker hasn’t respected the club’s history and traditions.
Should Rooney switch to City, whose ambitions and financial clout now far exceed that at United under the Glazer regime, the humiliation will be replete. Perhaps even more so than that caused by Figo years ago.
United supporters though are more prone to dismiss those who turn their back on the club, rather than hate. Not that the Red masses have much experience in this regard.
Certainly the venom that will head Rooney’s way should the former Evertonian join City in January is unlikely to be as anywhere near as crude as that meted out to Sol Campbell. Tottenham Hotpsur fans use of crude homophobic chanting at their former captain after the defender’s move to Arsenal in 2001, will find no repeat at Old Trafford.
Nor will any decapitated farmyard animals, fruit, eggs or other missiles, find their way onto the pitch, although a United fan was arrested with darts and golf balls bound for Carlos Tevez’ head at Eastlands last season.
United supporters though, in common with most, are fickle. Love has turned to hate in an instant.
Gary Neville once said that United is a cynical club; former players are forgotten in an instant. There is an element of truth but the greats are not forgotten. Rooney, along with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Neville himself of the current generation, could have join that élite clique.
It’s a history that Rooney has seemingly forgotten.
“This is a club which bases all its history and its tradition on the loyalty and trust between managers and players and the club,” added Ferguson.
“That goes back to the days of Sir Matt. That’s what it’s founded on. Wayne’s been a beneficiary of this help, just as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and all the players have been.”
Rooney had seemed to get it; United, the history, tradition and meaning of being part of the club. How wrong this assessment turned out to be. Greed, it seems, and the player’s more base instincts have eradicated any hope of Rooney joining that pantheon.
Meanwhile, Rooney may not appear for the club again unless his ‘people’ can turn the media agenda round. On current form the England international does not merit a place in the first team squad anyway.
An ironic training ground injury has put paid to any chance of Rooney appearing against Bursaspor at Old Trafford on Wednesday night in any case.
Yet, there is still pressure for United to own a marketable asset for the next three months. United can hardly command Ronaldo-esque fees if the institutional memory is of a player who, to paraphrase the great George Best, traps the ball further than most players pass it.
Rooney’s personal marketability – unless he has already done the deal with City – is certainly lessened if he does not play again until January.
Is playing a palatable solution? Hardly. Realistic? Perhaps.
What is unacceptable is a media-driven war of words, with Rooney’s camp leading an attack on the club’s manager. Such a lack of dignity United supporters will never accept, although it remains likely.
Meanwhile, the marketing department has begun the transition already, removing Rooney’s image from Old Trafford’s East Stand façade.
The show must go on. Just not with Rooney as its most prominent face.