Wayne Rooney didn’t play in last Sunday’s Community Shield; he had injured his shoulder just a couple of days before kickoff. That must have been pretty disappointing. In July, Rooney pulled out of Manchester United’s pre-season tour; he had injured his hamstring just a couple of days before United’s first match.
Before this summer’s 11th-hour injuries, Rooney had clashed with Sir Alex Ferguson over “playing time,” a highly charged, somewhat misleading phrase that can probably be taken to mean “prostitutes, cigarettes, cow metaphors, New Year’s dinners, and Robin van Persie.” In the past month, Chelsea has submitted two bids for Rooney, offering cash and (according to early reports) Juan Mata. Jose Mourinho recently described Chelsea’s summer transfer policy as “Rooney or bust.”
But David Moyes would likely argue that it’s irrelevant whether Rooney has systematically faked injuries in a rebellious effort to force a transfer to Chelsea, because no matter what Rooney does, United isn’t going to sell.
Rooney and Moyes have a history. In his 2006 autobiography, Wayne Rooney: My Story, Rooney accused the then-Everton manager of leaking private conversations to the press. Moyes sued Rooney for libel, eventually settling out of court. But this summer’s transfer saga probably has more to do with the state of Manchester United – and with what Moyes’ hiring says about the club’s future – than with a seven-year-old lawsuit.
Moyes is a moderately successful manager, but he lacks Champions League experience. He is dour and uncharismatic, nothing like the glamorous Continentals (Klopp, Mourinho, AVB) who keep steering their teams into European finals. At Everton, Moyes established himself as the Premier League’s foremost exponent of “Moneysoccer” – buying cheap players whom other clubs overlooked, then selling them at a profit – but Brad Pitt wouldn’t play him in the Hollywood movie. Richard Schiff would.
FourFourTwo magazine recently published a long, soporific profile of Moyes that emphasized his “humble and pragmatic” coaching style. For some reason, FourFourTwo thinks humble and pragmatic is the way to go: the story trashes the critics who suggest that Moyes is a little too old-fashioned, a little too committed to the footballing traditions that guide medium-sized clubs, to build on Ferguson’s success.
For what it’s worth, Moyes’ team has struggled during pre-season, losing to the Singha All Star XI (Thailand) and to Cerezo Osaka, Shinji Kagawa’s old J-League club. Ed Woodward, United’s new chief executive, has wasted most of the transfer window desperately pursuing Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas: in July, Barca rejected two United bids, and last week Fabregas announced that he’s “very happy” at the Nou Camp.
The Fabregas story is indicative of United’s fading appeal. Even under Ferguson, the club struggled to attract marquee signings: since 2009, as many as eight or nine star players (Karim Benzema, Wesley Sneijder, and Luka Modric, to name just a few) have rejected United in order to join other European teams. Indeed, about a week before the first Fabregas bid, Barca midfielder Thiago Alcantara refused to meet with United officials; instead, he reunited with Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.
In 2010, Rooney demanded a transfer because he felt United could no longer compete in the summer market. Then he settled for a pay raise. Ironically, some newspapers now claim Rooney wants to join Chelsea because Moyes considers Robin van Persie, a big-time player who actually has signed for United, the team’s most important striker: “If, for any reason, we had an injury to Robin, we would need [Rooney],” Moyes told journalists before a pre-season game last month. However, or so the papers report, Rooney doesn’t want to be someone’s backup; he thinks United should focus on signing players who won’t jeopardize his starting spot.
But here’s the thing: Although he may seem hypocritical now, in 2010 Rooney correctly identified United’s biggest weakness. And despite van Persie’s arrival, Rooney is still right. Ferguson has retired, and Moyes and Woodward are out of their depth. Fabregas has promised to stay at Barcelona; Gareth Bale, another transfer target, is about to sign for Real Madrid; and there’s nothing less reassuring than the sight of Phil Neville waving a clipboard. Chelsea, on the other hand, has just rehired Jose Mourinho, one of the most successful coaches of the last decade. Barring an unlikely Fernando Torres renaissance, Rooney would start most of Chelsea’s Premier League games. He would combine with young, exciting attackers like Eden Hazard and Oscar, and raise his two children in England’s most (some might say only) glamorous city. He wouldn’t have to work with Moyes or compete with RvP.
In many ways, Chelsea is the prototypical modern superpower: it has talented attacking midfielders, a highly intelligent coach, and a rich owner who can afford to spend tens of millions on players. Rooney has looked at United, with its new coach, its aging defenders, its weak center, and looked at Chelsea — the other cow in the other field, as Ferguson once put it — and made an educated decision. So sue him.