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19 Oct 2010

When a Manchester United player wishes to make use of Old Trafford's exit, a blatant act of public defiance against Sir Alex Ferguson can usually be guaranteed to do the job.

So when Wayne Rooney took the opportunity to switch attention away from his drab contribution to England's goalless draw against Montenegro at Wembley by openly contradicting Ferguson's version of events about his absence from United's team, it was a moment of huge significance.

Ferguson had explained Rooney was missing from recent starting line-ups as a result of an ankle injury. The player, in a direct challenge to his manager's word and consequently his authority, insisted he was perfectly fit.

A relationship that was almost "father and son" had suffered a serious fracture. How Ferguson chooses to treat it will shape Manchester United's immediate future.

All the indications are that Rooney will now refuse to sign a new contract United hoped to have sealed after the World Cup. It may just be an aggressive negotiating ploy but the problems for all parties run deeper that that.

When players leave Manchester United, it has always been at Ferguson's behest. Paul Ince's self-styled reputation as "The Guv'nor" rankled with the Scot. Jaap Stam - wrongly as it turned out - was deemed to be past his best and David Beckham's worldwide celebrity status did not sit easily with the manager.

Most recently, Carlos Tevez was judged too expensive an option to pursue and was lured into the eternally grateful arms of Manchester City.

Ferguson always had an alternative strategy to fall back on - and even though Cristiano Ronaldo's £80m departure to Real Madrid was done with some reluctance, it was widely accepted that his Old Trafford career had run its course and it was time for a change of scenery.

What made it easier was that Ferguson had Rooney. Lured from Everton as a teenager and placed as the centrepiece of United's team, he was to be the jewel in United's crown for his peak years. And so it proved until these last few turbulent months.

It now seems that the unthinkable could happen and Ferguson could lose a Manchester United player he wants to keep - and at the worst possible time for the club.

If Rooney feels pained at Ferguson's treatment of him since his private life hit the headlines, then it is hard to see the player as the victim. Ferguson, wrongly in my opinion, protected him by leaving him out of the game at former club Everton - and the striker was seen with his ankle packed in ice after being substituted at Bolton. If this was an elaborate ruse to disguise his lack of form, Rooney appeared to be a willing party to it.

Ferguson has proved to be a master at protecting his players in the past but it is clear Rooney has no wish for protection. And while the Scot threw his trademark shield around Rooney in public, he is well within his rights to remind him of his responsibilities to Manchester United and beyond in private, even if it means a few games in the deep freeze until he is ready to return.

Has Ferguson mishandled the situation to allow it to spiral out of control? Not from where most sound judges are sitting.

Rooney, however, is in a powerful position, despite the worst run of form since he emerged as a 16-year-old at Everton.

This is because, given United's current squad strength, they may need him more than he needs them. It is stretching credibility to the limit to suggest a player of such natural talent will not emerge from this dip sooner rather than later.

In the bluntest terms, this United team is not good enough to compete seriously for elite trophies such as the Champions League without Rooney making his stellar contributions.

Rooney is still United's best player and for Ferguson to lose him would arguably be more damaging than losing Ronaldo because, for all Dimitar Berbatov's brilliance this season, he has no-one else who comes near the Merseysider's instinctive, explosive gifts.

He has been stalling on a new contract and United's failure to adequately replace Ronaldo's world-class talent is also believed to be a source of frustration.

Rooney carried United almost single-handedly at stages last season and, although he has drifted for club and country since injuring an ankle against Bayern Munich last season, it is surely only a matter of time before he returns to his best.

If the Rooney rift is not repaired, it may not be a case of can United afford to sell him - it may be a case of can they afford not to sell him?

He is out of contract in 20 months and could leave Old Trafford on a free transfer. For a club that recently announced a pre-tax loss of £80m, it is not a serious option to allow such a prized and lucrative asset walk away free of charge.

If Rooney ultimately decides he must leave United, then the club will be forced to capitulate to interested parties or risk the sort of financial hit they cannot afford to take. And you can be sure the club's owners - the Glazers - will take some of the blame.

While Rooney looks to be holding the cards, he should also beware of making a tactical error at a pivotal stage in his career.

Real Madrid, inevitably, will be tipped as a possible destination but Rooney has not only never expressed a desire to play abroad, he has been firmly set against the idea.

Chelsea? Interested but at this stage an unlikely destination.

And then we come to the real wildcard, the name Ferguson will dread as the nightmare option. The very thought of luring Rooney across to Eastlands will get the juices flowing at Manchester City - and the money required to buy and pay the player amounts to small change in their world.

Remember the glee with which Tevez was paraded on a "Welcome To Manchester" billboard after signing for City from United? The idea of those Ferguson called "the noisy neighbours" doing the same with Rooney would be regarded as the ultimate coup.

It would certainly be as close to unbearable as it gets for Ferguson, who prides himself on keeping City under the thumb.

And for Rooney himself, would this be a move that would take his career on an upward curve? He may well feel City's bottomless pit of cash makes them a viable option but there is an element of Rooney needing to be careful what he wishes for.

Ferguson does not have form for kissing and making up with players who have crossed him but Rooney's worth on and off the field to United - and the idea that City would make a serious attempt to buy him (which they would) - may force him to take a softer line.

It will take all of Ferguson's experience and nous to solve a problem that has become a crisis. And this is one broken relationship he should not be too proud to try to repair.

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