Wayne Rooney may live to regret getting on the wrong side of Alex Ferguson.
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Just ask David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and other Manchester United greats who were tossed aside mercilessly by the man who has ruled the club with an iron fist since becoming manager 24 years ago.
Rooney’s denial this week that he has been struggling with an ankle injury, directly contradicting claims made by Ferguson last month, will be seen by some people as brave, by others as suicidal.
Ferguson played down the reported feud on Friday, saying "it’s water off a duck’s back really and it doesn’t mean anything," but the next few weeks will reveal whether he is ready to forgive the England striker.
The Scottish manager has shown he is not afraid to wield the axe on players in the prime of their career when he feels his authority has been questioned.
Beckham was age 28 when he was sold to Real Madrid in the summer of 2003, four months after Ferguson kicked a football boot across the home dressing room at Old Trafford into the face of the midfielder in a post-match tantrum.
There were reports of the pair being pulled apart after the incident before, days later, Ferguson said he was ready to "move on." Beckham was the only one to move on – to Spain for 25 million pounds ($40 million).
Beckham’s was the most high-profile spat with Ferguson but there have been many others.
Former Netherlands center-back Jaap Stam had established himself as an integral part of United’s back four by the time he wrote his autobiography, Head To Head. It contained a series of revelations, some involving Ferguson.
At first Ferguson simply said Stam was "a bit embarrassed by it all" and was "very regretful." Some weeks later, and just a few games into the start of the 2001-02 season, the defender was sold to Lazio, with Ferguson claiming he felt the 29-year-old Stam had "just lost a little bit" after an Achilles’ tendon injury.
Since Beckham, Ferguson forced out captain and midfield fulcrum Roy Keane in 2005 after the Irishman’s rant against his teammates and assistant coach Carlos Queiroz on United’s television channel, MUTV.
Van Nistelrooy also lost a dispute with Ferguson a year later. The then-Netherlands striker was dropped for the 2006 League Cup final after a bust-up in training with Cristiano Ronaldo and was sold the following offseason, despite having scored 150 goals in 220 matches for United over five seasons. Van Nistelrooy had just turned 30 and remains the club’s leading scorer in European competition with 38 goals.
Throw Paul Ince (1995) and Gabriel Heinze (2007) into the mix and it is clear Ferguson has problems with his authority being undermined. That’s exactly what Rooney did this week.
Conspiracy theorists claim Ferguson has used Rooney’s supposed ankle injury as a cover to punish the striker following lurid allegations about the 24-year-old’s private life. Ferguson’s excuse for not playing Rooney against Everton – saying he was concerned about the abuse the player would get from his former club’s fans – will also now be scrutinized.
Ferguson is dismissing, for the moment, reports of a fall-out with Rooney, who he signed in 2004 for more than 25 million pounds.
"You’ve got to put it aside and know the real things that are happening at the club. It just passes off," Ferguson said on Friday.
And there are examples of players who have survived Ferguson’s wrath.
Portugal winger Nani, for example, gave a frank interview with British newspaper The Sun midway through last season, accusing Ferguson of ruining his confidence and complaining about not playing enough.
Nani has since got back in Ferguson’s favor and has been one of United’s key players this season. It remains to be seen whether the same will happen to Rooney.