Rooney set for Old Trafford exit

United’s reaction to Sunday morning’s newspaper suggestions that

Rooney could be on his way was swift. “To suggest Wayne Rooney will

be sold in January is nonsense,” said a club spokesman. But Red

Devils officials are understood to have been informed that Rooney

will not sign a new contract, and therefore may have little option

other than to cash in on their most valuable asset. There has been

plenty of speculation about Sir Alex Ferguson’s relationship with

his star striker since stories about the 24-year-old’s private life

first surfaced at the beginning of last month. Rooney appeared to

make a direct challenge to Ferguson’s authority on Tuesday after

England’s Euro 2012 qualifier with Montenegro, when he went out of

his way to contradict the Scot’s claim that he has been suffering

from an ankle injury. Ferguson has so far avoided any meaningful

public discussion about Rooney’s situation but appeared to deliver

his own verdict when he left the forward out of his starting

line-up for Saturday’s Premier League encounter with West Brom,

then brought him on as a substitute with 19 minutes remaining and

told him to play on the left wing. Although it was interpreted as

the final straw by some, Rooney’s relationship with Ferguson soured

some time ago. Talks over a new contract have stalled and there is

no intention from the player’s side to re-open negotiations. It

will come as a shock to many observers to discover the extent and

speed of the breakdown, given it was only last season that Rooney

scored 34 goals for his club. Even though Rooney’s form this season

has been well below his normal high standards – his only goal,

against West Ham in August, came from the penalty spot – he remains

a crowd favourite. United do have the option of sitting tight and

hoping for a thaw in relations. However, they are acutely aware

Rooney’s value will plummet if he does not leave in January and 12

months after that he would be free to sign pre-contract terms with

any club on the continent, and leave on a Bosman free transfer in

the summer of 2012. The Glazer family are unlikely to be keen on

that idea, which is why the prospect of Rooney leaving midway

through the current campaign has taken hold. Although there are

plenty of examples that can be used of United prospering after

releasing top players – Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ruud van

Nistelrooy are obvious examples – with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes,

Edwin van der Sar and Gary Neville all approaching the end of their

careers, it would certainly test the claim of chief executive David

Gill that Ferguson has a sizeable transfer budget at his disposal

despite the club’s massive debts. With most managers in their late

60s, questions would also be asked about the desire to rebuild

another team. Yet for Ferguson, it is the type of challenge he

relishes and few doubt he is capable of keeping United competitive

at the highest level providing he is given sufficient funds. If

there is an acceptance that Rooney is leaving, Gill will

concentrate on getting the highest possible fee, having succeeded

in prizing a world record £80million out of Real Madrid for

Cristiano Ronaldo last summer. Real would doubtless be interested

in Rooney, although the same could be said for virtually every top

side in Europe, including Manchester City, which would be an

unpalatable thought to the Old Trafford faithful. There has been

some speculation about United interest in Fernando Torres, whose

form dip at Liverpool mirrors that of Rooney 35 miles down the East

Lancashire Road. In the meantime, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier

Hernandez and Michael Owen – who missed yesterday’s game with a

groin injury – will be asked to shoulder the burden, with Ferguson

to decide what role Rooney is to play given his stated position.

The United boss is due to address the media on Tuesday, prior to

his side’s Champions League encounter with Bursaspor at Old

Trafford, which should be fascinating. In the meantime, the Red

Devils need to try and pick themselves up from the loss of another

two goal lead – and another two points – yesterday that keeps them

five points adrift of champions Chelsea. “We need to be more

angry,” said defender Patrice Evra, whose unfortunate own goal

sparked the Baggies recovery after they had fallen behind to

first-half strikes from Javier Hernandez and Nani. United’s victory

hopes disappeared due to a rare mistake from Edwin van der Sar. He

dropped Chris Brunt’s steepling cross allowing Somen Tchoyi to tap

home as the hosts surrendered a two-goal lead for the third time

this season. Evra said: “For this to happen once (at Everton) is

OK. Then I did the same interview after the Liverpool match and

said I hope we never do it again. But we have done. “We have two

choices – either we accept it or we don’t. “We have to show the

correct face of Manchester United. We have to show character and

personality.”