New Manchester United manager David Moyes arrives at the team Carrington training, (PA Sport)
David Moyes has been in work at Manchester United for three days now. He has been arriving at Carrington at 8am every morning, to give himself more time to attend to the growing mountain that is his in-tray.
On Thursday, the work starts in earnest. The players, after attending medical checks earlier this week to ensure they are up to the ensuing rigours, will return for the start of their pre-season fitness regime.
And for Moyes, as he gets to grips with the scale of his new job, meets the backroom staff and the players, acquaints himself with the demands on his time (would the manager be available for the unveiling of the club’s commercial partnership with a Slovenian rollerblind manufacturing company?), one decision looms over the rest. He needs quickly to decide what to do about Wayne Rooney.
As is usually the case with Rooney, there are conflicting stories about his intentions. According to Alex Ferguson, the player made it clear that he wanted to leave the club at the end of last season.
Subsequently his people denied this was the case, insisting he had made no formal transfer request. The club admitted that this was true. But that does not necessarily mean Ferguson was telling a mistruth.
It is hard to consider anything about Rooney and his ambitions without seeing the hand of his agent Paul Stretford in there, stirring things up. Three years ago, Stretford agitated Rooney into the most lucrative contract in United’s history. It was hardball negotiations; the threat to walk away had to be considered genuine. It completely destabilised Rooney’s relationship with the fans and the dressing room. But even when confronted with the most determined of negotiating adversaries in the shape of Ferguson, it worked.
Its success, though, came about because Rooney was still a commodity worth pursuing. For United he was the key player, the man who made it all tick. Clearly Stretford was confident that his subsequent form would counter the negatives of his strategies.
And to a degree it worked. Rooney played well enough for his shenanigans to be moved to the back of the collective mind of the supporters. But they were not forgotten.
This time, as he seeks to secure the last mega contract his client will obtain in his career, Stretford is on far shakier ground. Rooney’s recent form has not been good enough to fuel the sledge hammer approach. Simple as that!
Yet here we are in the same place we were three years ago: with the claim being framed around the player that he requires something big to stay. He needs assurances of a first team sinecure, he needs contractual confirmation that he will play in the big games and in the position he chooses. Oh, and he wants a whopping rise as reward for his loyalty.
Meanwhile, the stories are being circulated of how much everyone else wants him. Neymar thinks he should go to Barcelona. Jack Wilshire would love him at Arsenal. Abramovich, so the Stretford-driven PR machine insists, has always admired him and would want nothing more than to present him as a welcome gift to the returning Jose Mourinho.
The temptation for Moyes must be to call the bluff of the Rooney camp. OK, off you go then. See who really wants you. After all, there has not been much noise from any managers, or those who make the recruitment decisions. If you want to stay, fine: here’s the deal, on our terms, my terms. But if you don’t, there’s the door: United can do without you, do without the three yearly stress of this howitzer negotiation.
And there is many a United fan who would back him up if he took such a position. They will take the view that if he is so fed up of being at Old Trafford, go off to Paris St Germain or Anzhi or wherever they are prepared to match his agent’s requirements and see how much fun he has there. As Mike Phelan, the out-going assistant manager put it this week, it will not be easy to convince the fans of his essential love for the club if he has twice made manoeuvres to get out.
Of course it could be argued that in all this Rooney is the victim of his agent. It is Stretford who has chosen the policy of extreme negotiation in order to deliver the big prize. It is Stretford who is out there feeding information into the ears of friendly tabloid reporters. It is Stretford who is recklessly endangering Rooney’s public image.
Which is a reasonable argument except for this: it is Rooney who employs Stretford, who entrusts him with his career development. Most fans are indifferent to the insistence that a player should be paid £250,000 a week rather than £200,000: why exactly does anyone need that much money? Most prefer their heroes to take the approach of the incomparable Paul Scholes, who kept his negotiations private and dignified.
The truth is, it is with the diminution of his form than Rooney lost his most valuable negotiating weapon. Everything has changed since the autumn of 2010. It will be very hard for his agent this time to convince of his indispensability. Instead he will be offering Moyes the early chance to stamp his authority on his new position. There will not be many United fans who argue with him if he decides the best way to do that is to let Rooney go.