x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

And the Oscar goes to ...

Forget coaching a football team, the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson fools just about everyone with his astounding acting skills.

Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, talks about the Wayne Rooney situation earlier this week.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, talks about the Wayne Rooney situation earlier this week.

"Football, eh? Bloody hell!"

I doubt I was the only person to borrow Sir Alex Ferguson's immortal quote after learning yesterday that Wayne Rooney had signed a new five-year contract with Manchester United.

Sir Alex uttered the phrase in the aftermath of the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, in which his team snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with two very late goals. In those four words, he captured the essence of football: this maddening, intoxicating, thrilling sport which reduces even articulate men to stunned, gibbering blasphemers.

That night, the thrills came courtesy of action on the pitch, but this week Ferguson and Rooney (plus, lurking in the shadows, his agent Paul Stretford) proved that off-pitch activity can be equally hair-raising. Say what you like about greed, player power, posturing, and the malign influence of agents, but the past five days have been utterly spell-binding. I would not have missed them for the world.

Until Tuesday, had we ever seen the mighty Sir Alex Ferguson so humbled? We swore we could see tears welling in those icy cold eyes of his when he held that press conference to announce Rooney's plans to quit.

"His time has finally come," we crowed. "The old duffer has lost his heart for a fight." We suggested he looked like a jilted lover, or a father whose son had finally outgrown him. The following day, when he started mumbling some Cantona-esque nonsense about the comparative attractiveness of cows in fields, we suspected it was Sir Alex himself who should be put out to pasture.

In our rush to celebrate the old man's demise, or in a very few cases to pity it, perhaps we should have asked ourselves why he allowed us to see him so vulnerable. Ferguson was simply using the media in a flawless display of brinkmanship. He was acting. Yes, it was a form of method acting - it is likely he was genuinely hurt by Rooney's behaviour - but he used those feelings to manipulate the situation and make us believe he had no cards left to play.

He fooled us all. He fooled Lou Macari, ex-Manchester United legend, who ranted against Rooney on the club's TV channel. He fooled Ian Holloway, the Blackpool manager, who launched an emotional tirade about the innate wrongness of a world in which Sir Alex could be "bullied". (Bullied? Ha!)

And, yes, I'll admit it: he fooled me. He got me hook, line and sinker.

An entirely different version of this column was ready to go. In it I poured scorn on Sir Alex for demanding that we do not "make a saga" of Rooney's departure.

Here is part of what I wrote:

Whether Sir Alex likes it or not, Rooney's departure is the biggest story in the biggest league in the world's biggest sport. It will remain so until the player signs terms in the January transfer window, and even then the subsequent shunting of other marquee names around the great clubs will be seismic.

Rooney's life and career was already a potboiler when he was at Everton: the fairy-tale story of a boy plucked from poverty to play for the team he loved - a prodigy with the physique of a man, the brain of a child, the temper of a bull wearing scarlet-tinted spectacles, and the morals of a tomcat.

How strange Sir Alex did not mind adding another chapter to that story when he whisked Rooney away from under the nose of the Everton manager David Moyes. How strange that he seemed less baffled back then as to why a player could leave a caring and grateful club simply because he wanted more money, more glory. How strange how he did not mind dealing with agents, like Rooney's reviled representative Paul Stretford, when their gravy train terminated at Old Trafford.

With hindsight, perhaps he did not want us to "make a saga" because he was already dazzling us with one. He knew he had a card left to play - the knowledge that Rooney did not really want to quit. The magnificence of his strategy was that he won either way: lose Rooney and he would have seemed like a noble martyr, unwilling to yield to player power. Keep Rooney, and we all admire his negotiation skills and say thing like: "You cannot beat Fergie. You just cannot beat him."

Rooney, too, has gained something from this process: money, of which he was hardly in short supply. He has also gained the knowledge that he is important to the team and will be forgiven for the sort of behaviour which, say, Darren Fletcher would not be. In the process, he has lost the goodwill of many supporters and further damaged a reputation which has never been so sullied.

In short, Rooney lost and Sir Alex won. You cannot beat Fergie. You just cannot beat him.

For the purists among you who are sickened by such pantomimes, I hope you enjoy United's match against Stoke City tomorrow. Me? I'll be watching Fergie's "tearful" press conference on YouTube. Again.