x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Optimism fades among the fans

The Manchester United fan message boards went into meltdown to discuss a subject that was unimaginable days ago: Wayne Rooney leaving the club.

Wayne Rooney, second left, trains with the rest of the United squad yesterday, in preparation for the match against Bursaspor.
Wayne Rooney, second left, trains with the rest of the United squad yesterday, in preparation for the match against Bursaspor.

The Manchester United fan message boards went into meltdown to discuss a subject that was unimaginable days ago: Wayne Rooney leaving the club.

Opinions are divided about the player who said as recently as March that he wanted to stay at the club for life.

Fans have seen greats leave before and while it hurt at the time, it was usually United's decision and Sir Alex Ferguson was later vindicated. Within a year of Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis leaving in 1995, a young side containing David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, as well as Gary and Phil Neville, had won the league and cup double. Star names like Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Beckham all went because Ferguson said so, United waiting for nobody as they continued to win trophies.

It is different now. United fans are not flushed with optimism, nor conviction that the club is the pre-eminent force in English football. The club remains the most profitable in world football, yet even those profits are not sufficient to pay the debts incurred by the Glazer family who took charge amid much hostility five years ago.

Add to that the emergence of neighbours Manchester City and the nerves of United fans have started to fray.

If it transpires that Rooney genuinely wants to leave and if he joins City, life will not be great for him on the streets of Manchester.

United have maintained that there is money in the bank to buy new players, but fans are unconvinced. The close season came and went without any big names arriving at Old Trafford. It was the same last season, when Carlos Tevez departed and he was replaced by an ageing and slower Michael Owen on a free transfer.

Owen aside, the club's case is that they invest in emerging talents because, in the words of Ferguson "there's no value in the transfer market". United, however, are arguably culpable in exorting the market. They broke the British transfer fee record in 2001 and 2002 to sign Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand and spent nearly £80m in signing Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick, Anderson and Rooney.

The loss of form of Rooney was seen as a major factor and it was given as a "when" and not "if" he would return to the level of form which saw him score 34 goals by March last season.

Now, following the announcement that Rooney wants to leave, United fans are bewildered and not sure who to believe. Many are baffled that Ferguson continues to back the loathed Glazer family when all they can see is a club in gradual decline because of huge debts.

United's squad remains strong and Ferguson thrives in adversity, though at 69 one wonders how much fight he has left in him.

Ferguson has a history of promoting young or relatively unknown players who go on to be major stars.He has consistently proved his doubters wrong, but does he have players of the necessary quality to keep United competing for both the Champions League and the Premier League?

Ferguson is a master of reinvention, but United are likely to need major surgery. And doubts persist whether, at his age, he is the man to do it, or whether debt-laden United have the money to remain one of world football's leading powers.