Rooney's worst fears realised

By Martin Samuel, October 22, 2010

If Manchester United supporters are looking for a scapegoat, blame Cristiano Ronaldo. After all, he started it. The money, the ambition, the relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson are all contributory factors to the end of Wayne Rooney's love affair with Old Trafford, but the bottom line is that if Ronaldo had still been there, so would he.

You can't sell your best player and escape unharmed. Simple as that. For smaller clubs it is a fact of life, and that is why they remain small, but when a club of Manchester United's stature lose a key man to a major rival it makes a statement; one that has resonated loudest with Rooney.

Ronaldo's departure spoke of a change in the balance of power, because great players like to be around their peers. Rooney was happy when Ronaldo was at Manchester United, even when required to play out of position, because it confirmed Old Trafford as the place to be. Barcelona had Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, Manchester United had Ronaldo and, well, him. They were cocks of the walk, kings of the hill, A number one. And then Ronaldo went to Real Madrid. And so did Kaka. And Karim Benzema. And Mesut Ozil. And Barcelona signed David Villa. And who did Manchester United get? Wigan Athletic's winger, some Mexican kid and a big lump from the Portuguese third division. And so now Rooney is considering the options, his worst fears realised. Despite his salary demands, he never wanted to be the biggest fish at Manchester United; just a big fish, one of a number.

There are very few footballers who can lay claim to the title of best player in the world, but Ronaldo was among them. Rooney would make a long list, too, and players of that calibre go together. If we consider the others (Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Kaka, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben), they tend to be grouped at an exclusive band of clubs. There are few loners, because it makes no sense to have one genius and ten others struggling to keep up with him. Didier Drogba would still be a great player at Wolverhampton Wanderers, but he could not be the same player. Notice how Steven Gerrard's performances for Liverpool have moved in ever decreasing circles as the team has weakened.

That is what it must be like for Rooney at Manchester United. One report suggested he had told his England team-mates in the summer that he was not going to carry the club on his shoulders a second time. He would never have made such a statement when Ronaldo was there because, plainly, the burden was shared. Rooney is not a one-man team, but at his best he is United's most gifted player by some distance. That would not be the case at Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, even Manchester City, with Carlos Tevez in such scintillating form this season.

That is why those who dismissively waved Ronaldo off in 2009 were so mistaken. We won't miss him, was the Pollyanna refrain. We don't need him. Actually, we'll be better without him. What nonsense. The team misses Ronaldo, horribly, but so do the players. One, in particular. And when he goes, what message will it send to the others, to Nani or Nemanja Vidic? This is a snowball, and it has not stopped rolling yet.

Last updated: 9:57am, October 22 2010