SO British football has not lost the ability to confound. To shock. To discombobulate. One look at Sir Alex Ferguson’s face during Tuesday’s monumental Wayne Rooney press conference proved that much.
The greatest manager on earth has seen it all in 53 years as a rugged centre-forward and no-nonsense boss. But he’s never seen a 24-year-old turn his back on the best-known club on earth.
And just to prove how shocking all this is, the 68-year-old Scot growled: “The door is not closed. We are still prepared to offer Wayne a contract that can’t be bettered elsewhere.”
Incredible. Hardened Fleet Street football writers chewed on their lap-tops. This was a whole new ball game. Sir Alex does the discarding. Nobody puts Fergie in a corner, least of all a lad who is a long way from the finished article, who struggles to keep his nose clean.
Rooney was born just a year after Sir Alex took over at Manchester United in 1986. But he has left the Premier League's most successful manager “dumbfounded” and “bemused”. Those aren’t just words. Fergie meant every unfamiliar syllable yesterday as he attempted to provide some kind of lucid explanation for his striker’s bizarre course of behaviour.
Sure, Arsenal were crushing Shakhtar Donestsk 5-1 to break Real Madrid’s record of scoring 12 goals in their first three Champions League games of the season. Chelsea dismantled Spartak Moscow 2-0 on the plastic in Russia, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid shrugged off AC Milan by the same score. Great Champions League tales.
But all anyone can talk about is Pain Loony. Forget United's clash with Turks Bursaspor. Rooney won't be playing because of his mysteriously injured ankle - but he’s on the front of every British tabloid today. Did he really tell his England team-mates during the World Cup that he was sick of "carrying" Manchester United? Is it true his agent Paul Stretford told United chief executive David Gill he wanted away back in August? Did this dastardly plot really stay hushed up for two months?
Surely it must have something to do with Rooney’s appalling World Cup display, when he was playing under the shadow of prostitute allegations? Did his angry wife Colleen have something to do with his need to get away? Did he resent the sale of his mate Cristiano Ronaldo or the arrival of his old rival Michael Owen?
Does he honestly want to cross the divide and play for Sheikh Mansoor’s Manchester City? Or jump ship to Chelsea or Barcelona now Real Madrid have said they don’t want him?
Of course he does. This is all about money. Rooney is on less than Rio Ferdinand’s £140,000-a-week at United. His agent Stretford, one of the sharpest in the game, knows FIFA and UEFA want to crack down on wages like that. This may be Rooney’s last chance to escape on the cheap and demand a world-record £250,000-a-week, dwarfing the reputed £180,000 supposedly swilling around for his old pal Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid and the little genius Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
On current form, Rooney is a long way behind those two right now. He's managed a single goal all season so far. But under the so-called Webster ruling, FIFA’s article 17, Rooney can leave next summer for around £5million. Because he’s under 28 and has served three years of his contract, any club can come along, pay off his final year’s salary and a small compensation fee, and claim the ugly little fellow who goes under the tag of England’s finest. Andy Webster of Hearts in Scotland was the first to choose this route, hence the name.
The more likely option? Chelsea could offer £25m during the January transfer window and end this madness. Word is Colleen Rooney doesn’t want Wayne to leave England as her adopted sister Rosy has life-threatening Red Syndrome and she doesn’t want to leave.
Turmoil. Utter confusion. But wait, here’s Sir Alex, with one of several incredible passages from Tuesday’s searing, from-the-heart revelations. He says: "We have done nothing but help Wayne since he came to this club. That's another mystery for us. I don't know how many times we have helped him in terms of his private life and other matters.
"It's part of your job here to look after your players and that creates a tremendous loyalty.
"We're as bemused as anyone can be because we can't quite understand why he would want to leave.
"We've won 40 major trophies, been in countless cup finals, have a fantastic history, a great stadium and great training arrangements.
"It's a platform for anyone to take up a challenge here. There's incredible romance and we don't understand it.
"I can't answer the question of why he's doing it."
Then the revelation that this whole sorry saga had been going on behind the scenes for weeks: "I was in my office on August 14 and David (Gill, the United chief exec) phoned and said, 'I'm coming over, I have some bad news for you'. Wayne's agent had intimated he wouldn't be signing a new contract and wanted away.
"I couldn't believe it. I was just dumbfounded. I couldn't understand it at all - because only months before he was saying he was at the greatest club in the world and how he wanted to stay for life.
"So we just don't know what's changed the boy's mind. I asked to have a meeting with Wayne and he reiterated what his agent had said - he wanted to go.
"I did say to him, and David also intimated, there was an offer there if he wanted to accept it.
"It's an offer that never got into discussions, money wise. But David was prepared to offer him a contract that couldn't be bettered elsewhere. That's what you do with top players. There's no big problem with that."
And what about the ankle injury Rooney said he never had? Here's Fergie's take: "The area which created a lot of mystery as far as we are concerned, is the issue about his injury.
"He got an ankle injury and confirmed it himself in an interview. My planning, based on the fact he wasn't playing that well, was to leave him out of the Sunderland game and make sure his ankle was properly repaired for the next game.
"We would give him 10 days' rest and recovery, so he could play for England. My hope was that by playing for England at Wembley, he could recapture his form and kick on. But that created the next stage we've had to deal with, in terms of Wayne saying he wasn't injured.
"That was disappointing because we knew fine well he was carrying an injury.
"We sent him for a scan and the scan showed a minor defect in terms of the ankle injury. Nothing serious - but it needed treatment and he had treatment.
"There has been no argument. But we've got to a stage now where I feel we still have to keep the door open for him because he is such a good player."
So he could stay? Apparently not: "You can speculate and have opinions but it won't matter a dickiebird because the player is adamant in saying he wants to leave.
"We will deal with the next part of that as best we can in terms of that request.
"But we can do no more than we have done or said at the moment because in my mind we still have the door open - and who knows?
"When I had the meeting with Wayne I said to him, 'just remember one thing - respect this club. I don't want any nonsense from you, just respect the club'.
"I don't know if he's done that. I have my doubts about that because, what with reading all these things about him falling out with me and all that nonsense, it's disappointing.
"We've done everything we possibly can to help Wayne Rooney. We were honouring that request from Wayne to stay at the club he loved.
"He said the best thing he'd ever done was sign for us, so David was prepared through all the discussions and negotiations to offer Wayne the best contract any player could have in the country.
"Since the minute he's come to the club, we've always been a harbour for him. Any time he's been in trouble we've done nothing but help him.
"This is a club which bases all its history, loyalty and foundation on the trust between player, manager and club and has done for many years, well before me. Since the days of Sir Matt Busby, that's what it's founded on.
"So I'm disappointed, very disappointed."
And so say all of us.
And so say all of us.