David Moyes, Wayne Rooney and the importance of power

Michael Steele

Manchester United have been adamant that Wayne Rooney will not be allowed to join Chelsea. Does this indicate a new insecurity at Old Trafford?

Transfers are about more than they seem. They're not just about (usually stupid) amounts of cash nor are they about (actually quite decent, most of the time) footballers. They're not even always about (exploitative, overcharged, unattractive, sponsor-laden) replica shirts. They're almost always about power, though: power assumed, power asserted and power exercised.

Most of the time this isn't particularly controversial or interesting. A player moves from a club that got relegated to a club that didn't: the power imbalance between the two clubs is obvious and so barely worthy of comment. Nor is it always the determining factor because sometimes a club simply decides to move a disappointment on or a new manager decides to refresh things or a player decides to return to his home club or country. But at the loud, top end of football, where the beasts are big and the money is bigger, power is crucial.

Take Wayne Rooney. Except you can't, because he's absolutely, definitively, completely, totally, wholly and entirely not for sale. Well, not if you're Chelsea, anyway. Daniel Taylor's recent exclusive in the Guardian was remarkable not only in its surety -- saying anything quite so certainly certain about the transfer market is unusual -- but in what it revealed about Manchester United's thinking and the changed reality in which they find themselves.

It's not particularly surprising that United might want to keep Rooney: watching him play can at times be like watching a small child with a headache try to peel a banana, but he remains an effective player and his presence strengthens the squad. It isn't a revelation, either, that the Glazers were "bemused" by the offers received -- first £23m, then £25m -- both bids being almost hilariously low even for an apparently unsettled player. (Though "bemused" certainly suggests that however not for sale Rooney is, that there could be offers that would not be bemusing, and so he has a price.)

What's interesting is the revelation that it's not only the price and the desire to retain the player that's informing United's thinking. That would usually be enough, after all, but Taylor's piece specifically cites one further line of thinking.

Chelsea's £50m signing of Fernando Torres from Liverpool was widely seen throughout the game as a shift in dynamic between the two clubs. United are adamant they will not put themselves in the same position.

While Torres's Chelsea career hasn't quite been an endless flood of blond-tinted goals, in hindsight the move -- "Liverpool have more history, Chelsea have more options" -- was of massive significance. Here was a club that had gone from contesting Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals to selling them their best player. That they subsequently wasted the money didn't help, of course, but it wasn't a good look regardless of the way it's sliced.

The look is important. Power comes not just from what is, but from what is perceived. There are perhaps three managers in world football who could sell Wayne Rooney to a domestic rival and not look a bit diminished in the doing: the retiring Alex Ferguson; the Bayern-ing Pep Guardiola: and the most obvious and notable alternative to David Moyes for the United position, the Chelsea-ing Jose Mourinho. That it's Mourinho who is trying to buy Rooney, and that United could well finish beneath the Londoners this season, only adds to the pressure. If Rooney joins Chelsea, he'll score goals; if United finish beneath Chelsea thanks to those goals, United will have effectively committed narrative suicide.

All of which goes to illustrate what a remarkable act of self-sabotage United committed by appointing David Moyes. This is not to say that Moyes is a bad manager (he isn't) or to state definitively that he isn't good enough to manage United to the standards that the club expects (he might be, though it seems perhaps more unlikely than likely). It's to point out that in moving from Ferguson to Moyes, Manchester United have significantly narrowed their ability to operate.

Where Ferguson (and David Gill) could buy and not-buy basically whoever they wanted, bad or good, weird or sensible, without copping too much flak -- hey, Bebe -- Moyes has to buy from the very top shelf. (He just hasn't earned it yet, Bebe.) Ferguson buys Fellaini and Baines? Highly sensible. Moyes buys Fellaini and Baines? What a terrible lack of imagination from the new man. Ferguson sells Rooney to Chelsea? The big man wins again. Moyes sells Rooney to Chelsea? Rats, ships, sinking, and so forth.

Does any of this matter? Even without Rooney, Moyes would still have a squad composed of multiple title-winners, including the best striker and the maybe-best goalkeeper in the league (and excellence in those positions can cover a multitude of midfield sins). Results are results, after all, and if Moyes wins three trebles in a row he'll quickly find himself at the pinnacle of the footballing world. In opting for somebody like Moyes over somebody like Mourinho, United have at least ensured that whatever happens on and off the pitch, a destabilizing civil war is unlikely.

Auras are delicate things, easily damaged and difficult to repair, and they affect everything.

But if United are worried that selling Rooney to Chelsea would make them look like Liverpool, then United are worried. After all, part of what set Liverpool on the path from where they were to where they are was a magnificently wrong-headed managerial appointment: either Roy Hodgson or Graeme Souness, depending on how long a perspective you feel like taking. Auras are delicate things, easily damaged and difficult to repair, and they affect everything: from the morale of opponents to the interest of transfer targets, from the mood of the crowd to the tills at the megastore.

It may also be relevant at a boardroom level. United's financial model is built on the accretion of regionalized sponsorship deals with a vast and exhausting list of peculiar companies, most recently Apollo Tyres ("official tyre partner in UK and India"). The house that Ferguson built is the house in which the Glazers are selling wall-space, and the idea of trying to tout a club that's just sold one of their best (or at least most high-profile) players is not the kind of thing that gets wallets opening. Mister Potato's attachment to Rooney is not purely sentimental.

Mourinho has told the British media that, for ethical reasons, he couldn't possibly countenance another bid for Rooney before Monday's game between the two clubs. The media -- having taken a moment to still their beating hearts, loosen their collars and cross their legs uncomfortably -- have concluded that this means a bid will definitely come afterwards.

This, in conjunction with Chelsea's apparent hijacking of Tottenham's move for Willian, has breathed new life into one of the summer's most unusual rumours: the initially-baffling-but-curiously-unflushable Rooney-for-Mata part-exchange-plus-maybe-some-cash hyphen-fest. From a United point of view, one way of ameliorating the loss of reputation that would follow Rooney out of the door is by exchanging him for an arguably better, certainly outstanding, and perhaps more necessary opponent ... It would equalize the power-balance.

From a Chelsea point of view, God knows (our own Callum Hamilton knows as well) that Juan Mata's really very good indeed, and has a superior beard. But this in itself is a neat illustration of how power, reputation and status all work. Mourinho could definitely get away with selling him, because he's Mourinho. Imagine if Rafa Benitez had tried it. Stamford Bridge would be ashes.

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