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Oct 14, 2010

Has Rooney opened the exit door?

Any other week and it would have been headline-grabbing stuff but, amid the legal wreckage of the Liverpool affair, it took almost 24 hours for the news agenda to swing in the direction of Wayne Rooney.

Delivered in the aftermath of a decidedly low-quality England performance against Montenegro, Rooney attempted to shift the focus away from his poor form and instead chose to open a can of worms. "I've had no problems with my ankle all season," Rooney said. "I've been training for the last two months and I haven't missed a training session so there's no problem with my fitness." Asked why Sir Alex Ferguson had said that he did have an ankle injury, Rooney replied: "Don't know." Cue frenzied talk of a rift and reports that new contract talks are on the rocks.

The football media loves nothing better than a Fergie feud, and especially when it is with a leading player. Rooney's declaration flew in the face of his manager's statement that his striker would miss the trip to Valencia and a visit to Sunderland because of a need to recover from the putative injury. It also acted against TV evidence of his being treated with an ice-pack at Bolton, and photographic evidence of his leaving a hospital after a reported scan.

"I think Wayne will be two to three weeks," Sir Alex Ferguson had said before going on that attacking form of defence familiar to those who brave his press conferences. "It is a straightforward ankle injury. Nobody likes to be injured but he is. There is nothing you can do about it. What do you want me to say? Do you want me to describe every ligament? Christ."

Could this be the beginning of one of those long goodbyes that have littered the Fergie years? Is Rooney to follow the likes of Strachan, Leighton, Ince, Beckham, Keane and Van Nistelrooy in a gradual cold-shouldering that leads to an exit in which it is agreed by all parties, though really Ferguson, that it really was time to move on?

The warnings signs are there, and Rooney may have already broken a golden rule in lifting the lid on his manager's machinations. But then, perhaps Rooney is different to such predecessors. Is he of the elite group of players that Ferguson will indulge? That list contains Robson, Schmeichel, Cantona and, latterly, Ronaldo. Keane was of that number until that bitter end, while both Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have also escaped the black spot when becoming embroiled in run-ins with the boss.

All of that group were able to escape when on-field performances protected them, and this is where problems may lie with Rooney. His level of performance so far this season has been well below-par, with effort being no substitute for influence. It will barely cheer his manager that the better Rooney performances of the season came in England's double-header with Bulgaria and Switzerland. And then there are the possible corroding effects of those tabloid revelations: if anything, Rooney's performances have looked limp in spirit if not in left ankle.

Ferguson has indulged players in the past, with Peter Schmeichel's mid-season tanning session in the midst of the 1998-99 campaign being a prime example, and this may have been been his aim this time around. Yet Rooney's words at Wembley reflected some level of irritation at being granted a similar rest to thus open up a series of end-game scenarios.

Should Ferguson still be minded to again protect his charge, expect his response to any questioning on the subject - slim pickings at best considering that self-imposed media ban - to talk of Rooney's unremitting to desire to play in any state and hence the Wembley words.

After all, Rooney's reappearance in the second leg last season against Bayern Munich came against all known medical advice, and as a result of the man himself's desire to be on the field. A non-appearance against West Brom this weekend, seemingly unlikely after that 90 minutes on Tuesday, would send the headline-writers into an orgy of overdrive.

A cynical watcher of the Ferguson years will now be readied for a drawn-out exit, with both sides briefing against the other. After all, Rooney's representatives have previous here, too. Or, once Rooney has recovered his form, the optimist can expect a kissing and making up between a pair who have previously indulged each other in the glowing terms of father and son.

Whatever the outcome, any sign of a schism between Ferguson and his leading light is certain to dominate headlines, even in a Liverpool-dominated week such as this. We shall keenly await the reasons behind Rooney's breaking of the Ferguson code.

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