- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PARIS (AP) - Do they sell paper handkerchiefs at the Manchester United store, sufficiently absorbent to soak up even the biggest crocodile tears? Given Alex Ferguson’s newfound dramatic talents, we’d be wise to order a box.

For a moment, with his hangdog look, United’s normally steely manager almost _ almost _ had us believing the script that portrays him and his club as the spurned victims in what can now justifiably be called the Wayne Rooney Saga, Part I.

“We’re as (sigh, shake of head) … We’re as bemused as anyone can be because we can’t quite understand why he’d want to leave,” Ferguson said in his 6 1/2-minute command performance Tuesday that can’t be called a news conference because he took no questions.

Like all good actors, Ferguson is hoping that his audience will forget about what is going on behind the scenes.

His claim that he can’t understand why Rooney would want out of the club that turned him into a megastar can only mean two things: Either Ferguson is being sparing with the truth or he hasn’t been asking his striker the right questions. Ferguson is a persuasive man. So it’s hard to swallow that he couldn’t, with a flash of his famous temper or a quiet chat over a bottle of those vintage wines he’s so fond of, get Rooney to open up about his motives.

If Ferguson is to be believed, then Rooney’s salary demands aren’t why he wants out. Ferguson isn’t giving the full financial details. Nor is there any reason why he should. But he says United was prepared to offer Rooney “the best terms possible for any player in the country.”

If true, that suggests United would match or better any offer from the likes of Manchester City or Chelsea, clubs whose billionaire owners shoulder some blame for the upward spiral of wages in the Premier League. Although Ferguson is among those who have griped about the inflation and said he isn’t prepared to spend with such abandon, he seemed to be saying that United would make an exception for Rooney, because “we realize and recognize the quality of the player.”

But if this is solely about money and if United’s pockets aren’t deep enough, would Ferguson admit that? Likely not. The club insists that Ferguson has cash for players if he needs it. Ferguson has toed that party line and been loyal to the American owners who have saddled United with 750 million pounds ($1.2 billion) of debt. If interest payments are eroding his player budget, then Ferguson isn’t prepared _ at least not yet _ to become the club’s first whistle-blower, the one who says that United’s means no longer match its always huge on-field ambitions.

Likewise, if Rooney is disappointed that Ferguson still hasn’t replaced his former strike partner Cristiano Ronaldo with other stellar players of his quality and feels that United cannot compete for trophies as a result, then we should not expect the manager to tell us that story, either. Doing so would inevitably circle back to the question of United’s finances, handing ammunition to agitated fan groups who charge that the owners are weakening the club.

If Rooney’s ambitions to win trophies are driving his threat to leave, then perhaps Part II of this saga could be a promise to him from United that it will recruit top players in the next transfer windows. If it cannot do that, Rooney should not solely be blamed for wanting out. Mediocre United performances this season aren’t simply because Rooney has been poor but because the whole team no longer looks as strong as it once was.

On Wednesday evening, more than 24 hours after Ferguson gave his version of events, Rooney finally broke his silence. He blamed United’s penny-pinching on its squad.

“My agent and I have had a number of meetings with the club about a new contract. During those meetings in August I asked for assurances about the continued ability of the club to attract the top players in the world,” Rooney said in a statement. “For me its all about winning trophies _ as the club has always done under Sir Alex. Because of that I think the questions I was asking were justified.”

As to Ferguson’s insistence that he and Rooney haven’t fallen out _ “I’ve not had an argument with Wayne Rooney at all, at any time,” the manager said _ well, again, he would say that, wouldn’t he? If his famous man-management skills have deserted him, as they also did with David Beckham before he was sold to Real Madrid, then admitting that would invite questions about whether it is time for Ferguson to make way after 24 years in charge at United.

And questions are one thing Ferguson doesn’t want.

“I can’t answer your question or any question about why he is doing it,” Ferguson said of Rooney. “You can speculate, we could have opinions, it won’t matter a dickie-bird, simply because the player says he’s adamant he wants to leave.”

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