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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Is Rooney Man Utd's missing link?
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer

Rooney is Man Utd's third biggest buy

Wayne Rooney was the summer's trophy signing - the jewel in English football's crown that only few could afford.

The brilliant teenager illuminated England's lacklustre Euro 2004 campaign in a fashion that effectively turned his head away from Everton.

Even in Portugal, Rooney's proposed move to Manchester United was spoken of as a done deal and eventually the 18-year-old arrived at Old Trafford for 27m.

Sadly for Everton - the rumours had substance.

United outbid and outmuscled Newcastle for Rooney after being flushed out by their sudden interest, with the Old Trafford plc preferring a belated and cut-price bid in either January or the summer.

Ferguson cast caution aside to proclaim Rooney as "the best young player this country has seen in the past 30 years" as Everton fans choked on the perceived disloyalty of their golden boy.

But when the euphoria dies down, will Rooney be seen more as a player Ferguson wanted rather than someone he actually needed - certainly at the price he persuaded his board to pay?

No-one can doubt Rooney's brilliance. Euro 2004 saw to that. This is greatness in its infancy.

But even now, his career and development is very much a work in progress and he must fight his way into a United attack already boasting Ruud van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha and Alan Smith.

Rooney's natural gifts mean he will dangerously inhabit the space behind Van Nistelrooy, but is that Ferguson's true priority?

Has Ferguson used money that should have been spent elsewhere on Rooney simply to ensure no-one else got their hands on him?

Has he overlooked a major weakness in his team and used up this season's budget and most of next on what, at this stage, might be regarded as a luxury item?

He did it when he tried to inject 28.1m Juan Sebastian Veron into a central midfield already occupied by Roy Keane and Paul Scholes.

A footballing mess ensued and United lost half their outlay on the misplaced Argentine.

True, Rooney will give United a touch of the Cantona fantasy and there is no doubt that barring a cruel intervention of fate, is destined to be an English football icon.

But what would Ferguson have done if he had been told he had his 25m - not a penny more - and had to choose between Rooney or Liverpool's Steven Gerrard?

He would surely have chosen Gerrard, because if there is one area of Ferguson's empire that is in need of an expensive re-fit, it is a misfiring midfield rather than an expensively-assembled attack.

BBC Sport's Alan Hansen has rightly hailed Ferguson's coup of capturing Rooney, but he also said recently: "Three or four years ago they had Roy Keane, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in their prime.

"The opposition would look at the team-sheet and be happy to keep them down to three, and now they say: 'We can beat these'."

Harsh words - but true.

And the reason they say it is because the engine room that fired United to the Champions League in 1999 is not what it was.

Keane is nowhere near the force of days gone by, injured again after being exposed for a fatal lack of pace as a central defender.

Giggs and Scholes still excel, while Cristiano Ronaldo is outstanding, but Darren Fletcher is still a fledgling while Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson have flopped.

Ferguson's priority should have been to take his 25m and spend it on the best available midfield powerhouse around - and United's track record suggests almost anyone, Gerrard and Patrick Vieira apart, can be tempted to Old Trafford.

For now, brilliant Merseysider Rooney will be more than adequate compensation after making the journey along the M62.

But time will tell whether Ferguson has gone for putting a lavish new roof on the "Theatre of Dreams" while failing to take care of the foundations.

News conference: Man Utd unveil Wayne Rooney

News conference: Ferguson hails Rooney

Man Utd up Rooney bid
28 Aug 04  |  Premiership
Rooney unhappy with Everton
29 Aug 04  |  Premiership
Everton face fan fury
27 Aug 04  |  Everton

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