Roy Hodgson says he would like Wayne Rooney to explode in the World Cup in Brazil. Based on tournament form in the last decade and a less than incendiary goalscoring record for Manchester United this season that seems little more than wishful thinking, though if Rooney's wallet makes the trip it could easily set off suspicious package alarms at the airport.
For the benefit of anyone who has not yet heard, or simply finds this sort of news too distressing and prefers to go straight to the match reports and Winter Olympic coverage, United are proposing to pay Rooney £300,000 a week for the next five years, effectively binding him to the club for the rest of his career. While there are thought to be some other perks as well, notably the captaincy at some point in the future and a degree of consultation over transfer policy, the money is the eye-catching element of the deal. Eye-watering, some might call it, for a player who has twice threatened to leave the club, and at the start of the season was clearly interested in Chelsea.
Given that United are in the middle, or perhaps the muddle, of the mother of all transitional seasons at the moment, it seems legitimate to wonder why they are doing this. Can retaining Rooney guarantee a Champions League finish this season, or offer any more than a vague hope of a return to the elite next time? On current form, the answer has to be no. Are Rooney's next (and possibly last) five years going to eclipse everything that has gone before, so that come 2019 his £70m contract will look like a bargain?
Anything is possible, but you wouldn't risk too much of your own money betting on that outcome. Does Rooney have United over a barrel, so to speak, backed into a corner? Again, the answer is no. One can see why the club did not fancy selling him to a direct rival, and it is also true that to part company at this stage would involve a replacement being hired at not dissimilar expense, but this is Manchester United, for goodness sake.
The walls of the club corridors and training ground drip with testaments to youth. The club prides itself on finding exciting young players and giving them a chance. Rooney is a prime example, or was. He is not ready for the scrap heap yet, he is a tremendous player and will remain so despite the vagaries of team performance and personal form, but such a lucrative five-year deal for a 28 year old suggests United are happy with the way they are playing and would like to keep it going as long as possible. And that simply cannot be the case. United are struggling, and Rooney is struggling with them. He is not standing out like a beacon of hope or offering a one-man rescue service, and neither is he getting on the end of all these crosses that David Moyes keeps talking about.
It is a pity in some ways that United refused to countenance a move to Chelsea, because it would have been interesting to see how José Mourinho used him and whether a tactical tweak or a change of position could restore a cutting edge. Maybe that is what Moyes is afraid of. Looking at Rooney's stats – just one league goal since Christmas, only three all season against teams from the top half of the table – it is not immediately obvious why United needed to worry about the impact he might make at Chelsea, a fee of £30m or more would have gone a long way to help find a replacement, and moving out the old brigade when the conditions are ripe is a necessary concomitant of a self-replenishing youth policy.
Instead United are in effect taking a £100m hit to keep Rooney, when they now have Juan Mata as well as Shinji Kagawa (not to mention Adnan Januzaj) to play in the same position. It is as if they are determined to prove not only that that money is available but that Rooney, like Moyes, is there for the long-haul whatever the difficulties being encountered at present.
Supporters are supposed to be reassured by this commitment to stability, though even the most loyal can see that at best it is over-conservative and at worst simply irrational. Just as Moyes might not be the best idea for the next five years, neither is Rooney a certainty to return a dividend over that time period. Unless results improve dramatically it will look less like loyalty and more like rewarding failure. Already a sort of creeping paralysis appears to be overtaking United's transfer business, with a club formerly famous for bold and imaginative captures merely fitting in with the plans of Everton (Marouane Fellaini), Chelsea (Mata) and now Rooney and his advisers.
Rooney is scarcely deserving of loyalty in any case, but let that pass. United seem to think he is the key to future success, possibly because his presence will retain lustre and help attract other top players to the club, though most outsiders will continue to base their judgment on performances. United's biggest fear at the moment should not be ending up in the Europa League, it should be what some of their opponents in that competition might do to them, with or without the highest paid individual in English football.
No player, Sir Alex Ferguson used to say, can ever be bigger than the club.
No individual can be more important than the manager. The manager must be in total control. No surprise then that Ferguson fell out with Rooney. For better or worse, Moyes seems to be doing things differently to his predecessor. Fair play to him, everyone at the outset said he needed to be his own man. You never know, a relaxed Rooney without a contract situation to worry about might be able to explode at the World Cup after all. But if he doesn't, if his contribution is just another exercise in damp squibbery along the lines of South Africa 2010 or Manchester United's season to date, Hodgson will probably not be alone in wondering whether Mourinho and Chelsea could have provided the blue touchpaper to relight a fire that of late has smouldered rather than scorched. United fans, meanwhile, have the best part of five years to work out how they are going to feel about Rooney toppling Sir Bobby Charlton's scoring records.