There are as many styles of football management as there are styles of parenting. Each of the 20 Premier League managers will start this new season with a version of paternalistic ambition for their clubs and their players; some will favour routine and discipline; others might prove a bit overwhelmed by conflicting advice from all quarters; all will suffer sleepless nights. The best will likely follow the mantra of the original guru of common sense childcare, Dr Spock: “Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do.”
One of the reasons you know Louis van Gaal will handle this complex generation of Old Trafford babes better than David Moyes is that the question of his relationship with the club’s ever-present old man, Sir Alex Ferguson, already seems a curious irrelevance. There is no doubting that Van Gaal will do things his way. The thought that Fergie is watching him red-faced from on high will hardly, you imagine, have crossed his mind as an impediment to success, whereas from the beginning you knew that Moyes would be haunted by living up to his predecessor.
Among the things that Van Gaal seems capable of, even in his short time at the club, is that prized fatherly ability to give out unqualified praise to his players without attendant anxiety that it undermines his own authority. You can’t quite imagine him articulating the idea, as Ferguson did toward the end of his triumphant career, that “if I lose control of these multimillionaires in the Manchester United dressing room, then I’m dead ... So I never lose control. If anyone steps out of my control, they’re dead.” Van Gaal is no doubt a formidable authoritarian, but seemingly quite relaxed about his power. His instincts appear to be toward inclusivity, and a culture built on flexibility of thought and action, rather than predominantly on force of will and fear.
The first test of this spirit, as has been widely noted in the past couple of weeks, will be the question of what Van Gaal does with the captain’s armband, who he makes his favourite son. Before his arrival much was made of his closeness with Robin van Persie, who he anointed as skipper of the Dutch national side, and with whom he clearly maintains a close and respectful bond. With the departure of Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand, United captains of recent seasons, Van Persie would have seemed a shoo-in to take on the role this year. It seems Van Gaal might prove to be a wiser leader than that.
Since the arrival of Van Persie at United, there has been a sense that he and Wayne Rooney could only ever have an either/or relationship. Ferguson, by the end of his reign, had become frustrated by Rooney’s understandable reluctance to play in the Dutch striker’s shadow. Moyes, attempting to redress that balance, and throwing money at Rooney to keep him happy-ish, apparently alienated Van Persie to the degree that he spent the end of the season keeping himself fit for the World Cup rather than giving his all for United.
It’s possible that Van Gaal will find a third way. Secure in his relationship with Van Persie, after the match against Liverpool in Miami he seemed to be indicating that Rooney might be given the chance to prove himself in the role. “I am always looking for opportunities to give players the captain’s armband …” van Gaal said, somewhat gnomically. “I think you have to choose, when it is possible, for the English style ...”
The question of whether Rooney is possible captaincy material has been a theme of his career since he first broke into the Everton side as a 16 year old. In the dozen years since, the question has never quite been settled in his favour. There has always seemed a couple of reasons for that uncertainty. The first was that Rooney has always presented a split personality as a player and a character. On the one hand he looked super-mature even at 17, the archetypal man among boys. On the other, he has always been the kid who never grew up, red-faced, combustible, prone to sulking and petulance (as well as embarrassment and indiscretion). The other apparent reason, though, that he was not always viewed as a potential captain by Ferguson (or national team managers with an authoritarian bent such as Fabio Capello) was that he always made it clear that it mattered to him.
Rooney’s two autobiographies are punctuated with references to the few occasions that he has worn the armband at club level – the time Duncan Ferguson at Everton tossed it to him having been sent-off. “I thought I was doing well, encouraging and shouting at the other players …” Rooney recalled, until the then manager Moyes shouted at him: “Get that fucking thing off!” and gave it to Alan Stubbs. Then there was the strangeness of becoming, for one game, the youngest ever United captain in a Champions League match – against Celtic when Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs both pulled out in the warm-up – and the thrill of everyone calling him “Skip”.
It matters to him more than ever now, at 28, you’d guess. There are some managers who might use the withholding of that honour as a way of motivating their £300,000 man to still greater efforts. There are others who might see it as a way of finally, fully giving the prodigal son the appreciation he feels he deserves.
How Van Gaal resolves the question will likely prove a crucial factor in Rooney’s efforts to prove that he deserves his status not only has the highest paid player in the Premier League but also, as the American tournament had him last week, the MVP, the most valuable player, once again, to his club and to his country.
Deferred gratification is a useful skill for children to learn, but sometimes, as all parents know, the way to really find out how good they can be is to give them what they want.