Ambition key to Rooney revolt
"The manager will answer questions about the Bursaspor game and then deal with the Wayne issue at the end," said Karen, the club's press officer.
An expectant hush fell over the massed ranks of journalists, photographers and film crews crammed into the Europa Suite at Old Trafford. Pre-match press conferences ahead of Champions League group games increasingly have an air of the routine about them but not this one.
After 10 minutes of obedient, almost token queries about the qualities of the Turkish visitors and United's recent defensive lapses, John O'Shea was sent out of the room and Sir Alex was left alone to speak.
As well as attending many Manchester United press conferences in recent years, two seasons ago I had the privilege of interviewing Ferguson on a one-to-one basis immediately before and after Premier League matches.
At the time, United were locked in a title race with arch rivals Liverpool and the pressure was on the manager. But regardless of the result or the opposition, he was always firmly in control, forthright, self-assured, almost menacing in his certainty.
But on Tuesday I witnessed a Ferguson I had never seen before. Crestfallen, befuddled, exasperated, he took on the air of a heartbroken father, saddened and stunned by the wayward antics of a favourite son.
At one point, having abandoned the piece of paper from which he had initially intended to read, Sir Alex fell silent, apparently lost for words. He appeared close to tears. For the first time in his long reign at Old Trafford, the manager seemed to have no answer to the simple question: "Why?"
On the face of it, Ferguson's pain over Rooney's decision to leave is understandable. Perhaps more than any other player the Scot has coached, Rooney seems to be a man cut from the same cloth. A working-class warrior from the bleak streets of Croxteth, here was a naturally gifted, intensely motivated man, driven not by greed but by the sheer love of doing what comes so naturally - simply playing and scoring goals.
In wanting to leave, Rooney appears to betray those qualities, living up to the image of the modern professional footballer. And in doing so, he leaves his manager in shock.
For now, Ferguson's extraordinary press conference will ensure he claims the moral high ground in the eyes of United's fans - he is bound to receive rapturous applause before Wednesday's Champions League game with Bursaspor.
And yet, in reality - and Ferguson knows this - Rooney's decision is entirely consistent with the defining principle that he applies to his profession. Anyone who has ever witnessed the terrifying, selfless commitment with which he treats every training session knows above all that Rooney wants to win. To say this is just a mercenary, available to whichever club will offer the best deal in town, is too simplistic.
Rather, ambition more than avarice has dominated Rooney's thinking. Sure, Rooney and his advisers will be aware that less talented players like Yaya Toure are on more than double the Englishman's wages at Manchester City. While not being able to match such eye-watering amounts, it is clear United are prepared to offer Rooney significantly more than the £90,000 a week he currently enjoys. Yet he still wants to leave.
Ferguson may lament the influence of agents like Paul Stretford and wage inflation. But, as far as Rooney is concerned, this misses the point. At 24, the striker knows his next long-term contract could be the last of his career and will have asked himself whether United, saddled with vast debt and soon to be without the guidance of their great manager, will be the dominant force going forward that they have been in recent years. It is my understanding Rooney has looked at the evidence and decided the answer is no.
Rooney's representatives first told United's chief executive David Gill of his reluctance to sign a new contract on 14 August. The reason it remained a secret was because, at that point, the player's departure from Old Trafford was still far from certain. If it had been, then, with two weeks of the transfer window still to go, would Rooney not have been sold there and then before his value dropped further?
Ferguson's disappointment at lurid allegations over the striker's private life was not the deal breaker that it could have been. Nor was Rooney's public contradiction of his manager's assessment of an ankle injury. Neither issue helped matters and made the breakdown in negotiations harder to salvage but they were not decisive, hence Ferguson's admission that "the door remains open".
Above all, Rooney is troubled by United's failure to replenish their squad. For years, Ferguson has forged great teams and then replaced them with others, always regenerating, developing, poaching, selling. But, with United having to service huge interest repayments and contending with £80m losses, that process has slowed.
At the end of last season, after losing in the Champions League quarter-finals and relinquishing the Premier League title to Chelsea, Rooney will have looked at Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville and wondered who the club would be bringing in to replace these great servants.
While all fine prospects, it is doubtful whether the arrival of Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling and Bebe will have satisfied the striker. United appear just as reliant on their old guard as they did a year ago - and this will have proved decisive in Rooney's thinking.
Ambition brought Rooney to United in the first place. Ambition on the part of the player, who left the club he had followed as a boy. And ambition on the part of his manager, who recognised the innate genius of the stocky teenager and ruthlessly stole a prized asset Everton had nurtured and honed.
In little more than a year, Ferguson has been powerless to prevent the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, both players the manager admires. I understand nothing that Ferguson said on Tuesday has changed Rooney's mind. Soon he will be gone, too, and it will hurt the manager in a way he has not experienced before.
The pursuit of success still defines Ferguson but for United there are other considerations, other pressures at play. United are restricted in a way that the wealthier Manchester City are not. One senses that the balance of power is shifting both in English football and perhaps Manchester itself.
Great players have come and gone at Old Trafford in the past but Rooney's impending departure is different and starkly telling.