Will Wayne Rooney Leave Manchester United?

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Wayne Rooney

Tom Hevezi/AP

In the U.K. right now, it seems as if there are only three topics of conversation: what will be the extent of the government’s cuts, why can’t the X-Factor judges just get along and is the country’s most famous soccer player going to leave his club?

Leaving the first two well alone — the only cut NewsFeed wants to see is an end to the X-Factor — we turn our sporting eyes to the problems that currently face Manchester United and its star asset.  The Press Association reported Monday that the 24-year-old Rooney won’t sign a new contract, meaning that he will be available on a free transfer in 20 months time.

(See pictures of former Manchester United player David Beckham.)

How did it come to this? A terrible World Cup for the Englishman had the hangover effect of a similarly sluggish start kicking in to this year’s Premier League season. It then transpired that a combination of not fully recovering from an injury suffered in March and allegations about Rooney’s personal life was arguably the reason for his poor form. His club manager, the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, has rested Rooney due to the above reasons. But, in a possibly foolish show of defiance, Rooney himself has questioned these decisions, and it should be noted that he has played (and scored) for England over this fractious period. And the final straw might well have been Sir Alex leaving Rooney on the bench for last Saturday’s home game against West Brom. Despite coming on with 20 minutes to play, he didn’t score and was played in an unfamiliar position, as United threw away a two goal lead to only tie the match.

(See TIME’s World Cup blog.)

Despite the club insisting that Rooney isn’t leaving, there are two compelling reasons to suggest otherwise. Firstly, Sir Alex has a history of moving players on as soon as there is a personal problem between them (just ask David Beckham). And secondly, the club will be wary of not cashing in on Rooney — a free transfer means the club receives no fee — so he could be transferred as soon as the window opens in January 2011.

If so, United would ideally want him to move abroad, to the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid in Spain, so he doesn’t move to a domestic rival, potentially coming back to haunt them. But you shouldn’t rule that out either: in the soccer world, where players are rarely traded, money talks. The most likely English suitors are Chelsea or local rivals Manchester City, who look a better bet than United to knock Chelsea off their perch and win the title this year. And if he did travel across town, swapping red for blue, it would come close on the heels of former fellow striker Carlos Tevez making exactly the same move. That went down about as well with the fans as a pub running out of beer: if Rooney does leave, it would be akin to an actual brewery closing down.