Wayne Rooney, the manager: The challenges he’s faced and what it’s like to play for him

Wayne Rooney’s pedigree as a player has long been known. He is one of the most highly-regarded attacking players in English football history, a formative figure on the country’s national team and a legend at Manchester United. Even in his later years, playing overseas at Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, Rooney continued to shine. By the time he arrived at Derby County, it seemed obvious enough that Rooney would end up in the technical area.

His four seasons as a head coach have been much harder to parse than his playing career, however. Rooney’s name and CV certainly helped earn him an immediate appointment as a manager, but both of the clubs he’s guided — D.C. and Derby — each carried their own particular challenges and obstacles. 

On the surface, results alone would suggest that Rooney has failed at both clubs. At Derby he suffered relegation from the Championship and at D.C., he failed to lead the club back to the MLS playoffs, a low-enough bar in a league where most teams qualify. Rooney and some others, though, would argue that he has simply never been offered a fair fight.

It’s perhaps unfair to assess Rooney’s first season as head coach after initially being promoted to a player-coach for Derby and then taking the job permanently in January 2021, but the way the season ended — winning one of their 15 final Championship games to barely avoid relegation — left more than a few question marks at Pride Park. And there was little opportunity for a summer overhaul going into the next campaign as former chairman Mel Morris placed the club under administration a few weeks into the league season. 

Over the course of the campaign, Derby were hit with points deductions on two occasions, totalling 21 points, and Rooney was forced to play the role of club spokesperson in the absence of a chairman, owner and front-facing boardroom. Here, he demonstrated a remarkable level of poise and care in the issue, something that earned him plaudits from supporters, players and media alike, not least because his Derby side often followed off-the-field setbacks with three points.

“I think if you check our results after we got hit with something, every time we won,” former Derby defender Richard Stearman tells The Athletic. “He sort of used it to galvanise. Not just the team but the fans and community as a whole. He focused on what we could affect, and that was winning games and playing well. He was very inspiring as a manager and galvanised a dressing room comprised of very young and senior players, but he still created a great environment. He managed to give a lot of young players debuts that have gone on to have great careers so far.”

Like his former manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, Rooney left much of the dressing room moderation to senior players. At Birmingham City, expect experienced players such as Kevin Long and Lukas Jutkiewicz to be entrusted with similar responsibility, even if they are not regular starters in his system. In his first at Derby pre-season, he appointed Tom Lawrence as club captain and later developed a senior leadership team comprised of Lawrence, Curtis Davies, Phil Jagielka and Stearman, players who have experienced Premier League and international football.

“He knows our characters,” Davies tells The Athletic. “If there is anything he needed to convey or pass onto us, he would bring three or four of us into a room to do that. For the most part, we nip things in the bud before anything starts.” 

With few players considered to be in their prime, Rooney created a dressing room dynamic where young players – he gave 25 Derby academy products their debuts during his 18-month spell – were allowed the opportunity to impress, thrive and develop into leaders. 

“He just placed so much confidence and trust in them to go and perform in an adult environment,” says Stearman, now playing for Solihull Moors in the National League, the fifth tier of English football. “It might have been before some of them were ready, but that was because of the circumstances at the club — he needed these players to come in and play because we didn’t have the numbers. And most of the time, when they were needed to come in and perform, they did. That was because of the way that he and Liam (Rosenior) gave those players the freedom to go out and perform. 

“I remember when Malcolm Ebiowei came up to the first team — he was dribbling and trying tricks, and it was not quite working out for him. They kept telling him to continue playing to his strengths, and then he became a really integral part of the team. The lads were thrown into the deep end, a sink or swim situation, but they were given so much belief and confidence that they went out and performed.”

Throughout his short managerial career, Rooney has heavily emphasised trusting youngsters. While a transfer embargo and inability to sign players in the January transfer window necessitated the delve into the youth sides to fill in where there were no senior players available, his work at Derby and D.C. United proves faith in youngsters is one of his core principles. 

While in MLS, Rooney signed promising academy players like Matai Akinmboni and Jackson Hopkins to first-team deals and showered midfielder Ted Ku-DiPietro with praise throughout 2023, at one point calling him one of the most promising young players in America. At Derby, Festy Ebosele was handed his first professional contract under Rooney and played at right- and left-back, right and left wing-back, right- and left-wing and striker across 37 appearances. In a similar mould to how he played for Everton, Manchester United, England and D.C. United, Rooney develops well-rounded players on the training field who can fill several roles.

Even when his squad was relatively healthy, Rooney continued to give United and Derby’s young players opportunities. With a strong catchment area in the West Midlands and an academy that has produced Jude Bellingham, expect Rooney to keep a close watch on the club’s Wast Hills training ground.

Perhaps a more accurate description of his role is a manager, rather than the newer age ‘head coach’. At Derby, most on-the-grass, day-to-day training came from his assistant coach, Liam Rosenior, who often stood alongside him in the dugout. 

“Their dynamic was brilliant — they worked really well together,” says Stearman. “They’re both very forward-thinking. The manager wanted to play an attacking possession-based brand of football where Liam would do the bulk of the on-grass stuff, being overseen by the manager, and he would dip in with bits and pieces, fine-tuning it.”

In the United States, he tapped assistants Pete Shuttleworth and Carl Robinson regularly, often relying on Shuttleworth to do the bulk of the work communicating with players from the technical area. It’s obvious enough that Rooney trusts senior players and his assistants to take the lead on most training sessions while he observes from the sidelines, and he contributes with closing remarks or individual notes to add a sprinkling of his experience on knowledge from the sidelines. 

As a player at D.C. United, Rooney was an inspiring force who extracted superhuman performances out of his teammates, who were often average MLS players. The same was expected of him as a coach, but Rooney sometimes struggled to translate that skill set. D.C., especially during the tail end of a brutal 2023 campaign, looked unmotivated and disconnected at times, much to the frustration of Rooney himself. 

Rooney’s history, though, suggests that this was probably an aberration. He has shown the capacity to be an effective man-motivator, inspiring his side to overcome the odds to beat Fulham, Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion while at Derby.

At Birmingham, Rooney brings former England teammate Ashley Cole and former Manchester United teammate John O’Shea to work as his assistants alongside Robinson and Shuttleworth. While they have the playing careers to suggest an understanding of what brings about a winning culture at club level, the challenge for Rooney, Cole and O’Shea is to channel that into a different role.

Arguably, this is his first proper chance to succeed at a club with high aspirations. The decision to replace John Eustace has split the fanbase but demonstrates the willingness of the new boardroom, with football decisions led by chief executive Garry Cook, to make tough calls with success on and off the field in mind. 

With a squad that has proven capable of competing at the top of the table, it’s Rooney’s time to put a winning team together consistently. No excuses. 

(Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

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