Wayne Rooney’s Managerial Career in Jeopardy at 38: A Reflection on His Decision to Join Birmingham

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It’s hard to think about Wayne Rooney without recalling some of the staging posts of his career. That goal as a 16-year-old for Everton against Arsenal. Terrorising international opposition for the first time in Euro 2004. A hat-trick on his debut for Manchester United against Galatasaray in the Champions League at Old Trafford.

And now there is another one. Sacked as manager of Birmingham City after only fifteen games in charge. Rooney’s stellar playing career lasted almost 20 years. His time in management may be done before he has even reached his 39th birthday.

The Birmingham job was Rooney’s third as a manager and followed spells at Derby County and DC United in America’s MLS. Since taking the Derby job in November 2020, there have been a total of 22 days in which he has not been in work. So his commitment to his trade is not in doubt. It was the Birmingham job, however, that was always likely to tell us whether he was actually any good at it. It always felt like the job that would propel Rooney in one direction or the other, perhaps even for good.

There were financial caveats at Derby and in America. At St Andrews, in the Championship, the playing field was level. Birmingham were fifth in the Championship when he arrived and sit 20th now. Rooney’s team won twice on his watch.

After his sacking on Tuesday morning, Rooney released a statement that reeked of the pain of failure. It was dignified but included the suggestion he hadn’t been given enough time.

Wayne Rooney was sacked as Birmingham boss on Tuesday after nine defeats in just 15 games

Since Rooney arrived, Birmingham have fallen from the play-off spots to a relegation battle

Since Rooney arrived, Birmingham have fallen from the play-off spots to a relegation battle

At the age of 38, the former Man United striker's time in management may already be over

At the age of 38, the former Man United striker’s time in management may already be over 

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But then what did he really expect? The Birmingham job was never about time. It was not about a slow burn or a building process. The club sacked a man who had previously bought in to those old-fashioned fundamentals of management – Rooney’s predecessor John Eustace – in order to bring what they perceived to be some glamour through the door.

Once the club’s chief executive Garry Cook had made it publicly incumbent on Rooney to provide ‘no fear football’ on his way to promotion to the Premier League then the former England and United captain was always up against it in what is perhaps the toughest English league of all.

Looking back, Rooney may ask himself why he took the job. Was it really the one for him? After working under the handicap of a points penalty at Derby and at DC United, not one of America’s traditionally successful franchises, Rooney came back to England in the autumn with the look of a coach desperate for some grounding and some time at a club where he would be allowed to impose his own beliefs, plans and structures for the long-term.

Instead he allowed himself to have his head turned towards to Birmingham where Cook and the club’s American owners seem so keen to fast forward towards the Premier League. The Championship, as we all know, just doesn’t work like that and now that Rooney has been spat out, it’s hard not to wonder just what may be next.

He is not alone. Steven Gerrard is trying to start his managerial career again in Saudi Arabia. Frank Lampard is out of work. Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard. That’s the creative chunk of England’s golden generation of the early millennium right there. Of the others, Gary Neville, Michael Owen, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand have already sought refuge in the commentary box.

The greatest English attacking player of his day wants to work and is unlikely to allow his ego to get in the way of what will now in all likelihood have to be a foray into the lower reaches of the pyramid or indeed a move to an outpost in one of the Gulf states. What will serve Rooney at least is a humility that has always come naturally to him.

Rooney did face a tough ask replacing the hugely popular John Eustace, who was sacked

Rooney did face a tough ask replacing the hugely popular John Eustace, who was sacked

CEO Garry Cook's comments that Rooney would provide ‘no fear football’ also didn't help

CEO Garry Cook’s comments that Rooney would provide ‘no fear football’ also didn’t help

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An abiding personal memory is of him standing on a field, in Washington co-incidentally, on a United summer tour in 2014. United’s new manager Louis van Gaal was telling him, in minute detail, how he should take a penalty. Rooney was United’s captain at the time as well as England’s number nine. Lesser players would have pointed that out. But, with the media watching on, Rooney stood stock still and absorbed the lesson. He will need all of that dignity and more right now.

At Birmingham his coaches were former team-mates John O’Shea and Ashley Cole along with long-term ally Pete Shuttleworth. As his playing career reached its conclusion two or three years ago, Rooney had hoped Darren Fletcher would be his right-hand man. Fletcher is a smart guy and innately calm. He’s a planner. Had he not been sucked in to the hierarchy at Old Trafford – where he is currently technical director – then a Rooney/Fletcher partnership may have served the Englishman well. With Fletcher’s own future at United uncertain ahead of Jim Ratcliffe’s INEOS investment, it may be something for Rooney to return to.

It is, it must be said, hard not to worry for Rooney a little bit. He has hardly stopped moving or indeed working since he was 16 and for people who never seem to stand still for long, there is usually a reason.

Rooney has spoken freely in recent times of his periodic struggles with alcohol while his wife Coleen – who stayed at the family home in Cheshire while Rooney flitted between there and an apartment in Solihull – spoke to this newspaper in November about her husband’s emotional complexities.

‘When it becomes overwhelming he’ll drink to blot it all out and escape from the world,’ she said.

‘What happens of course is the opposite.

‘Wayne is not a big talker. So sometimes he can hold stuff in.’

Cook and the club’s American owners - which include NFL legend Tom Brady (left) seem so keen to fast forward towards the Premier League but the Championship is unforgiving

Cook and the club’s American owners – which include NFL legend Tom Brady (left) seem so keen to fast forward towards the Premier League but the Championship is unforgiving

Rooney was only unveiled as Blues boss on October 12 after leaving MLS outfit DC United

Rooney was only unveiled as Blues boss on October 12 after leaving MLS outfit DC United 

When you are playing football, life can feel very straightforward. Everything has its place and sits in its own box. Largely, you do as you are told. Management is different and though Rooney has been meticulously prepared, its challenges must feel very real for him now.

Having taken soundings on the art from managers as diverse in standing and background as Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Graham Potter, Rooney’s columns ghosted for him in the Sunday Times in recent years provided insight into the mind of a young coach with fresh ideas to go with an enthusiasm for and understanding of the game. They were, at times, compelling. Those who have worked for him and with him, meanwhile, talk of an intelligent, empathetic and intuitive manager of people.

Nevertheless Rooney now finds himself out of work and that’s simply because his managerial win-ratio is desperately low. Across his three clubs it stands at just 26 per cent.

Why Birmingham hired him in October rather than last summer, only Cook and perhaps Rooney’s agent Paul Stretford will know. Why the club then hired him ahead of difficult games against Middlesbrough, Hull, Southampton, Ipswich and Sunderland rather than waiting for the international break that followed, only they will know. Why Rooney didn’t distance himself from Cook’s no fear nonsense from the start, only he will know. For sure, he isn’t short of advisors.

But what is certain is that mitigating factors such as these will not help him now. Rooney is on the scrapheap with all the rest and it feels like an awfully long road back. He must, like so many of his old team-mates, yearn for the days when all he had to worry about was the ball at his feet.

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