Is Wayne Rooney’s Career in Management Already Over?

In January 2021 Rooney was offered his first opportunity in management with financially struggling Derby County in the Championship. What has happened since?

It’s been 20 years since a fresh-faced, raw, 16-year-old Wayne Rooney propelled himself into the national consciousness with a screamer against Arsenal on his professional debut. Rooney, at least the footballer, never appeared to look back from this moment, winning multiple Premier League titles, a Champions League, and an array of personal accolades in a glistening career, leading many to consider him amongst England’s greatest-ever attacking players.


Despite the aggression, technical brilliance, and a clear knack for winning so often displayed in Rooney’s playing career, it was a surprise, to some, that the former Manchester United legend wanted to try his hand at management. Throughout much of his playing career, there was a perception that the Scouser was slightly uncomfortable with fame and the media.


First opportunity in management


Nonetheless, and perhaps admirably, Rooney set his sights on “trying to manage at the top level”. In January 2021 Rooney was offered his first opportunity in management with financially struggling Derby County in the Championship. The Rams had become acclimatised to finishing in and around the play-off positions of the second tier, but with the club struggling off the field, it immediately appeared an uphill battle to keep the club competitive in the upper reaches of the Championship.


After starting the 2020/2021 campaign as a player-coach, Rooney was promoted to full-time head coach mid-way through a torrid campaign. Despite winning just one of Derby’s final 15 games, it was enough to ensure another year of Championship football at Pride Park. The following transfer window saw then-owner Mel Morris place the club under administration and thus opportunities to improve a struggling squad were limited. Despite accumulating an impressive 55 points from their 46 Championship fixtures, a 21-point deduction saw Wayne Rooney’s side relegated to League One at the end of the season. Rooney then resigned in search of new opportunities.


While the headline story was relegation, Wayne Rooney gained many admirers during his 18-month spell at Derby County. With a board unwilling to communicate, Rooney acted as a single spokesperson, and a rare beacon of hope for Derby County supporters during challenging times for the football club. Not only Rooney’s dedication, but also his communication skills, something that had previously been questioned, saw him develop a great rapport with supporters and players alike.


Move to the MLS


The intense nature of keeping a troubled Derby County in the Championship may have prompted Rooney to try his luck in a less pressurising environment – the MLS.  Rooney took over at DC United, whom he represented towards the end of his playing career, a club that had stagnated in the MLS for the past few seasons. DC supporters, similarly to Derby County, viewed Rooney as a saviour to help revitalise their club, or at least keep it afloat. However, after failing to lead the Washington club to the MLS play-offs, a mutual agreement saw Rooney’s American stint come to an end.


After Rooney’s first 139 games in management across spells with Derby County and DC United, the former Champions League winner had picked up just 38 wins from 139 matches.


Birmingham City


It was therefore somewhat surprising to see Rooney appointed by Birmingham City so soon after leaving DC. The decision of Chief Executive Gary Crook to  replace John Eustace, whose strong early form saw Birmingham City sit in a play-off position, with Wayne Rooney split the Blues fanbase tremendously. Not because many were particularly averse to Rooney, but because there was no justifiable reason to remove a popular manager in good form.


Rooney, who was frequently compared to the successes of his predecessor, knew he wouldn’t be looked upon favourably if he failed to hit the ground running. After defeat in his first two Championship matches, Wayne Rooney’s side were booed off at full-time against Hull City, as supporters let their frustrations at the owner’s decision to replace John Eustace known. This trend continued as Birmingham City’s form nosedived under Rooney’s stewardship. After just two wins from his 15 games Rooney was sacked by the St Andrews club, leaving them 12 places lower than when he arrived just 83 days prior.


Rooney, though insists he still wants to become a manager at the top level intends to take some time out of the game, ‘Personally, it will take me some time to get over this setback’


Can Rooney still become a top manager?


With fellow 21st century English footballing icons Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard experiencing some initial success before seeing their managerial reputations somewhat hampered after difficult stints with Aston Villa and Everton respectively, there appears to be a growing narrative in the UK that great players don’t necessarily become great managers.


This is only reinforced by the recent relative success of British ‘coaches’ in the Championship, with former England U17 manager Steve Cooper and Graham Potter, who landed his first senior coaching role at 32, recently winning unlikely promotions to the Premier League despite not experiencing long, glittering playing careers. There is a popular belief that the best British managers are now “new age” tacticians, rather than former players who succeeded at the highest level.


After an unsuccessful stint at Birmingham City, Rooney, who claims he’s “preparing” for his “next opportunity”, may have to do something Gerrard and Lampard so far haven’t been prepared to do – drop into the bottom two tiers of English football. It is important that Rooney, if given the opportunity, chooses his next move carefully.


Derby County’s financial position proved too difficult of a task to deal with, while DC United had been starved of any success in recent years. Meanwhile, John Eustace’s bizarre dismissal at Birmingham City put Rooney under pressure from minute one. If Rooney is prepared to drop further down the footballing ladder, he must ensure it is with a club with a relatively stable ownership structure. This may finally give the 38-year-old the opportunity to combine the unity created at Derby County with sustained winning football.