To the question of why Wayne Rooney eschewed an easy retirement away from football’s sharp end for the spotlight of management at Derby County, Sven-Göran Eriksson has a simple answer.
The Swede, who gave Rooney his England debut in 2003 as a 17-year-old prodigy, says: “Of course he could play golf, but I think that would be boring. So no I’m not surprised. I’m surprised every time a big player decides to not go to management. Like [David] Beckham, I thought he might do – but he has a lot of other things to do, of course.
“A man like Wayne Rooney, he should go to management. It’s great to be a player, but it’s even better and more interesting sometimes to be a manager.”
In January Rooney called time on a career as his generation’s finest English footballer. A glittering CV shows him as Manchester United’s and England’s record goalscorer with a clean sweep of domestic and continental club honours whose blistering displays at Euro 2004 came at only 18, and who was the PFA and FWA player of the year for 2009-10.
These are highlights in a bulging vault of memories that can warm Rooney into his dotage. Now he hopes to add more from the dugout. So far, the move is a success and suggests he may possess the managerial X factor.
The Liverpudlian became permanent Derby manager on 15 January, having been appointed as one of a four-strong interim coaching staff on 14 November before taking sole charge on a temporary basis following the 1-0 defeat against Bristol City a week later.
On that day the Rams were at bottom of the Championship with six points from 12 games, six from safety with a goal difference of -12. The 35-year-old’s record is now nine wins and five draws from 22 league matches. Derby stand 19th, three places above the drop zone but have lost their past two games and face the high-flying Barnsley on Wednesday.
If there is surprise at his opting for management’s relentless churn and a question remains regarding whether his genius football brain can adapt long term to coaching and motivating players, this was no snap decision according to Ben Olsen, Rooney’s DC United coach from 2018-20.
“For the last few years he really started to change his focus and think about being a manager, how he’s going to formulate his own team,” says Olsen. “What I would say about Wayne is he’s football mad. He’s authentic. He was a great lead in the locker room. And from my dealings with him he loves the chess aspect of the game.
“Those principles made him so successful throughout his career and give him a very good foundation. I look fondly on the time we had at DC United. In some ways, he pushed me as a manager as well – challenging me. He had a nice balance of asking questions and being inquisitive about the way I go about things or the league as a whole.
“He seemed to absolutely love the game – that’s a good place to start. He was always evaluating: ‘This is maybe what I would be doing in this scenario.’ He probably disagreed with a lot of what we did, but he always came in and trained at a very high level.”
When Rooney arrived in Washington he ended a second spell at Everton, which was a single season back at his boyhood team. Nick Chadwick, who is three years older, witnessed Rooney coming through the ranks as a junior at the club, and states he had a vision that marked him out and can aid his new career.
“It’s going to be really interesting because the better footballers make the better decisions,” says Chadwick, AFC Fylde’s assistant coach. “Even at a young age he made good decisions on the pitch, which was why he was a sensational player.
“Coaching and management is about being able to transfer ideas to a group. There’s some extremely talented footballers who didn’t do this and that can lead to a sense of frustration. With Wayne and the people he’s got round him, certainly at Derby, his success will depend on how he implements and gets across the undoubted football brain he’s got. If he can translate this into the team he’s leading, I’m sure he’ll be a success.”
Rooney left Everton for United in August 2004. He was 18 and already England’s star player, his storming of the summer’s European Championship in Portugal one of the stories of the tournament. Eriksson stated he was the best teenage talent since Pelé. When Rooney injured a metatarsal against the hosts in the quarter-finals England’s tournament was effectively over, Eriksson’s side going on to lose on penalties.
His United debut came on a memorable September evening at Old Trafford against Fenerbahce: Rooney scored a hat-trick and 13 success-laden years at the club took flight. Chris Eagles was at United when he arrived. Eagles agrees with Chadwick’s point that great footballers are not alway suited for management but he gives his former teammate every chance.
“Wayne understood the game,” Eagles says. “If you watched him when he was at United, he was learning different positions. People will listen, respect him and [remember] how and where he played: centre-forward, No 10, midfield. He just knows what is happening. And, Wayne’s done everything in the game.”
Eagles identifies another prerequisite for any manager to succeed: Rooney’s ease with differing personalities, both in the dressing room and elsewhere. “He was very good at organising, things like that. You could always see it in him to become a manager because he’s good with people [including] players. A lot of management is about managing the players and Wayne’s definitely got that in him.”
Eriksson, who has managed 16 clubs or national teams, including Benfica, Lazio, and Ivory Coast, concurs. “He was very mature and understood football well when just 17 years old,” the 73-year-old says. “When he came for England debut and we spoke tactics – positions, defending, things like that – he understood everything. You didn’t need to put him in any football school at all.
“I had a similar situation in Italy at Fiorentina when we bought Roberto Baggio. He was maybe 18, 19 and very clever. They were both mature, had intelligent football brains at a very early stage.”
Eriksson, who won league and cup doubles in Sweden, Portugal, and Italy, says: “Wayne has a lot to be a big manager. First of all, he understands football – he did when 17, and I’m quite sure his understanding is even better today. He has huge experience on a great level. Then, he has learned how to treat people, players, how to be a leader. He’s been a captain for many years in different situations. He has everything to become a big manager, absolutely. You say ‘Rooney’ and that means respect. He’s a big gun.
“Every manager has their own way to do things. [Sir Alex] Ferguson is one thing, Arsène Wenger another, [Pep] Guardiola and [José] Mourinho today. Wayne Rooney: I’m sure he will have his own way to be a manager.”
He is making an promising start.