Wayne Rooney is reportedly on the verge of a return to English football as manager of Championships club Birmingham City.
England’s all-time record goalscorer stood down as DC United head coach after failing to make the MLS playoffs, bringing down the curtain on a 15-month stint in the Washington dugout.
“I just feel it’s the right time for me to go back to England, firstly obviously to see my family. I haven’t seen them for a long time. And then, what lies ahead, I don’t know,” Rooney said after signing off with a 2-0 victory over New York City FC.
“Whether opportunities come up, I’ve seen a lot of reports in the media. I’m going back with nothing lined up. I’m going back to see my family. If something comes up in October, November, of course I’ll look at it.”
Rooney may or may not have been economical with the truth there – but something has come up already. On Monday, October 9, Birmingham parted company with John Eustace despite him leading them to sixth in the table after an impressive start to the Championship season.
Former Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook, who now holds the same position at St Andrews, and technical director Craig Gardner are reportedly the driving forces behind the decision to remove Eustace (as per Sky Sports and The Athletic), with Cook issuing an open letter to fans saying there was a “misalignment” between Eustace and the aims of “the leadership of the club”.
However, any move to secure Rooney’s inarguable star power is likely to be indelibly linked with NFL great Tom Brady, who became Birmingham’s minority owner in August, after U.S-based consortium Shelby Companies bought Birmingham in July.
But what sort of manager will Blues getting if they appoint the 37-year-old as expected?
Wayne Rooney managerial record
Rooney’s career win ratio of 27% is hardly something to set the world alight, although there were heavily mitigating circumstances at Derby County, while DC United’s status as habitual MLS under-achievers long predated his time at the helm.
|Derby County||November 2020 – June 2022||24||22||29||28%|
|DC United||July 2022 – October 2023||14||13||26||26%|
Wayne Rooney at Derby County
After scoring 25 goals in 52 appearances for DC United, Rooney agreed a return to England as player-coach at Derby County, initially working under Phillip Cocu. After joining midway through the 2019/20 season, Rooney helped Derby to a 10th-placed finish in the Championship.
The following season, Cocu was sacked with the club bottom of the table in November 2020. Rooney was initially in interim charge as part of a four-man coaching team alongside Shay Given, Liam Rosenior and Justin Walker.
He announced his retirement from playing to become Derby’s permanent manager in January 2021 and gained plaudits for guiding the team away from the relegation zone. Their form then collapsed and County needed a dramatic 3-3 draw against Sheffield Wednesday on the final day of the season to stay up at their opponents’ expense.
In 2021/22, financial turmoil gripped Derby as the club entered administration and teetered on the brink of total collapse. They were deducted 12 points under competition rules for being in administration and a further nine for financial irregularities.
Selecting a team cobbled together from youth team graduates and free transfers, Rooney mounted an impressive battle against inevitable relegation as Derby won 14 and drew 13 of their 46 Championship fixtures.
In normal circumstances, that would have amounted to 55 points and a 17th-place finish, but it all proved in vain as they dropped down to League One in 23rd. Rooney resigned in June 2022, with Derby still in administration heading into their next season in the third tier.
Wayne Rooney at DC United
The following month he succeeded Hernan Losada as DC United boss. Rooney’s talismanic performances on the field, when he dragged DC into the MLS Cup playoffs during his first season, were still fresh in the memory and hopes were high that he could produce similar returns as head coach.
The reality proved somewhat different, with United’s results improving during Rooney’s time in charge, but only marginally. Players spoke warmly of his hands-on and motivating style, while the likes of Christian Benteke, Lewis O’Brien and Mateusz Klich stood as transfer coups.
Rooney’s pulling power for potential signings, along with further evidence of his capacity to give young players a chance and nurture their talents are factors that will have piqued Birmingham’s interest alongside his mere name.
“The recruitment of talent is vital,” Cook said in his open letter. “The team is now supported through data-enhanced decision making, with a player identification system in place enabling them to unearth hidden gems that strengthen the team and plan effectively for future transfer windows.
“In addition, we are increasing our investment in the academy which is a cornerstone of the club. This will ensure that we continue to attract and develop the best young players in our region.”
It is hard not to read those thoughts without thinking Rooney is heavily in the Blues’ mind.
What tactics does Wayne Rooney use?
Birmingham’s statement to announce Eustace’s departure, which tellingly mentioned last season’s 17th-place finish in the Championship but not the fact that Blues currently reside in the playoff places, said: “A new first team manager will be announced in the coming days who will be responsible for creating an identity and clear ‘no fear’ playing style that all Birmingham City teams will adopt and embrace.”
So, how does Rooney measure up to that lofty brief?
At Derby, Rooney had to be adaptable in turbulent circumstances. After arguably tinkering too much as the Rams slid back into relegation trouble in 2021, his lack of a dogmatic approach certainly proved to be an advantage during the administration season.
His preference was 4-2-3-1 when personnel allowed, although he would often switch to a back three to match up against opponents playing in that style.
In newspaper columns for The Times, Rooney has expressed admiration for Pep Guardiola’s style of play and painted himself as an attack-minded idealist arguing, for example, for Trent Alexander-Arnold to have a more prominent role within the England national team.
Casting himself very much in line with modern trends, Rooney instructed his Derby team to press high and do so efficiently. They were particularly effective in terms of winning the ball back in wide areas and a veteran central defensive duo Phil Jagielka and Curtis Davies were not exposed as feared by the manager’s instance upon a high line.
Industrious midfield duo Jordan Thompson and Max Bird were important in making this approach tick and Derby were a very watchable side during their bid for a great escape.
At DC United, Rooney re-assessed pretensions at implementing a beautiful game. Losada had seemingly burned his players out with a relentless high-pressing style but Rooney’s initial attempts to switch to a possession-based approach did not measure up.
His solution was a more back-to-basics style, playing slightly more directly up to Benteke. That’s not to say his DC United side were a kick-and-rush operation. They were fun to watch at times, and keeping it simple didn’t necessarily prove to be a turn-off. In fact, an emphasis on using wide areas efficiently and having an imposing, reference-point centre-forward are all moves that can be traced back to his time under the great Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Louis van Gaal, David Moyes and Fabio Capello. Rooney certainly has a rich line of experience to draw upon from the managers he played for. That enviable knowledge and insight along with a tenacity and determination to win that carries over from his time on the field will need to be carried over to Birmingham to hit the ground running.
At Derby, Rooney’s efforts were carried along by mass public sympathy related to the club’s plight. The unsavoury nature of Eustace’s sacking means any Rooney failure at St Andrews’ will be seized upon gleefully and mercilessly. It certainly marks an intriguing next chapter.