Sunday 15 December 2019

Brave new world beckons for Rooney

Next phase: Wayne Rooney
Next phase: Wayne Rooney

Sam Wallace

The end of the last international break of the year, into the long winter that can break a team, or their manager, and little seems as engrossing as the reality that we are one Phillip Cocu sacking away from the launch of Wayne Rooney's career in management.

The big man is back, to recall the unforgettable first recorded usage of the phrase in an England camp when Rooney announced his belated arrival at the team's German World Cup base in the summer of 2006. Thirteen years later, at St George's Park last week, Raheem Sterling asked a similar question rhetorically of Joe Gomez. You think you're the big man? Back in the Black Forest 13 years ago, no one had to ask. It was Rooney and he was 20 at the time.

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There was a hero's welcome for him at half-time at Wembley Stadium on Thursday night, even though the ensemble of England legends on the pitch included Paul Gascoigne, one man whose universal popularity with the support could withstand anything. The Football Association's stadium presenter clearly considered a live interview with Gascoigne a risk too far, and so it was Rooney who was asked what it meant to play for one's country and all that.

He has always struggled to articulate in words the essence of being so wondrously articulate in both feet. The emotions evoked by the game tend to be better expressed by lesser footballers because, for Rooney, a career at the very top has come so easy, as a child, and then a man-child, and then a man. He is the ultimate prodigy who was destined to be a professional footballer from the moment he had a ball at his toes. When the extraordinary has always come so easy, it is hard to see it the way everyone else does.

For the first time in his life there is now a new dimension to the game Rooney played better than any of his English peers. At Derby, he will be a player-coach at a club who could soon be fighting relegation from the Championship, in the midst of sacking their captain for his part in a drink-driving scandal, overseen by a manager who has spent less than five months in English football. Cocu might be the manager but Rooney will occupy a position unlike any other at the club. How to describe it?

You might say he feels like the big man.

A Premier League debut at 16, an England debut at 17, a record signing for Manchester United at 18, a hair transplant at 25, 100 caps at 29, and in Major League Soccer at 32 - this has always felt like a life on fast forward. Rooney has been skipped through the usual career stages by virtue of his precocity. He was in the Everton under 19s team at 15. He never played a single game for England under 21s because, quite frankly, what was the point? A career in management, nonetheless, rarely offers that form of rapid advancement.

Rooney has always said he wants to be a manager, and when he spent time at Derby this week the club were pleasantly surprised at the extent of his preparation. He has watched all his new team's games while in the United States. He has already spoken to Tom Lawrence and Mason Bennett, both of whom pleaded guilty to drink-driving charges after a team bonding session-turned-general catastrophe last month. Rooney cannot play for Derby until January 1 but he is scheduled to take up his coaching duties at the start of next month, and already his presence is being felt.

Come the new year, one expects there will be some Championship goalkeepers caught out by the unimprovable precision of Rooney's striking range. It was always a personal view that when he departed for whatever it is the MLS offers, Rooney had much more to offer in English football, and that a dip into the Championship would be perfect for his intensely competitive instincts. For someone whose mastery of the technical aspects of the game is so good, the football will be easy. As for the management, we wait to see.

There has always been part of Rooney, closed off to public view, to which his team-mates have testified: the open, joke-cracking soul who might announce his late arrival at a World Cup camp with a tongue-in-cheek remark and his confidence high. He will be an easy bridge from Cocu to his players but what if Cocu cannot turn Derby around and the club's owner, Mel Morris, decides it is Rooney's time to lead the team?

Rooney has a breadth of experience unparalleled in the modern game. There have been many bumps along the way but generally the conventional prejudices about him have always been defied.

There were some who predicted that he would not be playing beyond 25 let alone go all the way to break goalscoring records for United and England. It is why it is hard to write him off as a manager, yet this conversion is the challenge that has often eluded the most talented players.

For most of his playing days Rooney delighted in understanding things about the game that no one else did, a knowledge of the space and trajectories that required no explaining to him. He could be arguing with a referee one moment and lashing a volley past the opposition goalkeeper the next. He could take control of a game in an instant. If you asked him how he did it, he could probably not even tell you. But he understood the ebb and flow of a match and the weaknesses in the opposition better than anyone.

How Rooney goes about transforming himself into a manager will be his greatest challenge. Thursday's cavalcade of nostalgia for the famous names of England's past was a reminder that, for the most part, the country's most celebrated players have failed as managers, or not even tried at all.

That Rooney is ready to try, after all he did as a player, tells you that he might surprise a lot of people all over again.


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