Wayne Rooney knows all about the high stakes and nail-biting tension that accompany the final day of the season, but nothing he ever experienced with Manchester United will come close to matching the pressure he will feel as Derby County manager. Quite simply, if it all goes wrong for Rooney and Derby, his managerial career could be over after just 175 days.
A manager’s first job is usually his most important. Succeed, and you can look to climb the ladder to a bigger club or higher division, but if you fail, good luck persuading a club owner to hand a second chance to someone whose first attempt ended in relegation.
And that is the bleak prospect facing Rooney. Frank Lampard’s success in his one season in charge at Derby, when he guided the team to the Championship playoff final, propelled him to the Chelsea job in 2019, but Rooney is now fighting to survive rather than move on up due to Derby’s predicament at the bottom of the Championship.
It is a fairly simple equation for Rooney and his team. If Derby win their home game against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday (stream live on ESPN+, 7.30 a.m. ET, US only), they will avoid relegation to League One — the third tier of the English game. Lose, and Wednesday will go above them and relegate Rooney’s team. If Derby draw, they would still be relegated on goal difference if Rotherham United were to win at Cardiff City.
“We have to get our preparations right and be ready,” Rooney said following last Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Swansea. “We have to go and win the game against Sheffield Wednesday; it is as simple as that. We know what we have to do.”
However, Derby go into their make-or-break weekend having lost their last six games. Despite knowing what they have needed to do for weeks, Rooney and his players have consistently fallen short.
They have only won one of their last 14 games, taking six points from a possible 42. So whichever way you lay out the statistics, they don’t make for pleasant reading for Rooney, who initially took interim charge following the sacking of Phillip Cocu last November when the team were bottom of the table with just one win in 11 games.
There are mitigating factors, of course. Rooney inherited a losing team and his time in charge has been overshadowed by one failed takeover of the club, by Dubai-based Bin Zayed International, and another, led by Spanish agent Erik Alonso, which has been the subject of the EFL’s owners and directors test since early April.
Alonso has dismissed reports that he is planning to fund his bid by borrowing against the stadium, Pride Park, but sources have told ESPN that there is scepticism among Derby’s owners that Alonso can complete a deal.
On the pitch, the loss to injury of Polish defender Krystian Bielik, Derby’s best player, in January has been a hammer blow, while Rooney’s loan signings, including Manchester City forward Patrick Roberts and Manchester United defender Teden Mengi, have failed to make an impact. In contrast, Lampard hit the jackpot with his loan signings at Derby — Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Harry Wilson.
While Rooney cannot control off-field issues such as the takeover and even the club’s ability to attract players in the transfer market, the situation on the pitch is his responsibility and results and performances have been consistently poor.
Derby have failed to win any game this season when they have conceded first and Rooney has lost more than half of his games in charge — 18 defeats, 10 wins and 7 draws from 35 fixtures.
When he cut short his Major League Soccer stint with two seasons to run on his contract at D.C. United in 2019, it was because of the opportunity to start his coaching career at Derby under Cocu. Rooney had expressed a determination to manage and it seemed a wise move to learn the ropes under an experienced coach. He joined Derby as a player, then hung up his boots when he took over as manager.
Steven Gerrard had opted for a similar route by working as under-19 coach at Liverpool, gaining his coaching qualifications, before accepting the manager’s job at Rangers in 2018. Two years earlier, Gerrard had rejected the chance to manage MK Dons by claiming he wasn’t ready for the role. While Rooney languishes, Gerrard has led Rangers to a first Scottish league title in 10 years and they are two games away from completing an unbeaten league campaign.
Gerrard took his time and chose his first job wisely, but Rooney took the opportunity to launch his managerial career with a team rooted to the foot of the table, before he had gained his full coaching qualifications when hindsight suggests it would have been smarter to pick his moment.
Football is littered with high-profile former players taking false steps in management and many have failed to bounce back from failure in their first job.
Gary Neville has not returned to management since being sacked following just 28 games in charge of Valencia in 2016, while Alan Shearer’s managerial career started and ended with relegation as interim manager at Newcastle United in 2009.
Paul Scholes lasted just 31 days in charge of Oldham Athletic in 2019, while Thierry Henry’s 20-game spell in charge of Monaco in 2018-19 ended with the sack after just four wins in charge. The Frenchman attempted to relaunch his managerial career in MLS with Montreal Impact, but left earlier this year after 15 months in charge due to family reasons.
If Rooney’s first managerial role ends with relegation and dismissal at Derby, he only has to look at Neville, Scholes, Shearer and Henry to realise what lies ahead.
Failure in your first job means your second is likely to be less attractive, if that opportunity even comes along. So the stakes are unquestionably high for Rooney on Saturday — his managerial career may rest on his next 90 minutes.