Wayne Rooney takes burgeoning managerial reputation back to DC United

Former England captain proved his critics wrong during his spell at Derby County and now returns to the MLS club where he spent a brief spell as a player

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A week on Wednesday, at Audi Field in the capital of the United States, the youngest head coach in elite club football will step up his second pre-season in charge of Bayern Munich.

Julian Nagelsmann, still only 34 but with more than six years of top-flight management to his name, hopes it will be the beginning of a campaign that ends with the lifting of the European Cup. At Bayern, a Bundesliga title is almost assumed.

Up against Nagelsmann for the friendly in Washington will be the beleaguered players of DC United, the club sitting joint-bottom of the MLS’s Eastern Conference but hopeful that a new head coach can give them an immediate lift.

DC United were on Tuesday preparing for Wayne Rooney to take over the reins, subject to completing his visa paperwork. It’s a bold appointment with great resonance given Rooney’s status in the sport and his clear ambition to become a manager chasing the same sorts of top European prizes as Nagelsmann does.

Rooney is two years older than the German, but they are worlds apart in their career trajectories. Rooney won a European Cup and five Premier League titles as a player, holds the all-time scoring record for the England national team and Manchester United; Nagelsmann never played a senior professional match.

But the German focused on coaching from his early 20s, noting that his sport was becoming more and more receptive to managers without a long resumé of playing achievements to recommend their suitability. He is the prodigy manager in a line of distinguished achievers without a past played out under floodlights and in front of big crowds, a line that includes stellar modern coaches like Arrigo Sacchi and Jose Mourinho.

Rooney was a prodigy, then a legend, as a player, but has chosen a route into management that offered few privileges, some tough learning, and plenty of evidence of his resourcefulness and ambition as a coach. He stepped down as manager of Derby County last month after close to two seasons in as testing a first taste of the job as he could have imagined.

The then Championship club, which he had joined as a high-profile player coming towards the end of his playing career, were plunged into financial problems, and would suffer a 21-point deduction and a ban on new signings. This time a year ago, while Nagelsmann was integrating €60 million of his own hand-picked new signings into Bayern’s serial Bundesliga-winning squad, Rooney was spending the transfer window trying to persuade out-of-contract footballers to join an imperilled Derby which at one stage had just 14 senior players on the roster.

He would sometimes sleep over in his office after dawn-to-dusk lobbying to push through emergency, cut-price recruitment drives, knowing that his name, his aura, might be the difference between a journeyman player saying ‘yes’ to Derby or looking for a more secure gig elsewhere.

Players and coaches who have worked with Rooney through his decorated career recognise his leadership skills - he captained United and England, was forthright in dressing-rooms - but some were sceptical about his potential as a coach. The Derby experience has changed many minds.

Were it not for the punitive points deduction that his make-do collection of mavericks and swiftly-promoted youngsters at Derby endured during a stressful 2021/22 campaign in which the club’s very existence was threatened, the club would have finished comfortably in mid-table. As it is, they were relegated to League One, but united in their respect for Rooney’s defiant efforts to keep up morale, engage with supporters and back his players.

Everton, where he began and ended his Premier League career, were impressed enough to contact him when they were sounding out replacements for Rafa Benitez last season. DC United learned enough about Rooney during his late-career spell playing for them to now identify him as the big-name but still-apprentice coach to sort out their current emergency.

How long it takes to rescue a team who have won just once in nine games, and lost 7-0 at the weekend to Philadelphia Union, remains to be seen. Whether the MLS is the shrewdest place to build his portfolio, and his declared ambitions to manage in England’s top division, perhaps one day at Manchester United, is another matter.

But he will be encouraged by recent precedents. Two of the Premier League’s managerial success stories from last season launched their senior coaching careers in the US league. Patrick Vieira, who lifted Crystal Palace up from 14th to 12th in his first management job in England, coached New York City between 2016 and 2018; Jesse Marsch, brought in at Leeds United in February to stave off the threat of relegation - he did - began his coaching career in his native US. For managers, a step across the Atlantic is no longer seen as an eccentric career path.

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Updated: July 13, 2022, 3:17 AM
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