Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 25 November 2020

Wayne Rooney returns to playing duties after impressing as coach at Derby County

England and Manchester United record goalscorer makes his long-awaited return to English football

It is approaching six months since Wayne Rooney, the greatest ever goalscorer for the England national team and for Manchester United, netted his last goal.

A long ball dropped out of an Ohio night sky to him, he took a step away from his marker, and with the clarity and purpose that are second nature, drilled into the bottom corner.

Rooney was wearing the No 9 jersey and the captain’s armband of DC United, in whose colours he reminded America’s MLS that true class has a long sell-by date. He hoped people were paying attention across the Atlantic, too.

Rooney reached his mid-30s convinced that while his 16-month spell in Washington was a rewarding and productive adventure, he still had some unfinished business at home, and that English football had waved goodbye to him a little too soon.

On Thursday evening, in the colours of a club in the bottom half of the Championship, England’s second tier, Rooney will begin his homecoming, after what has seemed to him a long wait.

He signed an 18-month contract as Derby County’s player-coach in October, at the end of the MLS season, having guided DC United to the play-offs. But only with the opening of the January transfer window has his registration as a Derby player become active. The timing seems unlucky for struggling Barnsley, who are the first visitors to Pride Park in 2020.

While the other part of his job, assisting manager Phillip Cocu, has been stimulating, Rooney’s desire to be back on the pitch, in front of a crowd, has intensified.

“It has been a bit frustrating,” says Rooney, who makes little secret of his view that when he left Everton in the summer of 2018, he felt he still had much to offer as a Premier League footballer. He is only 34, boasts of having not missed a training session with any sort of injury for the best part of two years, and smiles that it’s “only different now, because I need my coffee in the morning. But that’s more to do with having four kids than football.”

The playing, he emphasises, is the principal part of his role with Derby, although the word around the club is that his input in training sessions has been valuable and his future managerial potential clear. And what Rooney has observed in the two months since he moved back to England is how rapidly the coaching ladder can be climbed.

He has seen his great ally from the United years, Ryan Giggs, guide Wales to Euro 2020, in 46-year-old Giggs’ first senior job in management. He has watched Frank Lampard, 41, and Steven Gerrard, 39, who were Rooney’s England teammates for the best part of a decade, guide Chelsea and Glasgow Rangers, in their first top-flight managerial roles, to the knockout phases of major European competitions.

And he thoroughly enjoyed watching Duncan Ferguson, once his hero when Rooney was a teenage starlet emerging through Everton’s youth system, make a success of his brief stint as Everton’s caretaker coach.

“It’s brilliant to see what they have done,” says Rooney. “Former players now have enough money that they don’t have to go into management. But with Steven, Frank, John Terry [assistant manager at Aston Villa] and Scott Parker [manager of Fulham] all involved, it’s great to see. It’s something I have always wanted to do when I stopped playing.”

That moment will come, he says, “the minute my body says I can’t do it.” As he begins his 18th year as a professional, the body is eager and the mind optimistic. "The Championship is a new challenge for me, a different league and one I've never played in. That's something which excites me, I want to get out there and push.”

Derby, regular promotion contenders in the last five years, may be in the wrong half of the table but Rooney looks at a tight Championship, at least below the top two positions, and glimpses a route back to England’s top division well in time for his 35th birthday. “Realistically, the play-offs are the aim for us," he says. “If we get a good run going we can climb within touching distance.”

Updated: January 2, 2020 12:18 PM

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