How life in Derby is a world away for England icon Wayne Rooney

No longer Mr Big Time: No fans at the training ground, no replica kit with his name on – life in Derby is a world away for Wayne Rooney

  • Wayne Rooney has been steadily adjusting to his new life as a Derby player 
  • Current set-up is a world away from his former grandeur at Manchester United 
  • Rooney has breathed life into Derby while being deployed in a deeper position 
  • A reunion with United beckons after the teams drew each other in the FA Cup

The trappings of his former life include a driver who chauffeurs him from a rural village near Knutsford to the Derby County training ground. It is an early start — soon after 7.30am each day to reach an unremarkable east Midlands suburb by 9am and be on the training pitches by 9.30am — so there’s the chance of some sleep on the way.

But Wayne Rooney’s world is otherwise unrecognisable from anything he has known in football. No fans wait outside the training ground in east Derby, as they did at Manchester United’s Carrington for 13 years. No merchandise bears his name in the club shop because Derby do not do player-specific kit. 

At 7.30pm last Tuesday, as he warmed up inside a stone-cold Pride Park, the funereal silence was punctured by a loud visiting contingent from League Two Northampton singing a familiar and particularly unflattering song about him. That song was usually drowned out at Old Trafford.

Wayne Rooney has been steadily adjusting to his new life as a Derby player

The England legend has shown he has life remaining in his legs at 34 and remains dedicated

The spotlight will be his once more when, courtesy of Derby’s victory over Northampton, Manchester United arrive at Pride Park for an FA Cup fifth-round tie in 25 days.

He seems to savour the relative obscurity which the world beyond the Premier League offers. Just as he did in Washington DC, when walking into a Starbucks, ordering a flat white coffee and not being noticed was one of life’s new pleasures. It was his wife Coleen — up early to take the elder of their four boys, Kai and Klay, to school but then confronted with endless empty days — who developed cabin fever and wanted to get back to England.

The benefits of that return include the relatively short 80-minute drive to Derby from Cheshire — the Rooneys’ new mansion is 10 minutes from the M6 — and some tried-and-tested British theme parks. After he had flown in overnight and signed for Derby last August, he headed straight back out to join the family at Chessington World of Adventures.

He had anticipated playing for Frank Lampard — who was still manager when initial conversations with him took place in June — and for a promotion challenge, since the club had finished sixth in the previous two seasons. 

Rooney initially anticipated he would be working under Frank Lampard when he agreed to sign

But Lampard departed for Chelsea, leaving Rooney with one telephone call on which to form an assessment of his successor Phillip Cocu. West Brom’s sporting director Luke Dowling made a counter offer. Derby chairman Mel Morris says there was no attempt to negotiate wages up.

The challenges have included none of the anticipated investment from Swiss-Turk entrepreneur Henry Gabay, late payment of players’ wages in December and the sacking of the captain for his part in a drink-driving scandal. A new world, in every sense.

Derby staff have been surprised by Rooney’s commitment. His MLS duties extended until late October last year but he watched all his new team’s games in that time and spoke to Tom Lawrence and Mason Bennett, both of whom pleaded guilty to drink-driving charges after a disastrous team-bonding session in September. 

By November, two months before he was contracted to join Derby, he was showing up daily at the training ground and was a regular presence on the second row of the home dug-out on match-days.

Above all else, the 34-year-old is clearly desperate to play football, as always. The pre-match warm-ups tell the story. Rooney kicks every ball, throws himself into the rondos and, though rarely seen in the penalty box now, provides a pre-match shooting routine to savour for those in Derby’s South Stand. 

He waits in line for the moment the ball is rolled his way and scores in the corner or in off the post of a five-a-side goal virtually every time. He is yet to miss a training session and has played 90 minutes of every Derby match bar one.

Rooney pulled the strings and ran the game during an emphatic 4-0 victory over Stoke

It felt like a royal visit after he had first been driven into the Moor Farm training base in a black Mercedes Viano with tinted windows at noon on Monday, August 5. The academy players, who share the first team’s training facility, could be heard chanting ‘Roo-ney’ as he spoke to staff at the training ground bistro where he now dines daily.

But every inquiry about what kind of player-coach he is turning out to be yields the same reply: about humility and a common touch. ‘Not big time.’ His appreciation of space, angles, trajectories, the ebb and flow of a match and exploiting weakness are not something he has ever had to explain. He is doing so without any air of superiority.

‘He’ll have a conversation unrelated to football, form a connection and then, when he has something to say about a pass or positioning, it comes across,’ says one source. Cocu has observed the same. ‘During a break in the training session or afterwards, when he has observed something, he will step up and have the conversation with the player about it,’ says Cocu. ‘But he will have already got to know the player.’

Rooney is not leading coaching sessions. The agreement with Cocu is that he gets the chance to input into formation, tactics and analysis in pre-match planning sessions. Half-time intervals under Cocu sometimes involve viewing video clips which the Dutchman, not the new player-coach, talks the players through. But a transfer of knowledge takes place in plain sight, on the field. 

In a 4-0 win over Stoke, Rooney pulled the strings and ran the game in the quarterback’s role with barely perceptible gestures. On his instruction, 19-year-old Max Bird, alongside him in defensive midfield, drew a Stoke forward away and created space for a Derby throw-in taker who had no options. Another Rooney gesture saw Lawrence fractionally alter his defensive position to make the angle more difficult for a Stoke free-kick taker.

On Saturday, Rooney helped Derby to only their second away league win of the season with a 3-2 victory at Swansea and drew further praise from his manager. 

‘Wayne provides quality, a class player, he has character and can also provide a link between the technical staff and the players,’ said Cocu. 

‘When we discuss options on the pitch before the game, I only have to wave and call his name. He gives something extra to us. He speaks a lot to the young players and gives us organisation. He shows how to press and push and on which side. He provides experience, but also quality.’

Cocu says Rooney reminds him a little of Pep Guardiola, the player. And then there is his own footballing contribution. He always did have a wondrous dexterity and vision when it came to finding a pass within a confined space. At times in the past few weeks, his technical mastery has made the task look easy.

Stoke manager Michael O’Neill says: ‘He’s difficult to play against because he picks up unnatural positions at times and drifts into areas that make it difficult to get up and put pressure on him. 

‘At times he drifts into an almost left back position to get the ball which disrupts your shape trying to get pressure on him. Top players know where space is and are able to find it. He has that extra half second, that extra yard to play.’ 

His vulnerability to pace is the challenge. He will need young legs around him to stop Manchester United exploiting it. 

He glittered in the quarterback role against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup third round but was isolated as a No10 against Middlesbrough, who put two men on him.

The improvement in Bird’s game since Rooney arrived is the talk of Moor Farm, though it is Jason Knight, an 18-year-old Irish Under-21 midfielder with aggression and presence, in whom Rooney seems to see something of himself.

Derby face an EFL investigation over a possible breach of Financial Fair Play rules so the club want 50 per cent of their team to be academy players within a few years and have asked Cocu to implement a homogenous style of play spanning all teams. 

They see Rooney as someone who can improve young players and persuade parents that the club — with a pathway to the first team and the opportunity to be in the same building as him — is a better option than, say, Aston Villa or Wolves. Academy and first team are very much interconnected.

Rooney sees something of himself in 18-year-old Irish Under-21 midfielder Jason Knight (right)

He is the wise old man now. The bushy beard forms part of the persona. But the old inclination to go ballistic is still intact. Eye-witnesses describe him remonstrating in the tunnel with the fourth official about the quality of the referee, Andy Davis, after a 3-2 away defeat by bottom club Luton last month. 

‘He’s a disgrace,’ is the printable version of what Rooney said. ‘He wasn’t happy,’ says midfielder Graeme Shinnie, describing what then ensued in the dressing room. ‘He was the first to speak and he didn’t hold back. We’d conceded within a few minutes of scoring. He told us that you have to keep the ball out for 10 minutes after you score — that we had to do better.’

The positive picture has been scrambled by the controversy surrounding the deal which brought him to the club. One of Derby’s rival Championship clubs, Preston North End, have indicated that Rooney’s move was made possible when 32Red — who sponsor Preston, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Derby — told those four clubs that they would make extra funds available if they could be ‘flexible’ and ‘creative’. This prompted Derby’s idea of a ‘star player clause’ in which Rooney wears the No32 shirt.

All parties to the deal insist that Rooney is paid directly by the club and not the betting firm, though it feels like a semantic distinction. Without the betting firm’s extra investment, Rooney would not be at Pride Park on a £100,000-a-week package.

His two tiers of PR appearances — the traditional football type for the club, who are shielding him to a good extent — and the promotional work for 32Red are handled by separate teams. There has been no direct contact between him and 32Red, all parties say. 

Rooney’s new playing role has drawn parallels with Pep Guardiola during his Barcelona days

The sponsor are certainly one of the more credible bookmakers. They released a promotional video amid the initial furore in which Rooney discussed his problems with gambling. More publicity for them but the messaging was strong.

The person facing the most potential awkwardness amid all this is Cocu, who had the power of veto over Rooney’s arrival as player-coach but who you could not really imagine exercising it.

Derby had won one and lost four of their previous eight games when Rooney first stepped in against Barnsley. The joke doing the rounds that day was that he could be one of the few player-coaches to get the top job after only 90 minutes.

It helps that Cocu is comfortable in his own skin. He has captained Barcelona, speaks English, German and Spanish and the many products of his talent-spotting pedigree include Rooney’s former team-mate Park Ji-sung at PSV.

Rooney appears to look to Cocu. His habit of jogging back to the dug-out for conversations with the manager when the team have just scored is noticeable. As has been Rooney’s referencing of Sir Alex Ferguson in the past few months. Despite their differences, he seems to feel that Sir Alex’s philosophy is one to work from. ‘The big thing about joining United was Alex Ferguson. To go and play for Alex Ferguson,’ he said recently.

Rooney has a habit of jogging back to the dug-out for conversations with manager Cocu

Whether this translates into a future in management is unclear. David Moyes was most struck by Rooney’s cognitive abilities — his intelligence and powers of communication — when the two began working together again, at United in the summer of 2013. Roy Hodgson has described the same qualities. Some of the best players, though, never make the leap.

Rooney has been pursuing coaching qualifications for two years, though it remains unclear which. An FA instructor flew to the United States to oversee his progress. The notion of a future coaching role is thought to have been put to him by Everton during his 18 months back there.

Some will question the structure of the deal. Some will ask whether he has what it takes. But Rooney, one of England’s greatest players, did not need to put himself through the 7am routine. One of the jokes doing the rounds of the coaching staff at Derby last week was whether Rooney ‘might be rested for Manchester United’. It would take a brave person to do that.




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