"I'm worried," Wayne Rooney said one afternoon at the beginning of March. "The players are worried. The staff are worried." Across the table, half a dozen local reporters sat quietly. They looked worried too.
One of the most accomplished players in the history of the Premier League, the player who has scored the most goals for both England and Manchester United, Rooney now manages Derby County, a storied club facing relegation from the second-tier EFL Championship. As he spoke that day, Derby sat five points from safety, with a challenging game at Bournemouth up next. Because of COVID-19, it was Rooney's first live event with the media at the team's training center since his tenure as manager began more than a year ago. And there was a lot to talk about.
Rooney is only 36, but there is gray in his beard. His look is fleshy and middle-aged, heading toward Ernest Hemingway. He came to Derby County as a player in early 2020 in a surprising move from Major League Soccer side D.C. United. Step by step, he'd been sliding down the football pyramid after 13 marvelous seasons at Manchester United.
For nearly two decades, since his first Premier League appearance at age 16 for Everton, he had worked and played to his full capacity. It had taken a toll. He was only 34 when he arrived in Derbyshire to play and help with the coaching, but his was an old 34, like a late-model rental car that has been driven hard week after week. It still looks shiny. But when you turn the key, it hardly moves.
Though Rooney's skills were fading, his resolve wasn't. He scored just six times in the 24 games that remained in the 2019-20 season, but his presence lifted everyone around him.
"As a teammate, he was a great leader," Derby midfielder Max Bird said. "In the changing room, on the training ground, on a match day. My goal every day was to impress him."
Once the delayed 2020-21 season began that September, Derby won just one of its first 15 games. With the club at the bottom of the table, manager Phillip Cocu departed. The list of possible successors included Rafa Benitez and Eddie Howe, but Rooney's inspirational influence hadn't gone unnoticed.
And in truth, the situation was dire. There wasn't time for someone to come in and work out what to do.
"Wayne knew the older players and the younger players," defender Curtis Davies said. "It was just a case of molding us in the way that he wanted us to play."
Though Rooney hadn't managed before, Derby rallied spectacularly. Then it slumped. However, a 3-3 draw against Sheffield Wednesday on the season's last day was enough for it to stay up.
A year later, Derby is back in trouble. With five games left in the season, it finds itself second from bottom, nine points from safety, with the mathematics of the situation closing in. Over 122 seasons, the club has spent just four outside England's top two divisions. Relegation is unthinkable. And yet, that isn't even the most pressing of Rooney's concerns.
Derby County's woes are existential. There is no money. Mel Morris, who became rich backing the Candy Crush Saga app, bought the club in 2015. Since then, he has spent his Candy Crush windfall both liberally and unwisely. "It's what any football fan would want," said Jim Wheeler, the chairman of RamsTrust, the club's most important supporters' group. "A multimillionaire owner who has been a supporter all his life and wants to make us successful. He wanted to be the man who took Derby back to the Premier League. ... And he gambled. And he lost."
At the end of last season, the club was penalized nine points for losses that exceeded financial fair play limits. Then Morris -- who already had sold himself Pride Park, Derby County's stadium, as a means to invest another $100 million -- put the club into administration. That mandated a further 12-point deduction. In simple terms, the first 21 points Derby accumulated this season would merely get the club back to zero.
Wages were capped and incoming transfers forbidden. Players were transferred to help pay bills. Relegation seemed inevitable. Somehow, though, Rooney has managed to keep the team within a shout of safety. Despite a far weaker squad than the one that almost went down a year ago, Derby has managed 12 wins and 13 draws in 41 matches. Without the penalties, the club would be closer to getting promoted than going down.
For weeks, Derby seemed close to getting new ownership. But one after another, the leading contenders withdrew from the process. Their reasons are the subject of much speculation. Perhaps the demands of the bankruptcy administrators were unreasonable, or Morris' unwillingness to return Pride Park to the club made the terms unpalatable. At this point, the crucial question is less whether the club can remain in the Championship than whether it can continue to exist at all.
And if it does, who will play for it? To raise funds, the administrators have transferred or released 11 players since the January window. Only a few others remain under contract for next season. With each day that passes, the future gets bleaker.
"We don't know if we've got a kit for next season," Rooney said. "We don't know if we've got a pitch. We certainly don't have enough players."
Little more than a year ago, Rooney had never managed a game. From nowhere, he is essentially being asked to save a football club. The managing has become the easy part. "As soon as the game finishes," he said, "we're back to this."
He shook his head. His blue eyes shone.
"There's no hiding from it," he said softly. "There's no point sitting here and saying everything is great."
After that, it was hard for anyone to work up much enthusiasm for the Bournemouth game. Rooney said a few perfunctory words about it. Then he smiled and thanked everyone for coming. Later that day, word came that Derby County had received a $2.5 million transfer fee that allowed winger Kamil Jozwiak to sign with MLS expansion side Charlotte FC. It would help meet the payroll for a few more weeks.
Rooney's success as a manager has taken most observers by surprise. For years, he could barely manage himself.
"He was a street footballer," said John O'Shea, a former Manchester United teammate who now coaches Ireland's U21s. "And a street fighter, probably."
On the field, Rooney was red-carded in a quarterfinal of the 2006 World Cup, suspended after swearing into a television camera and banned for two matches of the 2012 Euros after kicking an opponent. Off it, he was arrested for drunken driving in Cheshire and public intoxication at Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C., while periodically getting caught in scandals and extramarital affairs.
Yet all along, it turns out, he had a managerial career in his sights. Since the beginning, as a 16-year-old at Everton, he has absorbed as much information as he could. "I've always been a thinker of the game," he says now. "I'm a lot cleverer than people realize."
After Everton, he moved to Man United. From 2004 to 2017, he not only won five Premier Leagues, a Champions League and an FA Cup but also played alongside perhaps the most accomplished group of teammates in the history of football.
Of all of them, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick and the Nevilles and Paul Scholes and the rest, he seemed perhaps the least likely to have a coaching career. It was far easier to imagine him as the lord of the manor, trotting out to some vast backyard to teach one of his four kids how to bend a free kick. Then he'd watch the weekend games with his childhood mates and a flow of beer.
Rooney had a different vision. It was his interest in managing that led him back to Everton from Manchester United, and then on to MLS. He wanted to understand how football worked at its various levels, and to play for as many managers as possible. "I was always asking questions," he said. "I wanted to find out why you make this decision or that decision."
Even at his most boorish, Rooney never put on airs. He was always the fun-loving, good-natured kid from Croxteth, a rather grim neighborhood in deepest Liverpool. He thrived at Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs in the world. But when D.C. United traveled to games on commercial Southwest flights, that suited him too. He'd chat up the flight attendant, drink a beer and dive into some football videos on his iPad.
On one trip, Rooney landed in a middle seat next to a woman who asked what he did for a living. Rooney told her he played soccer. "That's terrific," she responded. "My son plays. But don't you need another job?" If it seemed like a long way from Old Trafford, Rooney never let on.
In less than two seasons in MLS, Rooney scored 43 goals and energized the franchise. His decision to leave D.C. for Derby County in August 2019 was met there with dismay. In terms of visibility, marketing, even the level of competition, it seemed illogical. But Rooney was looking down the road. He knew if he was to manage, he'd need to begin there, or thereabouts.
"Football is a game where opportunities come up," he explained. "It is a step toward the next chapter of my career."
One of the original founding members of the Football League in 1888, Derby County is set in a city of a quarter-million inhabitants in England's agricultural East Midlands. Over the years, the team was sometimes very good, occasionally poor, rarely dull. In 1972, the famous and infamous Brian Clough led the club to the First Division title, the precursor to the Premier League. The next year, he took it all the way to the European Cup semifinals.
The mercurial Robert Maxwell -- who owned the Daily Mirror, stole money from his own pension fund and is suspected of spying for Russia -- helped save Derby County from bankruptcy in 1984. He kept it until 1991, the year he died. Later, Morris came along and spent his way back into insolvency, including vast sums on players you wouldn't put in your team if you found them sitting on your doorstep.
"Take away the sackings, the courtroom battles, the financial collapses, the wrath of foreign imports...the car crashes, the prison sentences, and what do you have?" Ryan Hills wrote in "Pride," his book on Derby County. "Just a standard, normal football club."
To Rooney, Derby County represented opportunity. He could hone his leadership skills, then segue into management. From the start, he was a force in the changing room.
"When I knew him as a player, he was brutal," recalls Steve Watson, a teammate of the young Rooney at Everton. "If the standards weren't met on the pitch, he would let anybody know."
He hadn't changed. His demands at Derby were simple and unstated: play football with the same drive and desire that he did. When avoidable goals led to a loss away at Luton, he let his anger show. "He came in after the game, he booted a table and went ballistic at everyone," recounted Bird, smiling. "The next game, we won 4-0."
Shouting and raging all those years, Rooney insists he wasn't nearly as out of control as he appeared. It was how he pulled the best from himself. "But I could switch it off," he says.
As a manager, he has worked on limiting those outbursts. He understands that standing in front of a team is an entirely different vantage point from sitting in front of a locker. "When you're managing, you're responsible for everyone," he said. "Everyone's looking to you. So you have to act in a certain way."
"As a player, he was on the edge," said O'Shea, who talks regularly with Rooney. "That's the thing that impresses me the most about him now, seeing him at the training ground or on the pitch. He's got a great calmness about him."
On the touchline, Rooney looks like every manager he ever had. His arms folded at his chest or clasped behind his back, he shouts encouragement. Only occasionally, after a particularly thoughtless or uninspired play, will he drop his head in frustration.
What's different is that he consults with assistants continuously, inside and outside the coaches' box. At the time that Cocu left, Rooney was initially promoted as part of a leadership council of four equal co-managers, each of whom brought a different perspective.
"It was a strange situation," said Liam Rosenior, who was one of the four. "None of us knew who the manager was. And I'm ambitious, and Wayne's ambitious. But we all sat down in a hotel room and figured it out."
After two months, Rooney was awarded the position. One of the three others departed. The remaining two now serve as Rooney's assistants. Justin Walker, who is a decade older than Rooney, coached many of Derby County's young players as they advanced through the club's academy. In 2018-19, his U18s won the title. Rosenior, 36, immerses himself in strategy and tactics. Rooney handles motivation.
"Our biggest challenge was getting the players to believe in themselves and their teammates," Rooney said. "Not only to compete in the Championship, which is one of the hardest divisions in the world. But to deduct 21 points and still stay in the division. We still have a lot of work in order to do that, but the players know my expectations."
Those include working hard and at least attempting to implement the tactics that the coaching staff has devised. If the majority of the team does that, Rooney can accept the outcome and stay positive. "He's very philosophical in the way he thinks about games," Davies said. "Even if he's disappointed, he tries to hold his tongue and look at the big picture instead of ranting and raving."
"When they've let themselves down, they know," Rooney said. "They don't need me to scream in their face."
Rosenior has been a steadying influence. His father, Leroy, managed four clubs and the national team of Sierra Leone. Even before he was a teenager, Liam would sit at his side and help devise set plays. He was hired by Cocu, but stayed on after Rooney became manager because they got along so well.
"We just clicked," Rosenior said. "We have the same values. Before anything about tactics or even football philosophy, we want a group of players and staff to come in and enjoy what they do every day. To trust the process. And to be loyal to something bigger than themselves."
The approach has worked. "The atmosphere within the club, both the players and the staff, is the best I've seen anywhere in a long time," Rosenior added.
The mindset of banding together against long odds is crucial to Derby County's success, so Rooney constantly monitors the mood of the club.
"We'll be eating lunch and he'll be looking over at a player," Rosenior said. "He'll say, 'I need to speak to him. Something's up. The way he's eating his food -- he doesn't normally eat like that.' That's the level of detail he'll go into. He can just smell it in people. It's a gift."
It isn't just the players. Rooney inquires about the coaches, the fitness staff, even the laundry lady. "There's a depth to his character," Rosenior said. "There's an empathy. A soft side to him that I don't think has been reflected. And actually, that has been his greatest strength."
The all-but-hopeless situation actually might be ideal for a rookie manager who knows the world is watching.
"It's the perfect stage," said Watson, who now manages at Chester. "If he'd been given a job where the expectation levels were enormous, it may well have been a very different start. But what he's been given is a complete battle, and he's proven time and time again with the amount of comebacks he's made from bad publicity and bad spells that that's how he thrives. He has created a siege mentality to where they are absolutely all together."
That's why when Everton fired Benitez earlier this season and made an initial approach to Rooney's agent about the position, all of Pride Park appeared to totter. Like Frank Lampard, who in 2019 had left for Chelsea after just one season at Derby County, Rooney was positioned to move to the Premier League a year into his managerial career. And Everton was his boyhood club.
Rooney insists that he cut off negotiations before they could become serious. Would he be interested in someday managing Everton, which ended up hiring Lampard? "Of course," he says now. But for his entire Derby tenure, he'd been preaching the importance of sticking together no matter the situation. "I don't think it would have been a great message if I had just left," he added.
As currently constituted, Derby is both old and quite young. There are three players around Rooney's age, 11 of them 21 or younger, and not many between. Rooney uses the veterans, such as Davies and Colin Kazim-Richards, to impart wisdom to their younger teammates.
"He'll give us some snippets to maybe give to the group," Davies said.
On the field, the dichotomy doesn't work as well. Very few of Derby's players, with the notable exception of top scorer Tom Lawrence and goalkeeper Ryan Allsop, are in their prime. That means that the club is forced to use a stylistic approach, mostly crafted by Rosenior, that isn't exactly thrilling football.
Rooney the player surely would have bristled at how often balls are immediately sent back to Allsop after a change in possession, often from the far side of the center line. But the Pride Park fans, who faithfully back Rooney, appear to understand that such an approach -- send the ball backward, then boot it downfield and out of trouble -- can help an undermanned team steal a point, or occasionally all three.
Rooney's side dominated possession at Bournemouth, a team that seems destined to return to the Premier League, without managing to score. The tight knot of away supporters chanted "Wayne Rooney! Wayne Rooney!" But there wasn't much that Rooney could do.
"You look at the two squads, and the difference in value in the two squads," he said after Derby lost the game 2-0. "Really, we shouldn't be on the same pitch."
Still, dull football is far better than no football. Even if a suitor steps up to save the club in the coming days, a change in ownership is likely to be freighted with additional restrictions -- both to make sure the club is run sustainably and as a punishment to deter future indiscretions. If Derby somehow doesn't get relegated in the coming weeks and survives to play next season, surely it will happen then.
And when it does, says Wheeler, the head of the club's supporters, it would be unfair to expect Rooney to stay.
"At the moment, his stock is really high," Wheeler added. "People respect what he's done at Derby. He needs to be allowed to take advantage of that."
It's why the supporters keep cheering despite the grimness of the situation. Chanting "Wayne Rooney! Wayne Rooney!" will be the best it gets for a while.