Wayne Rooney talks Ferguson, United, Everton and his role at Derby

Now I’m a coach I know the real reason Fergie kept having a go at me! Wayne Rooney hails impact Sir Alex Ferguson had on his career at Manchester United as he prepares to face former side with Derby County in FA Cup

  • Now a player-coach, Wayne Rooney understands Sir Alex Ferguson even more
  • Working under the legendary Scot at Manchester United proved an education
  • Ferguson’s methods have extra meaning now Rooney is working to be a coach
  • Rooney comes up against his former side when United face Derby in the FA Cup 

It’s when Wayne Rooney is asked whether any of Sir Alex Ferguson’s old man-management ruses make more sense to him, now he is a player-coach, that the first smile breaks out.

‘I know what you’re saying,’ he replies. ‘I always remember as a kid, every half-time, arguing with him, constantly. I remember thinking, “Why does he keep having a go at me? There’s players far worse than I’ve been!” Then the older you get, the more you realise why he’s doing it. He’s obviously aiming at other players who can’t take it….’

The ‘other’ he has in mind is Nani, a player Ferguson once called ‘pure raw material’ but who had a habit of dribbling when a pass was required at times.  

Wayne Rooney is now a player-coach at Derby County who is influenced by Sir Alex Ferguson

Rooney reflects on working under the fiery Scot as the ‘best I’ve ever seen’ in management

‘He would have a go at me for dribbling,’ Rooney says, continuing the Ferguson train of thought. ‘I very rarely dribble… well, I dribbled a bit more then… but [with] Nani, it would just maybe trigger something in [his] head, thinking, “Oh maybe I shouldn’t dribble as much.” He knew how to get that message across without being… without losing it. If he spoke to Nani the way he spoke to me, he’d break down in tears. He wouldn’t be able to go back out!’

This assessment is accurate, needless to say. 

One of the post-match utterances Ferguson most regretted was a negative comment about Nani after United had lost 5-4 to Chelsea in a League Cup game in 2012. Rooney, though, could take anything Ferguson gave him and return it with interest.

‘It was good – and for me as well,’ he says, grasping for a way of defining the pleasure of those days which already seem to belong in a different lifetime. 

‘I enjoyed it. As players, you want to win and of course you have to be respectful. He was the manager. But the one thing which never happened, it never got carried on. The game was over, we forgot about it and moved on.’

Rooney’s referencing of Ferguson has been one of the most striking aspects of his venture across the coaching frontier at Derby County where – with one of those delicious twists that football provides – he will face United in the FA Cup 5th Round on Thursday night.

There can be no disguising that it did not end well between the two of them. Rooney was dropped so frequently by Ferguson during the Scot’s last season that he asked to leave, the day after the team last won the Premier League, seven years ago. 

He was not even in the squad 20 days later for Ferguson’s Old Trafford swansong against Swansea City. The great manager’s autobiography creates a sad and indelible sense that Ferguson never quite forgave Rooney for publicly asking to leave United in the autumn of 2010.

It is telling that Rooney cites that episode when asked for his United ‘lows’, during a quick-fire round of questions at the end of this interview. 

‘There was obviously the time when I nearly left the club,’ he says. ‘Which I regret.’ But it may be even more gratifying for the 78-year-old to find Rooney citing his old ways of understanding the individual while managing him as a footballer.

‘I think it’s important you get to know the person,’ Rooney says. ‘Obviously, you see them as players but it’s important you get to know them as characters – as a person – and then make a decision how you are going to [approach them]. You know – if you’re going to have a go at them, if you’re going to put your arm around them. The man management, I think is really important.’

Rooney picks out his fall-out with Ferguson at the end as one of his lows at Manchester United

The 2012-13 Premier League title Rooney lifted was the last time United managed to win it

Derby’s players already attest to this being the way he does things. ‘We talk a lot about football but not always the football he wants to see in the team. He get to know you, too,’ says Max Bird, arguably the most improved Derby player since Rooney arrived and began operating alongside him at the back of midfield.

The 34-year-old’s world has turned in so many ways. He was asked to be a studio guest for United’s match at Everton on Sunday, though concluded on second thoughts that tactically dissecting Thursday’s opponents on national television was not ideal. He watched on TV instead.

‘It’s a bit different now,’ he says. ‘I was looking at how United set up and looking at maybe where their weaknesses are, where we can hurt them.’ Making notes, then? ‘Yeah – just obviously in preparation for the game.’

He now appreciates the risks attached to chipping in with a tactical contribution, too. ‘I think the one [big difference] is that you sometimes make a suggestion on players to play, or you make a suggestion on how we should play or a set-piece and you’re thinking: “I hope this works!” Of course they don’t always pay off.’

It has helped Rooney’s integration that Derby’s phlegmatic Dutch manager Phillip Cocu is collegiate, comfortable in his own skin and clearly not threatened by his presence. ‘He’s open to that [input], of course, and with all the staff,’ Rooney says. ‘I think the best managers do. You can’t be naive and think “I’m going to do it all my own way.”‘

Rooney has come in and helped the younger players at Derby as he coaches on the pitch

His performance at Sheffield Wednesday recently was hailed and he remains a player at heart

Rooney’s tendency to run to the bench while team-mates celebrate a goal signifies the new contribution – though not always. ‘The lads were too far away! I was just getting a drink and waiting for them to come back,’ he says of one such occasion.

He’s a player at heart though. The settings here are more prosaic. A parents’ day for prospective academy players is the dominant event of the day at the training ground, where he walks into a room to talk wearing sandals identified as his by initials scrawled in pen. But he’s glittered in the quarter back role – always denied him by Jose Mourinho at United – where his stellar display in victory at Sheffield Wednesday five days ago was typical of many. 

There’s the same old appreciation of space, angles, trajectories, the ebb and flow of a match and how to exploiting weakness. All of it intuitive.

‘I think some people think playing midfield is more demanding but it is more about having the endurance,’ he says. 

‘There’s not as much high-speed running, so that’s not a problem. Then it is about trying to get on the ball and trying to drag players out of position. A lot of the games teams try to put players on me, they have in a few of the games which allows me to drag them out of position and leave space.’

It’s actually more complicated than that. ‘He picks up unnatural positions and drifts into areas that make it difficult to get up and put pressure on him. He disrupts your shape,’ Stoke manager Michael O’Neill said on a recent night when Rooney had carved his team apart, too.

His first goal arrived with a ‘panenka’ penalty against Fulham at Pride Park on February 21

Acting in a quarterback role with Derby, Rooney is thriving at the back of the club’s midfield

He will need legs around him on Thursday as United will challenge him with a pace displayed by few sides in a fairly average Championship this season. ‘It’s not a game where we are going to be fearing Manchester United,’ he insists of his old team. ‘We need to go onto this game believing we have a chance.’

There will be satisfaction in demonstrating to a national audience that the flame still burns. And, to Everton that they owed him more than an ignominious exit after one season back at the club. He spent three frustrating months trying to establish if owner Farhad Moshiri actually wanted him there. That rankles, he admits.

‘It was a big thing for me to go back there. There were things that got said, or didn’t get said. All I wanted from Everton was a bit of honesty with the situation. I said to them “I’m not a child, I’ll accept whatever you want to happen here.” That was the only disappointment. But Everton is a fantastic club.’

Thoughts are moving to a life beyond the pitch now, though. ‘That’s life, unfortunately! I… preferred it [to be as it was] ten years ago,’ he reflects. ‘We all get older. You have to move into something different. I can’t play forever. I love the game and I want to stay in it so this is where I am. I want to learn. 

‘I think it’s a shame when you see great players walking away and not really having a go at management or coaching.’

The homecoming to Everton ended sourly and Rooney reflects on the ‘disappointment’ of that

By July, he aims to have completed his UEFA ‘A’ License, which will involve work at St George’s Park this summer, and then apply for a place on the Pro License course next January.

Whether this translates into a future in management is unclear, of course. The development of Bird, whom Rooney sees as future England material, and Jason Knight, an 18-year-old Irish Under-21 midfielder provide initial testament to his capacity to pass on some of what he has and to inspire. But you can’t teach the talent that he has brought to the game.

As groundings go, a dressing room seat in front of Ferguson for 13 years is not too shabby. 

‘I don’t think you will get better than how he managed his players and the trust he gave them to manage the dressing room themselves,’ Rooney says of the man who brought him his greatest days in football. ‘That management. It’s the best I’ve ever seen.’


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