When Wayne Rooney was told his time as Birmingham City manager was over after just 15 games, he was shocked.
After signing a three-and-a-half-year contract, the former England striker was under the impression that he had joined a long-term project. Rooney had enjoyed an open dialogue with the club’s hierarchy, including chief executive Garry Cook and director of football Craig Gardner, and there was no indication that their faith in him was failing.
Birmingham won only two of Rooney’s 15 games, but even after their most recent defeat, to Leeds United on New Year’s Day, he had spoken optimistically of being a “fighter” who would not shirk the challenge of rescuing the team from his plummet. That run had seen Birmingham slip from sixth to 20th place in the Championship table, just six points above the relegation zone.
City fans had never warmed to Rooney after he replaced the popular John Eustace and at the end of Monday’s game their chants of “Wayne Rooney, get out of our club” left no one in any doubt that they had made up their minds. Less than 24 hours later, the club’s directors had reached the same conclusion.
They told Birmingham players as they arrived at the club’s temporary training ground in Henley-in-Arden yesterday morning. Once again, the news was received with surprise, but perhaps also with some relief.
Rooney had been tasked with reinventing a group of players who had earned a reputation for playing on the counter-attack, being well organized and difficult to beat under Eustace, into a possession-based attacking team that had to be brave. with the ball. It clearly wasn’t working.
The team had deemed Eustace’s dismissal unnecessary. He was an honest and hard-working manager who had led the club through difficult times under the previous owner, but the players had tried to adopt the new approach of Rooney and his new but relatively inexperienced backroom staff, which included former Chelsea defender Ashley. John O’Shea, former teammate of Cole and Rooney at Manchester United.
There was no evidence that the players were not playing for Rooney and there were moments, such as the 2-2 draw at home against Ipswich Town and the 1-0 win at Cardiff City, when things seemed destined to fall into place. But there were very few of these moments to appease a disgruntled fan base who saw a team lacking structure and seemingly confused or unable to play the way Rooney wanted them to.
Why Birmingham hired Wayne Rooney to replace John Eustace
Rooney was not unpopular with his players, despite the results and some strong public criticism of them by the coach. Rooney had occasionally questioned the ability of his team. mental strength, skill and even personal pride, comments that had hurt some of them. After the Leeds game, Rooney said the team was in desperate need of an overhaul and that recalibrating it to play the way he wanted would take more than one transfer window.
Like many great players who become coaches, Rooney became increasingly frustrated when his players seemed unable to do what he found simple and natural on the field.
However, he was not particularly interventionist during the training sessions. Instead, Rooney took on more of an observational task, leaving most of the work to his assistant Carl Robinson, who had worked with him in MLS at DC United, and O’Shea, while Cole would work on the plays. a set piece.
Rooney intervened when he saw something he wanted to change or when he wanted to insist on a point. But there was surprise among some that, considering his illustrious career, Rooney was not more hands-on, especially with attacking players. Very few members of the team improved during Rooney’s tenure, with the exception of midfielder Jordan James.
Rooney was not helped by injuries to some of his best players, such as summer recruits Ethan Laird and Tyler Roberts, or a drop in form to some of his senior players, such as goalkeeper John Ruddy and captain Dion Sanderson, but Rooney struggled to recover. The rest of his group was completely on board with the game plans, which changed frequently as he simplified them over and over again.
Although there might have seemed to be improvements in the displays against Cardiff, Leicester City and Plymouth Argyle, the home displays against Stoke City on Boxing Day and then against Bristol City, when there were verbal altercations between some of their staff and fans, and Rooney. he was booed-it left his future in jeopardy. When the away fans turned on him at Leeds, his fate was effectively sealed.
The Birmingham team were asked to drastically change their approach, to move away from a style that was believed in by the players but not by the club’s hierarchy. He may not have been pleasant at times under Eustace, but this season he has proven to be effective.
Eustace’s dismissal was not motivated by a desire to bring in Rooney, but because after failing to finish higher than 17th in the previous five seasons, they wanted the team to play fearless football. Eustace considered him premature for a young group of players who were just getting used to a way of playing that he considered best suited for them.
However, even Rooney quickly realized he had to adjust his ambition as his players struggled to implement their game plan with his full-backs playing high and wide and his defenders playing out from the back.
That attacking approach had completely changed by the time of Bristol City’s game against St Andrew’s, a drab goalless draw. Rooney later admitted that he had prepared his team not to concede three goals in each of their previous three games.
Before Christmas, Rooney had invited several journalists to attend the final preparation session before the trip to Cardiff, which marked one of his two victories. He insisted that his players could do what he asked of them in training, but that on game days they made too many mistakes, again insinuating that the problem was more psychological than technical.
He was probably right about some within the team because while some wanted to move on, there was also a feeling that some were slowly moving forward during the season.
Several players missed their annual Christmas party in early December, feeling it was inappropriate considering their poor form. While the team was not divided, it had little confidence. In the end, Rooney failed to foster positivity.
While some may welcome his departure, there are still many staff at the training ground who retain some sympathy for Rooney, who was visible, friendly and approachable. The feeling was that he didn’t have the players to fulfill the assignment and it would take several transfer windows (and a lot of money) to rectify that.
One of the priorities of the club’s new owners, Knighthead Capital Management, is to reconnect the club with fans after years of mismanagement. They hoped Rooney’s appointment would do that. Instead, trust has already been fractured.
The next decision they make must be the right one, and not just because Birmingham, the longest-serving Championship club, once again find themselves in a precarious position.
Cook spent yesterday evaluating managerial options, but no candidate is waiting to step in. Professional development coach Steve Spooner will take charge of the FA Cup trip to Hull City on Saturday, assisted by Cole, O’Shea and Pete Shuttleworth, but the need to start picking up points is becoming more urgent. They will want to have their new man in place when they return to league action against Swansea City on January 13.
Steve Cooper and former Birmingham defender Graham Potter are available and have Premier League skills but are highly unlikely to want the job. Eustace, meanwhile, would be open to the idea of a quick return, but Birmingham are not expected to bring him back.
England Under-21 head coach Lee Carsley could be a candidate who ticks many of the boxes. Born in Birmingham, the 49-year-old has played and coached at the club in the past and would be popular with fans. The way he plays his young English team is also in line with the club’s vision and he has experience coaching young players. Cole also works with Carsley in the England set-up.
Carsley may not have Rooney’s star power, which could help raise the club’s profile and contribute to revenue growth, but as Birmingham should have learned by now, this is a club that needs substance, not style.
Rooney should take his first break in 22 years after leaving Birmingham City
(Top photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)