When Wayne Rooney was told his time as Birmingham City manager was up after just 15 games, he was shocked.
Having signed a three-and-a-half-year contract, the former England striker felt he had signed up to a long-term project. Rooney had had open dialogue with the club’s hierarchy – including chief executive Garry Cook and director of football Craig Gardner – and there had been no indication that their trust in him was waning.
Birmingham won just two of Rooney’s 15 games, but even after their most recent defeat, against Leeds United on New Year’s Day, he spoke optimistically of being a “fighter” who would not shy away from the challenge of saving the team since its collapse. That run had seen Birmingham slip from sixth to 20th in the Championship table, just six points above the relegation zone.
City fans had never warmed to Rooney since replacing the popular John Eustace and by the end of Monday’s match, their cries of “Wayne Rooney, get out of our club” left no doubt that their minds had been turned decision. Less than 24 hours later, club officials had reached the same conclusion.
Birmingham’s players were informed yesterday morning when they arrived at the club’s temporary training ground in Henley-in-Arden. Once again the news was greeted with surprise but perhaps also with a certain relief.
Rooney had been tasked with reinventing a group of players who had developed a reputation for playing on the counter-attack, for being well organized and difficult to beat under Eustace, into a possession-based attacking team that needed to be brave on the ball. Clearly it wasn’t working.
The team had felt that Eustace’s firing had been unnecessary. He was an honest, hard-working manager who had managed the club through difficult times under previous ownership, but the players had sought to embrace the new approach of Rooney and his new but relatively inexperienced backroom staff, which included the former Chelsea’s Ashley Cole and Rooney’s former Manchester United teammate John O’Shea.
There was no evidence that the players were not playing for Rooney and there were moments, such as the 2-2 home draw against Ipswich Town and the 1-0 win against Cardiff City, when things looked set to work. But there were too few of these moments to appease an unhappy fanbase who saw a team lacking structure and seemingly confused or incapable of playing the way Rooney wanted.
Why Birmingham chose Wayne Rooney to replace John Eustace
Rooney was not unpopular with his players, despite the results and some strong public criticism from the manager. Rooney had occasionally questioned 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 them to play the way he wanted would require more than one transfer window.
Like many great players-turned-coaches, Rooney had become increasingly frustrated when his players seemed incapable of doing what he found simple and natural on the pitch.
Yet he wasn’t particularly interventionist during training. Instead, Rooney took on more of a surveillance brief, leaving most of the work to be done by his assistant Carl Robinson, who had worked with him in the MLS at DC United, and O’Shea, while Cole would work on the scenes .
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, given his illustrious career, Rooney was no longer hands-on, especially with attacking players. Very few members of the squad have improved during Rooney’s tenure, with the exception of midfielder Jordan James.
Rooney hasn’t been helped by injuries to some of his best players, such as summer recruits Ethan Laird and Tyler Roberts, or the decline in form of some of his senior players such as goalkeeper John Ruddy and captain Dion Sanderson, but Rooney has struggled to get the rest of his group he was fully on board with the game plans, which changed often as he simplified them again and again.
While there may have appeared to have been improvements in performances against Cardiff, Leicester City and Plymouth Argyle, the home performances against Stoke City on Boxing Day and then against Bristol City – when there were verbal altercations between some of his staff and fans, and Rooney was booed and left his future in jeopardy. When the away fans turned against him at Leeds, his fate was effectively sealed.
The Birmingham team were asked to radically change their approach, to move away from a style that the players believed in but the club hierarchy did not. He may not have been pretty at times under Eustace, but this season he has proven effective.
Eustace’s removal was not motivated by a desire to bring in Rooney, but because after failing to finish above 17th in the previous five seasons, they wanted the team to play fearless football. Eustace felt it was premature for a young group of players who were just getting used to a way of playing that he felt was best suited to them.
However, Rooney also quickly realized that he had to adapt his ambitions as his players struggled to implement his game plan with his full-backs playing high and wide and defenders playing out from the back.
That attacking approach had completely changed by the time of Bristol City’s game at St Andrew’s, a dismal goalless draw. Rooney admitted later that he had set his team to a clean sheet after conceding three goals in each of their previous three matches.
Before Christmas, Rooney had invited several journalists to watch the final preparation before the trip to Cardiff, which had given him one of his two victories. He insisted that his players could do what he asked them to do in training, but on match days they would make too many mistakes, suggesting once again 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 sense that some were moving on throughout the season.
Several players missed their annual Christmas party in early December, deeming it inappropriate considering their poor form. Although the team was not divided, it had little confidence. Ultimately, Rooney failed to foster positivity.
While some may welcome his departure, there are still many members of staff on 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 deliver on the brief and it would take several transfer windows – and a lot of money – to remedy that.
One of the priorities for the club’s new owners, Knighthead Capital Management, is to bring the club closer to the fans after years of mismanagement. They hoped Rooney’s appointment would achieve this. Instead, trust has already been fractured.
The next decision they make will have to be the right one, and not just because once again Birmingham – the league’s longest-serving club – find themselves in a precarious position.
Cook spent yesterday evaluating managerial options, but no candidate is waiting to take over. Professional development coach Steve Spooner will lead 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 increasingly urgent. They will want their new man in his 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 ability but are extremely unlikely to want the job. Eustace, meanwhile, is said to be open to the idea of a quick return, but Birmingham is not expected to return.
England Under-21s manager 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 is said to be popular with supporters. The way his young England team plays is also in line with the club’s vision and he has experience of coaching young players. Cole also works with Carsley in the England team.
Carsley may not have the star power of Rooney, which could help raise the club’s profile and aid revenue growth, but as Birmingham should have learned by now, this is a club that needs substance, not style .
Rooney is set to get his first break in 22 years following his exit from Birmingham City
(Top photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)