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 was under the impression he had joined a long-term project. Rooney had enjoyed an open dialogue with the club hierarchy — including chief executive Garry Cook and director of football Craig Gardner — and there had been no indication their faith in him was waning.
Birmingham won just two of Rooney’s 15 games but even after his most recent defeat, at Leeds United on New Year’s Day, he had spoken bullishly of being a “fighter” who would not shirk the challenge of rescuing the team from its tailspin. That run had seen Birmingham slide from sixth to 20th in the Championship table, just six points above the relegation zone.
City supporters had never warmed to Rooney after he replaced the popular John Eustace and by the end of Monday’s game, their cries of “Wayne Rooney, get out of our club” left nobody in any doubt that their minds were made up. Less than 24 hours later, the club’s executives had reached the same conclusion.
Birmingham’s players were told as they arrived at the club’s temporary training ground at Henley-in-Arden yesterday morning. Again the news was greeted with surprise but perhaps some relief, too.
Rooney had been tasked with reinventing a group of players who had developed the reputation for counter-attacking football, of being well organised and hard to beat under Eustace, into a possession-based, attacking side that had to be brave on the ball. It clearly wasn’t working.
The squad had felt the sacking of Eustace had been unnecessary. He was an honest, hard-working coach who had managed the club through difficult times under the previous ownership, but the players had tried to embrace the new approach from Rooney and his new but relatively inexperienced backroom staff, which included the former Chelsea defender Ashley Cole and Rooney’s former Manchester United team-mate John O’Shea.
There was no evidence that the players weren’t playing for Rooney and there were moments, such as the 2-2 home draw with Ipswich Town and the 1-0 win at Cardiff City, when things seemed set to click. But there were far too few of these moments to appease an unhappy fanbase that saw a team lacking in structure and seemingly confused or incapable of playing how Rooney wanted them to.
Why Birmingham brought in Wayne Rooney to replace John Eustace
Rooney wasn’t unpopular with his players, despite the results and some strong public criticism of them from the manager. Rooney had occasionally questioned his squad’s mental strength, ability and even personal pride — comments which had stung a few of them. After the Leeds game, Rooney said the squad desperately needed an overhaul and that recalibrating it to play in the way he wished would take more than one transfer window.
Like many great players who become managers, Rooney had become increasingly frustrated when his players seemed unable to do what he found simple and second nature on the pitch.
Yet he was not particularly interventionist during training sessions. Instead, Rooney took on more of a watching brief, leaving the majority of the work to be done by his assistant Carl Robinson, who had worked with him in MLS at D.C. United, and O’Shea, while Cole would work on set pieces.
Rooney would interject when he saw something he wanted to change or when he wanted to press home a point. But there was a surprise among some that, considering his illustrious career, Rooney wasn’t more hands-on, especially with the attacking players. Very few squad members improved during Rooney’s tenure, except for midfielder Jordan James.
Rooney wasn’t helped by injuries to some of his better players, such as summer recruits Ethan Laird and Tyler Roberts, or a downturn in form from some of his senior players such as goalkeeper John Ruddy and captain Dion Sanderson, but Rooney struggled to get the rest of his group fully on board with the game plans, which frequently changed as he simplified them again and again.
Even though it may have seemed there were improvements in the displays against Cardiff, Leicester City and Plymouth Argyle, the home displays against Stoke City on Boxing Day and then Bristol City — when there were verbal altercations between some of his staff and fans, and Rooney was booed — left his future in jeopardy. When the hardcore away fans turned on him at Leeds, his fate was effectively sealed.
The Birmingham squad were being asked to change their approach dramatically, to move away from a style the players believed in but the club’s hierarchy did not. It may not have been pretty at times under Eustace but this season it had proved effective.
Eustace’s removal was not prompted 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 no-fear football. Eustace felt that was premature for a young group of players that were just getting used to a way of playing he felt was best suited to them.
However, even Rooney quickly realised he had to adjust his ambition 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 the Bristol City game at St Andrew’s, a drab goalless draw. Rooney admitted afterwards that he had set his side up not to concede having shipped three goals in each of their three previous games.
Before Christmas, Rooney had invited several journalists to watch the last preparation session before the trip to Cardiff, which brought one of his two victories. He insisted his players could do what he was asking them to do in training, but on matchdays would make too many errors, again hinting that the issue was more psychological than technical.
He was probably right about a few within the squad because while some wanted to push on, there was also a sense that some were coasting through the season.
Several players missed their annual Christmas party in early December, feeling it was inappropriate considering their poor form. While the squad was not divided, it was low on confidence. In the end, Rooney was unable to foster positivity.
While some may welcome his departure, there are still many of the staff at the training ground that retain some sympathy with Rooney, who was visible, friendly and approachable. The feeling was he didn’t have the players to deliver on the brief and it would take several transfer windows — and a lot of money — to rectify that.
One of the priorities for the club’s new owners, Knighthead Capital Management, is to reconnect the club with the fans after years of mismanagement. They hoped the appointment of Rooney would do that. Instead, the trust has already fractured.
The next decision they make needs to be the right one, and not just because once again Birmingham — the longest-serving Championship club — find themselves in a precarious position.
Cook spent yesterday assessing the 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 growing increasingly urgent. They will want their new man in place by the time they return to league action against Swansea City on January 13.
Steve Cooper and Graham Potter, a former Birmingham defender, are available and have Premier League prowess but are extremely unlikely to want the job. Eustace, meanwhile, would be open to the idea of a quick return, but Birmingham are not expected to return to him.
England Under-21 head coach Lee Carsley could be a candidate that 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 the fans. The way his young England side play 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 help 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 Birmingham City exit
(Top photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)