Dave’s Take: Rooney will score as DC United’s head coach

To put it in British parlance, Wayne Rooney does not mess about.

Through soccer, Rooney has fame and money, and glitz and glamour might surround him, but his working-class roots flow through him. Before Rooney boarded a London-to-D.C. flight in June 2018 to join United as a player, he tweeted, “Let’s get to work D.C.” And with Rooney pulling the strings in midfield and scoring goals, the Black and Red went from last place to the playoffs.

Now, the challenge is for Rooney to deliver as D.C. United’s new head coach. While working papers are sorted out, Rooney will have to wait, but on the field, the team cannot. Just like when Rooney arrived four years ago, United is dwelling at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and just like four years ago, he is not wasting time getting started.

Rooney only arrived at Dulles Airport late Sunday night and has already has been a presence at training sessions. Out-of-contract players in the English Premier League have already called Rooney. At his introductory press conference, Rooney was wearing a tracksuit. To be clear, Rooney is not coach until the paperwork is done, but that can’t stop his mind.

England gave the world football, or soccer as we call it, and he is that nation’s all-time leading scorer. Rooney’s drive and determination are as legendary as his accomplishments — five English Premier League championships with Manchester United, a UEFA Champions League title and a FIFA Club World Cup trophy.

Coaching is a serious business, and I’ve seen that Rooney has the temperament to succeed on the sideline. Rooney is demanding, and he starts with himself — that’s how he achieved all he did. Watching him practice as a player over 18 months with D.C. United, I never saw him take a break, and he always coached and encouraged his teammates.

When he left D.C. after the 2019 season, he joined Derby County as a player with an eye toward coaching. The team was looking to make a push for promotion from England’s second tier back to the EPL, and when Rooney arrived, they appeared to have the resources to make it.

Unfortunately, Derby County spiraled out of control of the field with financial difficulties, and no longer had the money to seriously compete. Amid the chaos, Rooney took over the coaching reins and was a calming influence. The club was on the verge of going out of business, and Rooney stayed all business.

Despite a depleted roster, Derby County became the team in the English Championship that other teams did not want to play. Rooney’s players channeled his fight and his anything-is-possible attitude. As the team sold players to stay afloat, Rooney had to turn to developing and playing younger players from the team’s academy.

Derby County produced upset wins over some of the English Championship’s bigger clubs, including Fulham, Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest, all of whom were promoted to the EPL. Rooney kept that team together, and if not for a 21-point deduction imposed by the English Football League for financial irregularities, Derby County would have comfortably avoided relegation.

All you need to know about Rooney’s commitment to coaching is how he handled himself at Derby County. As they sank lower and lower, Rooney kept his head and his expectations of his players high. That’s true leadership. If a person of Rooney’s stature walked away from the situation, it would have been easily understood and forgiven.

“What I made of it was, he was serious about his craft,” said D.C. United owner Jason Levien. “He is a lover of the game of football, and he really wants to manage, and he really wants to lead. I love the way he had the team fighting. There were times he fielded sides filled with academy players. The team responded to it. His never-say-die attitude came through again.”

Rooney is approaching coaching the same way he did his playing career. Success on the sideline will follow.

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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