CRAIG HOPE: Wayne Rooney's MLS return is a BACKWARDS step

CRAIG HOPE: Why on EARTH is Wayne Rooney returning to MLS? His stock soared at Derby – even with relegation – and an elite job beckoned… taking over at DC United is a backwards step

  • Wayne Rooney landed in Washington on Monday ahead of his DC United return 
  • Heading there years back as a player made some sense but it doesn’t right now 
  • His stock soared at Derby County, even in spite of the Rams being relegated
  • Rooney’s motivation to now return to the States as a manager is unfathomable 

Gareth Bale signed for Los Angeles FC because Major League Soccer affords him a comfortable preparation for this winter’s World Cup. He may well have got hurt in the Championship.

The Wales forward is penning the final pages of his playing career and, while his move to the States was disappointing from an intrigue perspective, it was nonetheless understandable. Wayne Rooney’s decision to return to D.C. United as head coach, by contrast, is unfathomable.

It is not so much that he is at the start of his managerial career, more that his stock is high enough to do better than the cosy surrounds of what others consider a semi-retirement home.

Wayne Rooney’s return to Major League Soccer, this time as a manager, is unfathomable

Gareth Bale heading to US makes sense given he wants an easier workload in a World Cup year

Not often does a manager suffer relegation and find their reputation enhanced. Rooney did. 

The job he did at Derby in defying a 21-point deduction to give genuine hope of survival did, at one point, look like being the story of the season. His team would have finished 14 points clear of relegation without the penalties.

It was not just the loss of points – and players – with which he had to contend, but the distraction of failed takeovers, a transfer embargo and the threat of liquidation. If the LMA were designing a crash course in crisis management, Derby County 2021-22 would be the blueprint.

Through it all, Rooney maintained dignity and, further still, proved himself capable of motivating and organising a squad who had every reason to be disillusioned. And this at the age of 36, in his first managerial role. It answered many of the questions as to whether the finest footballer of his generation was as suited to the dugout as he was the playing field.

Rooney’s stock as a coach soared despite Derby County being relegated to League One

His decision to stand down as Derby boss last month was met with sadness by supporters. 

It is said that he and the agency who represent him had gone all in on Chris Kirchner’s bid to buy the club and, when that failed, Rooney’s days were probably numbered. That was a shame. It would have been fascinating to see him lead a rebuild from League One.

Equally, his commitment to Derby during the most tumultuous campaign in their history meant that very few begrudged him the right to leave, especially if better offers had been mooted. Don’t forget, Everton enquired about their former player last season.

This, then, is why his subsequent move to D.C. United – set to be confirmed this week – is so underwhelming. The next post to become available at the top end of the Championship, or even bottom half of the Premier League, would have seen Rooney installed as one of the early favourites. Frank Lampard went from Derby to Chelsea, remember.

Rooney just had to wait, enjoy a break, go and watch Bayern Munich train and his status as one of this country’s most promising managers would have heightened.

Rooney spent time in MLS as a player for DC United but his return as a boss is a backwards step

He needed to wait for an elite job on these shores to come up and he’d have been a favourite

So, what is his motivation to return to Washington D.C., where he spent two years as a player before signing for Derby in 2020? Is it lifestyle? Financial?

Given the team have just suffered the worst defeat in their history – losing 7-0 to Philadelphia Union – and are joint bottom of the Eastern Conference, it cannot be the lure of the football.

Even if D.C. did represent a chance of silverware, however, it would still make little sense. 

MLS remains largely insignificant on these shores. There is no interest in who wins titles. It is a place where aged stars enjoy a new experience before they retire. Rooney has already ticked that box. He had just ticked another thanks to his impressive work at Derby.

Sadly, this latest move feels like a cross against his name.

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