Big Read: Wayne Rooney on England exit, United's future

By Martin Samuel

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney sprints during the team's training session at the Olympic Sports Center Stadium in Beijing. Photo / AP
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney sprints during the team's training session at the Olympic Sports Center Stadium in Beijing. Photo / AP

When the whistle sounded to confirm England's exit from the European Championship, Wayne Rooney was no longer on the pitch. He had been replaced by Marcus Rashford with four minutes to go, by which time the extent of the unfolding calamity was plain.

At the end, he rose and walked in the opposite direction to England manager Roy Hodgson and his staff, back towards his team-mates, facing the opprobrium.

He spoke to Jamie Vardy, who was crouching on the turf, emotionally spent, then moved around a few others. The anger of England's travelling fans was inescapable, understandable.

Rooney returned to the dressing room to discover that the England manager had resigned. Hodgson said he would be reading out a short statement. "Wayne can do the press," he added.

And Wayne did, trying to explain the inexplicable - a 2-1 defeat by Iceland; how an island of little more than 300,000 inhabitants could beat a nation that believes it has a place among football's super powers.

Rooney has thought about it plenty of times since, and his role in it all, too. This is a watershed season for him, and not just in the legacy targets of his testimonial.

Captain of a Manchester United side who are pegged outside England's elite four, captain - pending further notice, at least - of an England side on another mighty tournament rebound. New manager of Manchester United to impress, new manager of England, too.
And a new position. It's his old one, admittedly. His best one. The one he has played almost all his professional life.

But it wasn't where he thought he was heading, until shortly before the European Championship, when Jose Mourinho visited him at The Grove hotel in Hertfordshire, England's pre- tournament HQ.

That speech a month later? Not a No 6, not even a No 8. Rooney had heard it from the horse's mouth earlier.

He knew where Mourinho was going to play him, even who he was playing with, and he knew his future was no longer in midfield.

It didn't stop Hodgson using him there in France, though, a bemusing late alteration to England's game plan considering Rooney had never occupied that role for his country.

By then, Rooney already knew he would be a forward again for United, but he wasn't consulted on his location for England.

And so here we are: 50 years of hurt, going on two more. Rooney is the first England player to talk over what went wrong, at any length, since the tournament. Fronting up again.

Explanations do not come easily. He clearly feels protective of the manager who made him England's permanent captain.

But did he harbour doubts as England's starting line-up changed so drastically against Slovakia in the second group game? Naturally. He told them, too. He is saying nothing now that he didn't tell England's management at the time.

"I felt we had a good squad," Rooney says. "A lot of ability, a lot of talent. Yes, we had some young lads and you know there is a risk some won't react as positively at a tournament, but I still thought we could do really well. To then go out as we did, and against Iceland, was beyond disappointing.

"If you leave playing your best, beaten by a better team, I accept that. But we didn't play. We had lost momentum from the Slovakia game and tournament football is about confidence. You get that from winning.

"We didn't play great in the friendlies, but we won. So you try to build, even from before the tournament - but we couldn't get that consistency once it began.

"It was Roy's decision to make those changes against Slovakia and either way, the team he put out should have been able to win. But, right or wrong, I wanted to play and I can't deny that."

And would he have rested six players - a grand experiment that yielded only a 0-0 draw?

"No, I wouldn't have rested six players," Rooney adds. "It's more than half the team. It was a gamble and it didn't pay off.

"When I came on against Slovakia it was difficult to change the game, impossible really. I was running around just trying to get the energy back into the team.

"Watching, I felt we lacked aggression - in the running, in the passing, we didn't have the tempo, so that's what I was trying to create. When you're on the bench it's frustrating because you always think you can bring something different."

And was it his decision to relieve Harry Kane of corner duty, too? Rooney thinks a moment. He doesn't want to snipe, but he does want to tell the truth. 'Yes,' he says.

So that is the past. What of the future? Rooney was consulted by the FA before Allardyce was appointed, and he has spoken to the new manager. He doesn't share the view that Allardyce is an awkward fit in the international game.

Rooney, as one can tell from his appearance - neatly trimmed hair, black polo shirt, straight leg denim, defiance in those pale blue eyes - is something of a traditionalist.
He attributes his extraordinary physical strength as a teenager in a man's game to his boxing background - his father boxed, his uncle ran the Croxteth Amateur Boxing Club, and he was still sparring in the gym at 15, until Everton intervened - and, when injured, even now puts on the gloves to work his way back to fitness.

The managers he admires - Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson - are traditionalists, too. England DNA, blueprints, the increasing tyranny of the obsession with possession football: it is fair to say it is not for Rooney.


New Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo / AP

"You need to get the balance right," he insists. "You can over-complicate football. You keep moving the ball but if you're not getting near the goal, what's the point?

"We were very poor against Iceland. Football can get lost in this new way of playing. Everyone is passing and moving when sometimes the simplest way - get it out wide, get crosses in the box, pick up the second ball - can be the best.

'It's not always the perfect way, the prettiest way, this vision people have of how football should be played - but it might get you a goal.

"Possession's fine, but it needs to have direction to it, and most times that has to be towards goal.

"Every coach has his own thoughts on how it should be played, but if it's not working, what's the problem with going long, getting them on the back foot, make it uncomfortable for them?

"There are a lot of different ways to approach it, but pass, pass, pass, and then eventually pass back to your goalkeeper? For a forward player, that gets frustrating. If you see Portugal at the Euros, they knew they weren't as good as France, so they absorbed a lot of pressure, stuck to their plan and as the game wore on you could feel a goal coming.

"One chance and you knew they'd win the game. Every player bought into what they were doing, because if one player doesn't, you lose.

"So that mentality must come from the manager. It is up to Sam Allardyce to get our players into a zone where they know exactly what they've got to do, how they've got to defend the game at 1-0 up, 2-0 up, how they're going to attack it if we go behind. Different plans, different scenarios.

"We end up becoming predictable, and if you play that way at the top level you get found out. The job now is to get that mentality from the players in the biggest matches, because I'm convinced the ability is there."

So how would Rooney do that? England manager for a day, what changes would he make?
Plenty, it turns out. Big ones, too.

"It's not as if we're just turning up and it doesn't hurt when we lose,' he explains. 'We hurt as much as everyone else, more I'd say. Look at a player like Harry Kane and you can see he cares so much."

So what happens?

"If you think about the way club football works during the season, you play a game, you go home, you're with your kids, your wife or girlfriend, friends, you put it away for a while and then go into training the next day.

"It's a very different environment from just being totally wrapped up in football all day, with no time to step outside that world.

"I think we need to have the downtime you get in club football, time to chill out, to have that few hours in the day when we forget about it.

"If you're watching football, talking football, thinking about football 24/7, then your head's constantly working, you never get those moments to have a coffee or go to a restaurant, have a game of golf like you would the rest of the time. And I think that's the start, really, to try to get the lads working more like they do at home.


"I know you have to have team meetings and stuff, but you do with your club, too. I don't see why some days after training the manager can't say, 'Right, I'll see you 9am tomorrow' and then that time is your own. Obviously, you stay in the hotel to sleep, but the rest is up to you."

And what happens if images then turn up of players on shisha pipes or in the town late? Rooney wants England footballers treated like grown men. Has he gone mad?

"The lads know they are playing for England,' he adds, firmly. 'They know what they should do. They must have discipline and respect for their team-mates, the manager and the fans. They have to be able to be trusted. I don't think there would be any issues."

And then he pauses, and you can hear that boxer's discipline in the coldness of his voice.

"And if there are any issues, you send the player home."

Tough love. Rooney believes in it. He says one diminishing method Allardyce should re-evaluate is the worth of the furious dressing-room outburst.

He is old school. Raised on Ferguson and Roy Keane and players who could be as assertive off the field as they were on it.

"Manchester United had a lot of British players and now it's a lot of foreign players, so I don't know how they would react to some of the old ways of football management," he says.

"It was normal for us, though, and with England, players need to take responsibility again.

"I've come in and had a go at players and I wouldn't mind at all if one had a go back at me. If a manager comes in and has a go - yes, it has an impact. If a player isn't playing well, he needs to be told or he'll think his performance can't be that bad.

"I think it's good when a manager is like that. We're all international footballers, there is no harm in it. Sometimes you need to upset a team-mate.

"I think you should keep on top of players, keep going at them. It's not nice when the manager or a team-mate speaks to you like that.

"I know how I feel. My first thought is, 'Right, I'll show you'. I've told players with England and Manchester United that just because I'm captain it doesn't mean they can't have a go at me. I've been told I'm not making the right runs. I don't mind that. Every player has a voice.

"I was in a dressing room with Gary Neville and Roy Keane. I was 19 having rows with Gary, even with Alex Ferguson. That's how it should be.

"Sir Alex was really clever like that. He knew who he could have a go at, who it was best to leave alone. He always knew it brought the best out of me. It wouldn't work with Nani."

Ferguson was at United's Carrington training ground last week, the first time he has visited training since stepping down as manager more than three years ago.

It is plain that Rooney sees something of his former boss in Mourinho, whose training sessions have impressed him enormously.

The summer signings, the boldness Mourinho wants from his players, this feels more like the Manchester United of old, the United who would always - always - be title contenders in the Premier League era.

One thinks back to the story Frank Lampard tells, of Mourinho confronting him still dripping wet from the shower, to tell him he was the best player in the world; and of how that made him feel.

"I've seen that in him already," Rooney interjects. "The way he speaks to individuals, the way he talks to the group, the way he makes players feel so confident.

"I've heard him talk to players, and you know that player will now be feeling on top of the world. He's done it with me, he's done it with all of us - that is one of his qualities.

"You know he will leave messages for you with the press - messages for other managers - he's very clever with his words.

"When he came to see me before the tournament, I came away very happy. He wants us to play with a lot of freedom, a lot of rotation in the forward positions, lots of opportunities to score goals - and I think I can do that, score the goals to help us be successful.

"Getting that mentality back, from being a midfield player to being a goalscorer again is what I've been working on all pre-season.

"I'd known for a long time I could play midfield if I had to, and the way United were playing as a team at the time it was the role I most enjoyed.

"But Jose has come in, he has seen me play in another position for 10 years scoring goals, and that's what he wants me to do. It's not as if it's a new position for me. I wasn't apprehensive at all. I was excited.

"This is one of the best coaches in the world and, sure, I've got to impress him. But I've always felt I've got to impress every manager and you should be able to play different positions.

"No-one spotted this, but during the tournament with England, sometimes in training I'd play the role of the opposition centre half alongside John Stones."

And was he a good centre half?

"I was better than Stonesy," he deadpans, then realises his joke may sound a little harsh in print. "No, I was OK. Good enough. If you watch enough football, you should be able to play different positions."

As expected with Mourinho on board, there is a galactico feel to United again this season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the imminent arrival of Paul Pogba, the imposing Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who made the Bundesliga's 2015-16 team of the season. Rooney remembers Pogba from the first time. One aspect of him, at least.

"The bruises," he says. "He was one of those players who, when you trained against him, somehow he would just hurt you. A knee in your side, bump into you, I don't think he meant to do it, but it just happened.

"You didn't even need to get into a tackle. Just go next to him and you'd find an elbow or some other sharp bit. So, if he comes, I'm looking forward to that again!

"But he had great ability, some of the things he could do, and he's gone up a level since he left us.

"I hope he is going to want to return to United and prove he's a top-class player. If he is excited to play for us, we'll be excited to have him back.

"I'm sure he'll feel there is unfinished business, and it would be a very big statement by the club if they can make it happen.'


Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic warms up before their pre-season friendly soccer match against Galatasaray. Photo / AP

And Zlatan?

"He's one of the best strikers, and a big personality. You can see he wants to be a really important player for us.

"After training he is already talking about how we can get the best out of each other, you can see he's got this great work ethic.

"I think the players feel this is more like the old Manchester United. It's not just the new signings, we've got Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford from last season who made such an impact.

"We're in a very good spot now, we think we can challenge for the Premier League, and we want to put a marker down, in the Community Shield with Leicester.

"I know it's a one-off game, but we want to show we can win a trophy early on - we feel that's an important event for us."

Mourinho always regards the season's curtain-raiser as a prize of significance, too, a chance to show what he's got. He's rubbing off on them, already.

"A good boy," Mourinho said of Rooney last week.

"A humble star."

Not a No 6, or No 8 then. But that will do.

- Daily Mail

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