Derby manager Wayne Rooney is in contention for an emotional return to Everton after the former England star’s impressive handling of affairs on the pitch despite a financial crisis at the Championship club.
Rooney is among the bookmakers’ favourites to take permanent charge at Goodison Park after Rafael Benitez was sacked on Sunday.
The 36-year-old made his name at Everton as a precocious teenager before rejoining his boyhood club following a glittering spell at Manchester United.
And, in his short time as a manager, Rooney has offered evidence that the potential return of the prodigal son would be more than just an olive branch to Everton supporters infuriated by the dismal reign of the despised Benitez.
While Derby have a rich history, the former England forward could not have asked for a more daunting first managerial assignment when he took over 12 months ago after initially joining as player-coach.
Rooney managed to save the Rams from relegation on the final day of last season.
But Derby were plunged into the abyss in September when they went into administration, with owner Mel Morris apologising to fans.
With Derby so far unable to find a buyer for a club saddled with around £50 ($68 million) of debts, Rooney has been left to pick up the pieces.
With worries about whether players and staff would be paid their wages, it would have been easy for Rooney to walk away from a seemingly impossible situation.
There has even been the threat of Derby potentially being expelled from the Football League if the crisis is not resolved.
But Rooney — a man whose ferociously competitive playing style was honed on the tough streets of his Croxteth home — is no quitter.
“I’m a fighter. I grew up on a council estate in Liverpool. I don’t walk away from challenges easily,” Rooney said recently.
Sleeping on the sofa in his office at Derby’s training ground after long nights spent plotting the team’s survival, Rooney’s dedication to his youthful squad is clear.
– ‘A different Wayne Rooney’ –
Derby are second from bottom of the Championship after being deducted 21 points due to their financial issues and are also under a transfer embargo.
Yet, despite a situation that would have shattered many teams, Rooney has miraculously kept them in with a chance of avoiding relegation.
Derby have lost only seven of 26 games and would be 11th in the second-tier Championship if the points penalties did not apply.
Of all the members of England’s “Golden generation” to go into management, Rooney was the one whose decision raised the most eyebrows.
But his natural talent often had to speak for him. He was not seen as the most natural communicator, which made it hard to envisage him as a leader of men.
Even Rio Ferdinand, who played with Rooney for United and England, admits he has been surprised by his rapid development as a manager.
“I saw a different Wayne Rooney to the one I grew up with and saw grow up at Man United,” Ferdinand said on his Vibe with Five YouTube channel after a visit to the Derby training ground.
“It was a real positive experience. It was the confidence and I didn’t expect it from such a young coach.
“It is such a different person behind closed doors. He spoke with such authority and a calmness, didn’t waste a word.
“A lot of things he was saying was about trust, ‘I trust you, I believe in all of you’, and you can see why they have that fight for him and that togetherness.”
Rooney is winning the fight to be regarded as a serious manager.
Whether his rise includes a return to Everton — who announced they had appointed Duncan Ferguson as caretaker manager on Tuesday — remains to be seen.
But Ferdinand has no doubts his old mate has a bright future.
“‘I thought there’d be a lot of “ermmmm” — you see the interviews, no disrespect. But he was just calm.
“I was so impressed. The results he is getting off the back of it, I’m not surprised,” he said.
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