Wayne Rooney discusses the extreme highs and lows of his iconic football career

Wayne Rooney enjoyed one of the greatest careers English football has seen, yet behind the glory there was a lot of anger and pain. He spoke to JONATHAN NORTHCROFT.

Wayne Rooney enjoyed one of English football’s great careers, yet it was a rough ride. Picture: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images
Wayne Rooney enjoyed one of English football’s great careers, yet it was a rough ride. Picture: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

The trailer for Rooney starts with rain falling and, in the shadows of a darkened garage, a hooded Wayne Rooney pounding a heavy punch bag. It moves quickly into the sunshine, to tender home video of his wedding to Coleen in Portofino, Italy.

“What people don’t understand is you’re 17, you’re 18 years of age. You’re not supposed to be able to handle this,” he reflects on a leap made from council estate to superstardom, when he and Coleen were only kids. This compelling, often intimate, film is, in essence, a survivor’s story.

Sun and shadow, light and shade. Rooney is “dreading” the pizzazz of Wednesday’s premiere in Manchester but “pleased” with the content of the documentary, made for Amazon, as is Coleen, and so they should be, because it promises to leave them privacy while opening up enough to provide a revelatory and “sincere” (his word) portrayal of the person — persons — behind modern English football’s greatest career.

One that addresses the two sides of that journey, the mistakes Rooney made. These include escapades involving drink and women that led to tabloid exposés in his younger years and are discussed on camera, with Coleen explaining the effect on her, and why she forgave him.

Rooney wanted openness, because openness is important to him and resolved if he ever did a film he would “need to speak about me and the deeper side of me. I have always had an image that I knew wasn’t me, but I have put myself in that position with things I have done,” he says. “But I am different from that. It was nice to get some things out and off my chest. It is almost like speaking to a therapist.”

Wayne Rooney with his wife, Coleen, and their four boys, Kai, Klay, Kit, and Cass.
Wayne Rooney with his wife, Coleen, and their four boys, Kai, Klay, Kit, and Cass.

We will come to therapy (which Rooney reveals he has received) and alcohol, but first think of a boy, in 1990s Croxteth, on the eastern rim of Liverpool, who loves football, playing out with his mates, and his cousin’s cute best friend. He’s around 11 when he starts it — cheekily asking this girl on dates and saying one day they’ll marry — and doesn’t stop until she, Coleen, gives in.

A boy who is especially close to his nan Mavis, who, for a time, pretty much lives with her — because he is “hard work” for his parents, always “messing around” with his brothers, “smashing things in the house” and “getting into fights and arguments in the area”.

His nan, his dad’s mum, a tiny but forceful lady from Irish stock, with a caravan in her garden from which she used to sell sweets, evoked a gentler side of him. Of an evening he’d go round, help put the electric blanket on her bed, and they’d stay up watching Prisoner Cell Block H together.

This boy went from that life to world famousness in an absolute blink: at 16, a Premier League sensation with Everton, at 17, England’s youngest-ever scorer, at 18, the wrecking-ball star of Euro 2004, a point in time when he reckons he was the best player in the world — and probably reckons right.

Before his 19th birthday, he was an instant Manchester United icon, too, after a jaw-dropping debut hat-trick against Fenerbahce. All this “was something I wasn’t prepared for. I had never even thought about the other side of being a football player. It took a long time to figure out how to deal with it. It was like being thrown in somewhere you are just not comfortable.

“I made a lot of mistakes. Some in the press and some not in the press. For me, to deal with stuff that was in the newspapers, deal with the manager [Sir Alex Ferguson] and deal with family at the time was very difficult.”

Wayne Rooney celebrates the second goal of his Champions League hat-trick against Fenerbahce at Old Trafford. It made him at instant Manchester United megastar, which was not easy at such a young age. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Wayne Rooney celebrates the second goal of his Champions League hat-trick against Fenerbahce at Old Trafford. It made him at instant Manchester United megastar, which was not easy at such a young age. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Until Kai, the first of his four children, was born in 2009 — when Rooney was 24 — he struggled for calm and perspective. “Really, I locked myself away.

“There were times you’d get a couple of days off from football and I would actually lock myself away and just drink, to try to take all that away from my mind. People might know I liked a drink at times or went out, but there was a lot more to it than just that. It was what was going on in my head.”

The drinking was “like a binge, but normally that’s with a group of lads — this was a self-binge basically, which helps you forget things but when you come out of it, you are going back to work and it is still there, so it was doing more damage than good.

“It was just a build-up of everything, pressure of playing for your country, playing for Manchester United, the pressure of some of the stuff that came out about my personal life, just trying to deal with all that pressure which builds up. Growing up on a council estate, you would never actually go and speak to anyone. You would always find a way to deal with it yourself. It was trying to cope with it yourself rather than asking for help.”

Did he ever talk to Ferguson about his issues? “No. Back then, you just didn’t speak about it. I’m sure he probably knew. I never spoke to him or any of my teammates about it.

“Now, people would be more empowered to speak about that kind of thing. Back then, in my head and with other players, there was no way I could just go into the dressing room and start saying this is how I am feeling because you just wouldn’t do it. Then you would end up suffering internally rather than letting your thoughts out.”

Sir Alex Ferguson poses with Wayne Rooney after he was announced as Manchester United's big new signing in September 2004. Picture: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images
Sir Alex Ferguson poses with Wayne Rooney after he was announced as Manchester United's big new signing in September 2004. Picture: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

It wasn’t just pressure and fame — something else was seething inside him. A hotness which made him both brilliant and combustible on the pitch, and needed outlets when he stepped off it. “Growing up, I was always angry and aggressive. That was obvious when I came into football. You are always taught to fight for what you want when you’re growing up and take what you want.

“You never got given anything. In some ways that was good because it helped me play,” he says. “A lot of anger was because I did things that enabled people to say things and write things about me that wasn’t really me but were isolated incidents. It was when I was drinking and hiding away. There was a lot of anger and pain.”

Those incidents were actually not that frequent (“over the past 15 years, I haven’t had many nights out, I might have had ten nights out but … four or five of them have given people big exclusives”). Yet they became a narrative to define him, for certain types, the prurient, the class-snobs.

But “I take responsibility,” he says, and there was a long process of maturing and learning. “When something happened, it always involved drink. It’s never when I am sober. That’s what I had to figure out, the places I go and the things I do.

“My relationship with drink now is fine. No problems. I still have a drink now and then. Not like I used to. It’s well in control. It was never at a stage where I thought I was an alcoholic.”

Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrate winning the UEFA Champions League final against Chelsea at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, in 2008. It was a heady era of stardom for the Red Devils. Picture: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images
Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrate winning the UEFA Champions League final against Chelsea at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, in 2008. It was a heady era of stardom for the Red Devils. Picture: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Nonetheless, there was a little wake-up call in July when, as Derby manager, he took his team to play Salford City at the end of a pre-season training camp, then with a couple of days off in prospect, decided on a night out in Manchester after the match. It ended with pictures on social media of him snoozing in a chair in a hotel room while three girls pulled silly poses beside him.

“It was nothing like what’s happened before,” he says. “There were a couple of lads I know and we went back to have a late drink basically and I fell asleep. That was it. I know it’s a mistake by going there. Nothing was happening. But it was a good reminder that I can’t put myself in that position as a manager. In the past, you’re thinking I could get trouble in here but I just didn’t think of that.”

During the worst of his struggles, he would study United’s training schedule and “if I saw a couple of days’ window, I thought, ‘Right, that’s a couple of days where I can go at it and forget things.’” Then he’d “dust myself down and [use] eye drops and get through that week’s training. I was in a really bad place.”

It’s extraordinary that this period coincided with league titles, a Champions League crown, so many dazzling goals, such England exploits. “It was constant for about three or four years in that initial period of being at United. And it was arguably the best I played, in that period,” he says.

“That was part of the problem because you are playing OK and think you can get away with it and that had an impact on me on the back end of my time at Man United because you can’t do that as an athlete.”

Derby County manager Wayne Rooney during a Championship match against Huddersfield Town this month. Picture: Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images
Derby County manager Wayne Rooney during a Championship match against Huddersfield Town this month. Picture: Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images

Coleen forgave him, perhaps because she understood him, and he finds it “emotional” watching those parts of the documentary where they talk about their marriage. “We’ve always sat down and been open about it and figured out what’s best for us as a family and we have taken that into the film. It will be interesting to see how people react to that.”

Talking helps. As he grew out of the binge-drinking phase he began using therapists. “I have spoken to a few different people,” he says. “I have never done a period of time where I’ve done two years with someone and it has been ongoing. What I learned was I could feel it coming, like an explosion. I used to hold everything in and it would build up. I would deny it but Coleen could see it coming every time. I’d say f--k it and go out and make silly mistakes with the explosion. I learned that when I felt it coming, I needed to sit down and talk to someone. That calmed things down. I spoke to Coleen quite a few times, her mum and dad and my mum and dad. I did that when it got to a bad moment.”

Yet there’s an irony. The mellowing process made him a better person, but not necessarily better player. “Early on, I played with a lot more anger and picked up the odd red card. The anger was all the time when I was drinking, when I was having these moments. Still constantly in my head, I am raging. When I learned to control it, it took away from me,” he admits.

“It was almost as if being right in my head took a bit away from my game. Not being right gave me that added unpredictability.”

Wayne Rooney clashes with Chelsea’s Didier Drogba at Stamford Bridge in April 2006. Picture: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images
Wayne Rooney clashes with Chelsea’s Didier Drogba at Stamford Bridge in April 2006. Picture: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

There is a startling acknowledgment about that anger in Rooney. In one clip, he admits changing to longer studs for a game at Stamford Bridge in 2006 because Chelsea were about to win the title and that frustration made him want “to hurt someone”. There is footage of Euro 2004, where he seemed a young raging bull, battering fearful defenders, including one of the world’s greatest, Lilian Thuram — who he targeted because Thuram had questioned him in an interview.

“That was the freest I have felt,” he says, of the tournament. “That was a young kid from a council estate going to play for his country and not caring who the opposition is.”

Another irony is that psychologists were available when he played for England — but not always in a beneficial way. “When some of the players were seeing (Roy Hodgson’s sports psychiatrist) Steve Peters, I was seeing someone myself. Steve did the 2014 World Cup and stayed around and gave each player a 10-minute slot to go and see him while I was captain.

“I spoke to Steve and told him he couldn’t force a player to see him, though I had no problem seeing him myself. When Steve McClaren was England manager, he had Bill Beswick and it was the same. I erupted. I thought he brought him in and was making all the other players see him just because he wanted me to see him. That was where I was at.”

Lilian Thuram attempts to tackle Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004, having angered the young English star with comments before the tournament. Picture: Liewig Christian/Corbis via Getty Images)
Lilian Thuram attempts to tackle Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004, having angered the young English star with comments before the tournament. Picture: Liewig Christian/Corbis via Getty Images)

We met recently for a chat about his work as manager of Derby where, despite a 21-point deduction, losing leading players and having to blood 20 academy graduates because of financial issues, Rooney is somehow hunting Championship survival. “I really think we will [stay up],” he says.

When Everton wanted to formally interview him for their manager’s job, before appointing Frank Lampard, he declined, because “everything I’m asking [at Derby] in terms of hard work, honesty, trust and commitment … if I was to just turn around and say I have had an offer, I’m off, honestly I couldn’t do that to the players and staff.

“Once [Rafa] Benitez was sacked and my name was getting linked I could see staff were down and scared that if I left, where did that leave the club? I spoke to them and said I am stood in front of you and I am with you. Whatever is being said out there, I’m with you.”

He believes, “I could go into the Premier League and manage at a top club. Now.” And that his biggest strength is man-management. His office at the training ground is bare because “I don’t hide stuff” — all the charts, screens and tactics boards are in the coaches’ room next door. He wants assistants included in the planning and decision making. He likes how, at Aston Villa, his friend Steven Gerrard delegates coaching to his assistant, Michael Beale. “It sounds similar. I know [Derby No.2] Liam Rosenior is a better coach than I am. So Liam will set up a session and I’ll step in and work more on details.”

Wayne Rooney urges on his players during a Championship match between Derby County and Birmingham City last month. Picture: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Wayne Rooney urges on his players during a Championship match between Derby County and Birmingham City last month. Picture: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Drawing from his own experiences, he places emphasis on looking after players’ mental health, especially the youngsters, whose parents he involves in the process. He thinks back to Ferguson’s unique ways and what seemed mind games played when Kai was born in 2009. United had a Champions League fixture with CSKA Moscow the day after the birth. Rooney told Ferguson he hadn’t slept in two nights and indicated he might like to stay in hospital with Coleen.

Ferguson said, “Go home, you’re playing … I got to the stadium the next day and he put me on the bench — and rested [Dimitar] Berbatov from the squad! I was fuming. He gave me a day off after that.”

Kai and his other sons, Klay, Kit and Cass will see the film at a private family showing, but his mum and dad and in-laws will be at Wednesday’s premiere. He knows his leap to fame challenged them, too, never forgetting how, when he left Everton for United in 2004, abusive messages were spray-painted on his parents and Coleen’s parents’ houses.

There was the paparazzi picture of him, his mother and father, walking on the beach in Cancun in 2003, which Jonathan Ross used to ridicule the Rooneys on his then-hit chat show. “Making fun of my parents — that’s the only thing which really pissed me off. Still to this day, if I saw Jonathan Ross, I’d speak to him and ask him why. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have spoken to him. I’d have hit him.”

Wayne Rooney in action for DC United in, 2019. Picture: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Wayne Rooney in action for DC United in, 2019. Picture: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

One fear about the film, “is that I’m quite a boring person.” He’s not. He’s full of surprises. Like what happened during his longest break from football — three months between MLS seasons when he was playing for DC United in Washington. “It was too long. I ended up going to SoulCycle classes with my wife! I was thinking, Jesus … I was the only lad in there. Actually, they were tough,” he laughs. His nan remains part of his life. “I’ve always been religious. I pray. It’s strange but my nan and Coleen’s sister [Rosie, who died aged 14] — I still feel they are a presence,” he says. “Don’t worry, I’m not going mad. It might be something I’m clinging on to, it mightn’t be there, I get that — but I feel their presence.”

He reveals that “for a long time what I have wanted is for people to actually know me as a person, not a football player, for people to know me as a son and a dad and a husband,” and a favourite clip involves Rooney playing Snakes and Ladders with Kit — who last month turned six.

In it, Kit tries to claim victory but has miscounted, his dad says. Rooney recounts and makes him go back down a snake. Then he rolls the dice and wins himself. He then scrapes the distraught and still-screaming child off the sofa and takes him off to bed.

He smiles, when I bring the scene up, but is unrepentant. “I always say [to his kids] — and it’s a bit clichéd or whatever — if you want it, you’ve got to take it. It’s the same whether it’s a board game or a game on the PlayStation. I say, if you can’t beat me now, you need to learn how to beat me. You need to learn how to get better.

“And they get annoyed with it, but I think that’s life. I think if I’m giving you things … nobody else is going to be giving you things outside.”

*Rooney is available in Australia on Amazon Prime from February 11.

– The Sunday Times

Tim Elbra
Tim ElbraDeputy editor

Tim Elbra is the deputy editor of CODE. He started out as a reporter at The Daily Telegraph in 2003 and has also worked for mX, NRL.com, Fox Sports, AthletesVoice and Nine's Wide World of Sports. Tim was one of those kids who played every sport he possibly could while growing up and you’ll find him writing about a broad range of sports on this site. He’s never met a sport he doesn’t like and outside of footy, cricket and tennis, has a passion for snowboarding, bodyboarding, scuba diving and hiking. He’s still waiting, impatiently, for the Parramatta Eels to win another premiership.

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