The Wayne Rooney and Sir Alex Saga: What do we Learn about Managing Superstars?

I am a footballer first and foremost, and then, an entrepreneur, academic, or whatever else you may categorize me as. Growing up, I had the privilege of playing on some good teams and had aspirations to be a great footballer (for my American readers, I am not referring to American Football, but the rather what you call Soccer). My favorite team has always been Manchester United Football Club (MUFC), and my favorite coaches have always been Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho. The recent performance by MUFC has been far from stellar. The team has lost points on matches that they should have won, and they have allowed leads to slip by, most recently against West Bromwich Albion. One of the reasons for this has been the precarious performance of their star performer, Wayne Rooney. Wayne Rooney, if you believe the press reports, has fallen out with his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Sir Alex had chosen to rest his superstar for several games, claiming that his player needed time to recover from an ankle injury that he sustained last season. Soon thereafter, after national team duty with England, Rooney spoke to the press and contradicted his manager. He claimed that nothing was wrong with his ankle. Today, speculation abounds that Rooney might be ready to part ways with MUFC!

I am fascinated by these developments for several reasons, and what is surprising, even to me, is that I am excited from the perspective of organizational behavior and management, rather than as a raging Red Devil. Dealing with superstars is never an easy proposition for any manager. As one colleague put it, “I love my superstars as much as I hate managing them!” Last season, Rooney carried MUFC, scoring 34 goals, a sizable proportion of which kept MUFC in the premier league title race. However, since sustaining an injury in a match against FC Bayern Munich in the Champions League, he has never really played his best. He had an awful World Cup showing, and has been insignificant for most of the season. So, what is Sir Alex to do?

In discussing this situation with several executives, I wanted to share some food for thought. First, we need to understand that all employees will have ups and downs. Rooney is now in a slump and his performance has suffered. Sir Alex may have had the right intention in benching him (i.e. giving him a break); however, maybe a better strategy would have been to let him to play. As one executive remarked to me, “the most difficult thing for superstars is to deal with lows…the only way out is to keep at it, and then witness the positive trajectory.”

Second, Sir Alex needs to take a step back and allow the team to manage Rooney. Sir Alex is a beast of manager (now reaching 70); he is probably going to go down in history as the most decorated football manager. Rooney, on the other hand, is a kid (only 24 years old). Sir Alex needs to have a conversation with Rooney to reassure him that he is committed to seeing him blossom at MUFC. Then, he needs to enlist the support of his senior players, most notably Ryan Giggs, who is MUFC and Premier League’s most decorated player, in a coaching role. Giggs, who is closing in 40, is at the tail-end of his career and has expressed an interest in coaching. I suggest that Sir Alex mentor Giggs in the art of coaching, by giving him the ‘Rooney Project.’ No matter how good a manager that he is, innovative and star players, trust other players who they have seen deliver. They trust peers who have expertise and the necessary experience. Sir Alex has at his disposal ‘the most decorated player’ in the Premier League, who could help Rooney get out of the slump. Gigg’s playing days are numbered, but he still has a lot to contribute to the game of football, and young lads still look up to him as a role-model.

Third, in dealing with Rooney, especially his behavior on and off the pitch, Sir Alex needs to carefully consider the message that his actions will send to other players. Sir Alex has been known to have a zero-tolerance policy towards player dissent (e.g. past star players, like David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy, were shown the exit door for not abiding by their manager’s request or dissenting). On a personal level, I think Sir Alex is right to discipline players who are selfish and do not put the club before their own interests; however, in Rooney’s case, a small exception can be made, considering that he carried the club on his shoulders the previous season. Sir Alex needs to take all of this into account in making any determinations on how to proceed. One way to address this is best captured by a colleague, “superstars are individuals, and at the end, they still need a team to perform…so, if the superstar is delivering constantly that means the rest of the team is not! Eventually, the team needs to give the superstar a break and deliver on their own.” Sir Alex needs to give Rooney a break, but establish clear parameters around his behavior and professional conduct. In addition, the rest of the team needs to be scolded and shamed into increasing their level of performance so that they are a ‘team’ and not a ‘one man show.’

What do you think Sir Alex should do?

8 replies
  1. Devesh Naidoo
    Devesh Naidoo says:

    Great article Kev.... I think Rooney should leave though... I think Rooney is going to be like Paul Gascoigne..Rooney gives me the impression that he will never have his head screwed on right..compare to Ronaldo who sets a goal and then moves to achieve it..whether individual or team level...i say give Rooney to Real and 40million and get Ronaldo back

  2. Silvia
    Silvia says:

    Rooney is a typical product of a society with a high level of inequality, where boys from social guettos can only achieve money, respect, success, etc by doing sports and dropping their education on the way (apparently Rooney was good at maths at secondary school but did not do A levels due to his commitment to Everton and later Manchester United football practice.), These young men are turn into idols made of clay, as soon as something is wrong (e.g binge drinking, bad counselling, marital problems), they have no support or the wrong support (from agents that suck them dry in management fees), or the education to deal with pressure and the demands from society. Hence they hold to the bottle, the womanizing and make their lives a disgrace (e.g Gasgoine (alcoholic, bipolar, wife beater), Best (more or less the same), etc).

  3. Kevin Desouza
    Kevin Desouza says:

    Yup, I could not agree more with you. One thing I am noticing is that the Rooney-like superstars are not just in Football, but are now common across all sports. For instance, consider the case of bad worm or Dennis the Menace, Dennis Rodman and his days of playing with the Chicago Bulls. Had it not been for another great coach, and manager, Phil Jackson, he would have never played at this true potential. The challenge for managers is to find ways to harness the talents of the immature, yet high potential and innovative, players. In today’s press conference, Sir Alex noted that Rooney is refusing to sign an extension and wants to leave MUFC. I do think there is still time for the manager (father) and player (son) to make amends and resolve the situation. Rooney can blossom as a player under the tutelage of Sir Alex and the support of MUFC.

  4. Ke Ding
    Ke Ding says:

    Very interesting article, Kevin. I really like the second point you made that Sir Alex Ferguson should try to let the team manage Wayne. But, I don't think Ferguson should keep Wayne on the pitch no matter how bad his performance is. There is possibility that he encumbers the whole team, gets booed by the supporters, because the competition in Premier League is so cruel and not every Red Devils supporter has so much patience. Even worse, Rooney will be provoked by the supporters (I don't think he would lose heart though). If there is quarrel between Rooney and fans, the situation is going to be irreversible - Man Utd. has to sell Rooney. What Ferguson should do, I think, is give Rooney a short break. Before the break, Ferguson should have enough communication with his star, reassuring his anxiety, and maybe Ryan and Raul Scholes can help too. But hide the truth from the public, and just announce that Rooney is suffering from a injury... The keyword has always been communication.

  5. Silvia
    Silvia says:

    These guys are idols for many young people. ANd what is the message told to this young people? Be a womanizer, alcoholic, etc, as far as you perform in the field, we will make an idol of you and pay you more money than you can spend. It does not matter if you are a brute, beat your wife, etc. That is so sad!

  6. Kevin Desouza
    Kevin Desouza says:

    Good points, Ke. I think one issue that Sir Alex needs to contend with is whether Rooney is in a position to listen. If so, then getting Giggs involved would help. I agree the communication is critical, especially about how expectations are going to be managed.

  7. vivek venkatramani
    vivek venkatramani says:

    Sir Alex should be careful about the consequences that Man U might have to face if Rooney leaves now as against when Beckham and Van Nistelroy left. Rooney being one of the best performers for them over the last few years is just going through a rough patch which happens to all which could be because of burn-out due to over use.

    I agree with your that the role of experienced players like Ryan Giggs is very important in this case. Giggs should talk not only to Rooney but also to Sir Alex to tell him the player's perspective of the consequences of Rooney leaving the team now. Giggs was part of the team when Beckham and Van Nistelroy were shown the door and has seen the effect on the team and so should definitely convey his concerns if he has.

    I also agree that Sir Alex should talk to Rooney and convey the reasons for benching him. Any miscommunciation could lead to serious consequences for the team overall where they could risk the loss of not only Rooney but also other members of the team.

    Overall, I really liked the article and enjoyed reading it.

  8. Kevin Desouza
    Kevin Desouza says:

    Good points, Vivek. I do agree with you that the Rooney case is different when compared to Beckham or van Nistelrooy. Beckham and Ruud were past their prime. Given that we know now that Rooney has expressed a clear desire to leave the club, what becomes interesting is how the rest of the team copes with this. Players who have wanted to impress, will now have an opportunity to do so. Berbatov and Nani have impressed me this season. Especially, Nani, who has stepped up, improved his game, and is now taking more a leadership role.

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