“F*ck off back to America, Rooney,”
One Birmingham City fan had seen enough. He expressed his anger at the home dugout as his side crumbled to another disappointing defeat.
The jubilant Hull City fans tucked away in the Railway End began to chant, “You’re getting sacked in the morning.” There was little surprise that opposition fans would gloat at the misfortune of a rival and especially their high profile manager.
The surprise was that some Birmingham fans in the Tilton Road end joined in.
You would think this was a manager under fire and under pressure after overseeing a period of decline, unable to stop the rot — but it was Wayne Rooney taking charge of Birmingham for the first time at St Andrew’s.
It wasn’t the usual welcome for an incumbent manager, but then this isn’t a usual situation. While new managers are usually seen as saviours for a struggling side, Rooney is replacing John Eustace, a local man who had saved the team from relegation and guided Birmingham to a lofty — and rare — position in the play-off places.
So, how would the controversial move be welcomed by the Blues fans?
The Athletic went to St Andrew’s to find out.
For generations Blues fans have been gathering at The Royal George off Garrison Lane as part of their pre-match ritual.
On occasions they have had success to toast, but generally the beer is used to wash away the nerves or drown their sorrows.
One patron stopped to speak to The Athletic and give his verdict on the surprising decision of Birmingham’s new US owners to sack Eustace and bring in Rooney, who had just left his role at MLS side D.C. United.
Ray Gardner, aged 67, has been watching Birmingham regularly since 1969, so the phrase ‘tired and weary’ from the club’s anthem ‘Keep Right On’ could be directly applied to him. It’s been a long, long road indeed.
So how would he welcome Rooney?
“With stony silence,” he says. “I won’t boo him, but I won’t applaud him.
“There were rumblings a few weeks ago that John Eustace might not be up to the job but that didn’t mean replacing him with Wayne Rooney.
“I’m trying not to be pessimistic but it’s a publicity thing isn’t it?
“I’d love him to succeed, of course I would, but I don’t honestly think it’s the right move.”
Around the corner, in the court-yard outside the Peaky Blinders Bar and Lounge, fans gathered and while there was sympathy for Eustace, there was guarded optimism for the future under new ownership. But it was tempered by the experiences of the past, most notably in 2016 when Birmingham were again challenging for promotion only to end up in a relegation scrap after manager Gary Rowett was replaced by another high profile name in former Italy international Gianfranco Zola.
“It will end up the same, with a relegation scrap,” one fan, who declined to offer more for The Athletic, said.
Others were a little more positive, although reluctant to get too enthusiastic, scarred by so many previous false dawns.
“I’m not overly confident, but at the same time, I’m quite optimistic as well – It’s a funny one,” says Martin King, aged 52, who believes part of the decision was to grow revenues for the club and that the decision was taken before the Albion victory.
“I thought Eustace was hard done by and I feel sorry for the guy. His heart was in the club, but I don’t think he was the right man to take us forward long term.
“Whether Rooney is the right man, time will tell.”
A common theme was occurring.
“I think he’s trying to play possession football,” Paul Ford, aged 39, says. “There’s an argument we haven’t got the players to do that yet, but let’s see.
“There is scepticism but I think you have to try and be optimistic.”
“You’re not always good on your first game as a manager, so you have to give him time,” 16-year-old George Williams says. “So I’m going to give him time. I can’t knock him. It’s not fair.”
“I hope Rooney does well,” says 17-year-old Megan Cruise. “Everyone thinks he’s like, you know, not the best, but I don’t think he’ll do badly.”
“The decision was a bit mad, but I think for the best, isn’t it?” 31-year-old Liam Flynn inside the Royal George says, not sounding too convinced. “Onwards and upwards.”
Behind the Main Stand 48-year-old Rob Darney was optimistic of a good reception for the Blues’ new boss — the tenth in seven years since Rowett’s sacking. It has been a vicious circle for a decade, if not longer.
“We’re going to back him for now, but he’s got to win,” he says. “It’s pressure.
“I think come Christmas, that’s when we need to start judging. I think they will back him but give him a couple of months.”
Inside the stadium, as the players walked out to fireworks, blue and white smoke floated into the sky. Was this the arrival of a new pontiff or a case of the Emperors New Clothes? Some fans were undecided and while there was applause when Rooney’s name was read out, it was hardly the rapturous welcome a new manager usually gets.
It was a muted atmosphere and Rooney’s players didn’t help. Emmanuel Longelo’s sloppy backpass gifted Liam Delap the opening goal.
Rooney wants his Blues to be a possession-based side, confident as they play out from the back, but his team looked nervous under pressure, gifting Hull possession with loose passes that led to several chances which meant that nervousness spread to the crowd as well. On Rooney’s appointment the club said they wanted no fear football, but there was plenty of fear on show.
At half time one frustrated fan walked past the press bench and cried out: “They don’t know what they’re doing.” It looked that way.
The Birmingham fans tried to rally their team, who made a bright start to the second half, and there were a couple of familiar renditions of the club anthem but once again that nervousness descended like the autumnal mist.
Then Hull scored their second, a sensational strike from range from Jaden Philogene — a former Aston Villa player, just to rub salt into the wounds.
Birmingham fans began to leave as Hull celebrated. They had seen enough, for now. The trickle became a steady stream as Blues offered little indication of a comeback. Worryingly, Rooney would later question a lack of effort from his team in the final ten minutes.
The rapidly emptying stadium only made the voices of frustration echo more. The call for Rooney’s immediate return across the Atlantic could clearly be heard, and it seemed shocking, but almost unsurprising. This is a fanbase who have been through the mill down the years.
Loud boos rang out at the final whistle from the fans that remained, as Rooney stepped across his technical area to shake opposite number Liam Rosenior’s hand, his former assistant at Derby County.
It is now two games, two defeats and no goals. It has been a difficult start to say the least and the atmosphere inside St Andrew’s was in stark contrast to their last home outing, the derby win over West Bromwich Albion.
If it wasn’t already clear, Rooney’s reign is going to require time and patience.
But with a fanbase cautious, and a few already hostile, and owners in a hurry, it is unclear how much of either he will get.
(Top photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)