Jack Rodwell’s football journey from England prospect to Sydney outcast | Soccer

Explaining the thinking behind his move to Australia in an interview last December, Jack Rodwell professed to have been conflicted before agreeing to sign for Western Sydney Wanderers, the A-League side he had just joined following a two-week spell in quarantine at what was once an insalubrious miners’ camp outside Darwin. While the midfielder felt he had more to offer as a player in England or elsewhere in the European big leagues, the impression was conveyed that a lack of alternative options meant relocating to Australia had to be considered.

The decision to move to Sydney was made easier by the fact that his wife is a local girl who Rodwell had met more than a decade previously while on a pre-season tour with his boyhood club Everton. It was a time in his career when he had already been identified as a future England star and the notion of playing out what appears to be his dotage in the obscurity of the A-League could scarcely have been further from his mind.

“I’m here to win trophies and play in the AFC Champions League,” he told the Athletic. “I’m not coming here to take it easy. I want to be the best player in the league.”

Last week, after scoring three goals in 14 appearances for Wanderers, Rodwell was released at the end of his contract. His former employer released a short, perfunctory statement thanking the 31-year-old for his “contribution to the club”.

It was a considerably greater contribution than he made at his previous club. Signed by Chris Wilder when Sheffield United were still in the Premier League, Rodwell was let go after a disastrous 18-month spell during which he spent just 73 minutes across two appearances on the pitch. A combination of injuries, a spell out with Covid and his inability to force his way into a high-performing side did little to disabuse the widely held notion that here was a once-stellar talent whose career was in irreversible decline.

An Everton fan who joined the club as a seven-year-old before forcing his way into the first team under David Moyes at 16, Rodwell impressed enough during his teenage years to win the first of three England caps at the age of 20 and earn a £12m move to the reigning champions Manchester City. After a promising first season under Roberto Mancini, he failed to kick on under the Italian’s successor Manuel Pellegrini, who was spoiled with midfield options and had little or no time for an injury-prone player who was invariably unavailable. After two seasons at the Etihad Stadium Rodwell agitated for a move elsewhere and elected to move to what was at the time, arguably the biggest basket-case of a club in England, a decision that would end up doing his reputation irreparable harm.

Rodwell’s four-year spell at Sunderland coincided with the club’s very public descent into a tailspin that led eventually to back-to-back relegations from the Premier League. On the pitch, he pulled off the mind-blowing feat of personally participating in 39 consecutive matches without finishing on the winning side, but it was for his contributions (or conspicuous lack thereof) behind the scenes that Rodwell became something of a footballing pariah.

Jack Rodwell shows his frustration playing for Sunderland
Rodwell became something of a footballing pariah during his struggles for Sunderland. Photograph: Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC/Getty Images

During his final two seasons on Wearside, Sunderland was reduced to the status of international laughing stock courtesy of the club hierarchy’s decision to allow a camera crew behind the scenes to record their hit fly-on-the-wall documentary Sunderland ’Til I Die. What was originally conceived as a vanity project showed a club in complete turmoil, the dysfunction permeating from the boardroom down on show for all to see.

Unfairly, by his own account, Rodwell became the poster boy for Sunderland’s decline, an apparent treatment-room staple who seemed to have no interest whatsoever in playing for employers who, despite their straitened circumstances, were reported to be paying him £70,000 a week as a non-playing Championship player who would eventually see off six different permanent managers during his time at the Stadium of Light. At one stage during the documentary’s second series, the then chief executive, Martin Bain, can be seen slamming a door and turning the air blue after failing to persuade Rodwell to terminate his contract and leave the club.

“The cameras became normal but it was a bad time for me,” said Rodwell last year. “I was in the process of getting thrown under the bus for being in the building. Everyone inside the club will tell you I wasn’t a bad lad. I did everything that was asked of me and more whereas other players wouldn’t have.” Reduced to the status of a club outcast who was resented by fans, had fallen out with his manager and was, on his rare forays from the physio room, forced to train with the kids, Rodwell left in ignominy after four largely unhappy years in 2018.

Since then, attempted career reboots in England have amounted to little and now Rodwell’s football journey will continue on the other side of the world. Following his release from Wanderers, he has been snapped up by their city rivals Sydney FC. Speaking after securing the player’s services on Friday, their head coach. Steve Corica, sounded optimistic, if endearingly naive. “Jack’s ability is unquestionable, he’s played at the very highest level and he has adapted to the Australian conditions extremely well,” he said. “I expect him to get even better this season; he is still in his peak years as a footballer and can excel in various positions.”

Although he can, there is no guarantee that he will, and all available evidence suggests Rodwell’s peak years actually came at Everton well over a decade ago. The court of public opinion has long since found him guilty of squandering his immense talent, a particularly heinous crime in football circles. Only he knows if his unfulfilled potential is the result of bad luck, bad decisions or a bad attitude, although the smart money may be on a combination of all three.

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