In an interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme for the March meeting with Wolves, Jack Rodwell talks about the pressure of expectation as England’s hottest young talent, a determination to atone for the player’s barren years, existing on the same wavelength as a collection of the planet’s best footballers, an unbreakable bond with Everton and a new challenge Down Under.
Jack Rodwell thinks back to keeping company with the legion of global superstars in the Manchester City team he joined from Everton a decade ago.
He was 21 when he went to City – a move that stirred “mixed emotions” for a player who considers Everton “family” – to team up with champion performers including David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez.
“I was playing with the best players in the world and needed to be on their wavelength,” reflects Rodwell.
Did he meet that demand, then?
“You know what,” begins Rodwell, “I did.
“I didn’t feel out of place. When I played, I felt, ‘I can hold my own, here’, that I was good enough technically.
“It was just a case of staying healthy and on the pitch but I struggled with injuries a bit in the first year and was in and out.”
There in microcosm is the story of large parts of Rodwell’s career, which is gaining renewed impetus in Australia with Western Sydney Wanderers.
Rodwell would, in all likelihood, have spent the summer before leaving Everton playing in two major tournaments – the 2012 European Championship and subsequent Olympic Games – but for the onset of the hamstring problems that would plague one of the most naturally-gifted English ball players of a generation.
He watched on television “because I wanted to support my country”, taking solace from the thought of those international competitions he would, surely, contest.
“That is was what would have been going through my head,” says Rodwell. “It probably added to my motivation.
“I’d have been thinking, ‘Let’s knuckle down and have a good couple of seasons and, who knows, maybe I’ll be involved in the next tournament.”
Rodwell, however, was limited to one more England appearance – his third cap – from the bench against Brazil after a debut City campaign that featured 15 games and two goals for the midfielder.
He appeared 10 times – starting four matches – as Manchester City reclaimed the Premier League title in 2013/14, Rodwell thwarted by a mix of muscle injuries and the exit of manager Roberto Mancini.
Rodwell intends to cash in a proportion of those lost games before he’s done with football.
Uppermost in his mind is compensating for the barren period since leaving Blackburn Rovers at the end of 2018/19.
Rodwell played twice in 17 months with Sheffield United. His final game for the Yorkshire club and debut in the A-League for Western Sydney last November were separated by more than 16 months. Or 503 days, to be precise.
“I don’t even have to motivate myself in the mornings,” says Rodwell. “The urge is already there.
“I am desperate to play and prove how well I can do.
“The frustration of not stringing together the games I wanted over the past couple of years has been eating away at me.
“Now I think, ‘There you go, there is your opportunity, every day. You wanted it’.
“I started young, but there’s not loads of miles on the clock.
“I’ve not had 40-game seasons that physically wear you down. As long as I feel like this, age is just a number.”
It feels like we’ve come full cycle when Rodwell’s age is a point of discussion.
He celebrated his 31st birthday this week, which is why the matter of longevity is pertinent.
The talk 15 years ago was of the boy just out of school but ready for Everton’s First Team.
Rodwell was two days shy of his 17th birthday when he made his Premier League debut as a substitute, at Sunderland, in March 2008, three months after coming on in a UEFA Cup game against AZ Alkmaar in Holland.
He started the opening three league matches of the following 2008/09 campaign, dropping to the bench following the purchases of midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Segundo Castillo, and tallied 25 appearances across the competitions, including a notable role in Everton’s passage to the 2009 FA Cup final.
“Alkmaar sticks in my mind,” says Rodwell.
“You don’t think you’ve made it, but you’re thinking, ‘Blinkin’ heck, this is what I have worked for, this is the reward’.
“It was such a special moment. My childhood was Everton, it is ingrained in me.
“The other kids were going to each other’s houses, hanging out.
“I did a bit of that, but it was pretty much school and Everton, which is where my friends were.
“One year before my debut, I was at Goodison watching those players and playing as them on FIFA.
“I grew up an Evertonian and nothing will ever change how special it was to play for the Club.
“In that first full season, I wasn’t putting pressure on myself, thinking I’d be the star player.
“I thought I could break through as a good up-and-coming player, who the manager could trust.
“There was a good, good bunch of midfielders. When you sign two more, you wonder where it puts you in the pecking order.
“But that is part of being at a big club. I wanted to play but in the same breath, if I was on the bench for a game, I was still 17.”
Those watching Rodwell in his formative Everton years would have witnessed an authoritative centre-half, who owned a prodigious passing range.
“When I was really little, I would score all the goals, but I was a big lad and when I joined Everton [aged seven] they put me at the back,” says Rodwell.
And they kept him there until he reached the seniors. It is testament to the player’s footballing intellect that manager David Moyes had no qualms about Rodwell’s capacity to adapt in midfield.
More recently, Rodwell regularly played centre-half for Blackburn and reflects on the campaign as “one of my most enjoyable… up there with my Everton seasons”.
Continues Rodwell: “It is easier for a midfielder to transition to centre-back than the other way round.”
Rodwell, then, was “thrust into” his midfield assignment with Everton.
“You have to learn on the job, which I was fine doing,” he says.
“I always had good feet, I was the centre-back who would dribble out with the ball.
“Technically, it wasn’t a problem, it was the positioning.
“Everything is in front of you at centre-back, now it was 360 degrees. You have to be sharper on the ball.
“Steve Round (Moyes’ assistant) was a brilliant coach and would do extra sessions with me. He was very good at identifying where I needed to improve.”
Rodwell played 81 games across the three seasons before leaving Everton – he finished with 109 appearances and eight goals – the highlight probably a weaving run and finish to seal victory over Manchester United in February 2010.
Around 20 months later, in October 2011, Rodwell was sent off in the 23rd minute of a Merseyside derby for a shuddering but legal challenge on Luis Suarez. The red card would be rescinded but Everton lost to two late goals.
The punishment, regardless of its injustice, convinced Rodwell to modify his approach to tackling. Wherever possible, he avoided going to ground.
“It wasn’t even a foul,” begins Rodwell, “and at Everton, you had to get stuck in.
“The Premier League is so fast, if you are a second too late – which I wasn’t in that instance – you get sent off and feel you’re doing your team a disservice.
“You need to be a bit shrewder.”
Rodwell won his maiden England caps, against Spain and Sweden at Wembley, the month after that derby blow, but in the second match suffered one of his early hamstring issues.
The problems blighted his final campaign with Everton and both years at Manchester City.
“I put pressure on myself when I joined Manchester City,” says Rodwell.
“Then you start getting injured and think… not, ‘I am letting myself and the team down’, but, ‘You need to not get injured’.
“Then you rush back, which I did a few times, and that is the worst thing to do.
“But the manager signed you and put his faith in you, so you think, ‘Surely, you have to repay him’.
“You can only do that if you’re fit.
“When you’re not, you start thinking, ‘Oh god, I wonder what he’s thinking’.
“But it is out of your control. People outside the club don’t see the work to prevent those problems and to get back.”
The transfer to City, says Rodwell, “was a great opportunity, and the money was good for Everton, so it made sense, all round”.
“I had never envisaged leaving, it just kind of happened,” continues Rodwell.
“It was mixed emotions, bittersweet.
“Really exciting but I was leaving my boyhood team.”
Rodwell and Mancini had “a really good conversation” towards the end of the player’s first season about plans for the following campaign.
It was “a big disappointment”, therefore, when the Italian boss was dismissed following an FA Cup final defeat by Wigan Athletic.
Rodwell stayed for one season under Manuel Pellegrini before joining Sunderland ahead of 2014/15 and playing 73 matches across the ensuing three years.
There was a first visit to Goodison as an opposition player early in his second season with the north-east side.
“It was very weird, I am an Evertonian, I grew up wearing that royal blue jersey and fighting for Everton,” says Rodwell. “I view Goodison as my home.
“I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d scored, especially in front of the Gwladys Street.
“You have to try to do well for yourself and your team.
“But it is like having a fight with a family member.
“You want to win the fight but, blimey, you don’t want to hurt your family.”
Rodwell’s fourth season with Sunderland was a virtual write-off.
Three of his five starts came in the EFL Trophy, against Scunthorpe United, Doncaster Rovers and Grimsby Town, and he didn’t kick a ball following the appointment of Chris Coleman as boss in November 2017.
The manager who signed Rodwell for Western Sydney, Carl Robinson, suspected the player “lost his enjoyment of football” at the height of his difficulties.
Not so, says Rodwell, but retaining his drive required some willpower.
“It was hard to motivate myself, I wanted to do something and wasn’t allowed,” says Rodwell.
“How do you get yourself up for those [EFL Trophy] games, when you’re used to playing at the highest level and feel your situation is unjust?
“But I managed it.
“The motivation comes from within. I had to do what was right for me, which was to train hard and give my all when I was asked to play.
“I was still enjoying the training sessions.
“I could easily have sacked training off – but what good would that have done me? None.”
Rodwell eventually joined Blackburn and confesses it was only the prospect of a transfer abroad that stopped him extending a one-year deal at Ewood Park.
“I was 28 and thought playing in another country would be a good experience,” says Rodwell.
“It was such a difficult decision. I held out for a couple of options but they didn’t quite work out and I signed for Sheffield United.”
Immediate playing opportunities at Bramall Lane were slim, with Chris Wilder’s team storming their first Premier League campaign after promotion.
Despite the mutual respect between Rodwell and Wilder – “He is a really good guy and really good manager” – a change of boss raised the possibility of increased action.
“But,” says Rodwell, “I’d slipped in training and thought I’d hurt my quad, but it was my hip.
“I was playing through pain and training with injections.
“Eventually, I needed an operation that wiped me out for the rest of the season.”
Rodwell laughs at the notion of bowing to the formerly repetitive injuries.
“Because when I am fit,” he sounds, “I feel brilliant, as strong and fast as ever.
“If I felt the injuries had really impaired me, I’d start thinking, ‘Okay, what now?’
“But it is the opposite.
“I was itching to get a new club to prove I am still good enough.”
Rodwell utterly rejects any depiction of Australia’s top division as a “retirement league”. The athleticism of “young and fit” players is a perfect test for the Englishman’s replenished “engine to get up and down”.
His wife Alana is from the country and, says Rodwell, “I love Australia and was always going to have that life here after football, regardless.
“I am not coming here to chill. I can do that whenever.
“I want to be the best player in the league, have these seasons where I play every game and show I am durable and have just been unlucky.
“My mentality has always been to try to be the best player. Even at Manchester City, that wasn’t the expectation from outside, but it was what I was thinking.
“Other than that, I’ve had that label from the age of seven. The pressure of, ‘Jack Rodwell, next England superstar’, was always there.
“It is not new and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Rodwell is limiting his goals to the short term, aiming to excite Western Sydney’s “great fanbase” and help the club fulfil towering ambitions.
There is incentive, too, in the prospect of his two young children – who treasure their Western Sydney Wanderers jerseys with dad’s name on the back – watching Rodwell play professional football.
“They are my biggest supporters and it is brilliant,” says Rodwell.
“My wife and son and daughter are the most important people in my life and everything I do is for them.”
Jack Rodwell is overdue a stroke of fortune and, with any luck at all, football is what he’ll be doing for a while yet.