One season on from his move to Manchester City, the young English midfielder stands at a crucial juncture
Amidst the ashes of a depressing end to the season for Manchester City, there was one ray of flickering light. While a team already on their holidays succumbed to Norwich at home, 22-year-old Jack Rodwell ended his frustrating season with a flourish, playing the box-to-box role with energy and aplomb, and scoring two goals, the second of which was a real peach. As the Mancini era slowly and painfully receded from view, City fans began to look to the future with cautious optimism. Amidst the talk on forums and Twitter of what the next few seasons might hold, one opinion was aired frequently: “Rodwell will be a top player for us, if he can stay fit.”
If he can stay fit. Next season could well be the one that determines Jack Rodwell’s future. Will he go on to be a mainstay for Manchester City and England, or join the long list of young players for whom injury put paid to potential? For Rodwell, that ‘if’ has never been bigger.
When the then Champions of England paid £12m for Jack Rodwell in August 2012, the 21-year-old was no longer considered a hot prospect. Indeed, after a season blighted by injury and devoid of standout performances, Everton fans were happy to sell him if it meant they could keep truly crucial players such as Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini. The Manchester City faithful, meanwhile, were relatively happy to see a young, eager lad from the North West join the club. At the same time, the announcement was met with disappointment from some quarters, the signing coming late in the window and being the first of a frustrating summer. Having witnessed their club fail miserably in their pursuit of Roma’s Daniele De Rossi, it was hard for some City fans not to see the talented but injury prone Rodwell as a mere consolation prize.
Nonetheless, Rodwell was thrown straight into the side on the opening day of the season, and acquitted himself well as City barely overcame Southampton in a chaotic 3-2 win. Over the next few weeks the young midfielder put in solid if unspectacular performances, until a crucial error against Borussia Dortmund made him a target for the boo-boys. A little over a week later, Rodwell pulled his hamstring while playing for England U21s.
In the period Rodwell spent on the injury table, the likelihood of City retaining their title shrunk with each passing week. By the time he made his next start, his club were largely playing for pride, with the chance of overhauling Manchester United so slim it was almost impossible. Rodwell made his return against Chelsea on February 24th, and despite only playing 54 minutes was one of City’s star performers, displaying energy, skill, and tenaciousness in abundance (in other words, the qualities City were lacking throughout the season). Suddenly, having been off their radar for the last few months, Rodwell was now a source of great excitement and pride for City fans. Here was a young, talented and hardworking English midfielder, who in full flow was tremendously exciting to watch. Tied to their club for the next few years, he could be a secret weapon, the player others had given up on.
Of course, this talk all came with the familiar caveat – frequently inserted into conversation as if to allay undue enthusiasm – if he can stay fit. On this occasion, Rodwell did not stay fit, pulling up after just 25 minutes in City’s next game, away to Aston Villa. The sense of disappointment and sympathy from the away end was palpable, and young Jack cut a dejected figure indeed as he was led from the pitch, wincing with each step.
This latest setback was particularly disheartening, given that just days earlier, Rodwell had talked in the press of his confidence that his injury problems were behind him, having made significant lifestyle changes (including moving house and changing car) to help combat the issues. By now, City fans actively wanted the young midfielder to succeed, tracking his rehabilitation closely and looking out for him in training videos. When he scored a hat-trick in a reserve game v Oldham Athletic, it was held up in some quarters as proof that he would go on to be a true great. No doubt some City fans betrayed their desperation with such comments, but having seen the great Paul Lake play for your club will do that to you.
Rodwell made his latest return from injury away to Swansea on May 5th, with just four games of the season remaining. His season and City’s culminated with a brace and a man of the match performance v Norwich, enough to keep the fires of optimism burning until next season.
For now, fans can only pray he stays fit over the summer and has an uninterrupted pre-season. It spoke volumes that when Rodwell was called up by England manager Roy Hodgson for the post-season friendlies against Ireland and Brazil, most fans were questioning what good all that travelling and unnecessary minutes would do for his body, rather than expressing happiness at the possibility of Rodwell adding to his two caps.
Therein lies the problem. Rodwell is so fragile that fans are almost afraid to see him picked. On the pitch, the player’s every minor limp, every grimace, is taken as evidence of an impending layoff. At the same time, his extraordinary potential commands that he must play whenever possible. Generally, his performances this season have ranged from solid to excellent, and he boasts 90% passing accuracy in the league. On the other hand, he has completed 90 minutes for City on just two occasions.
In the short-term, Rodwell’s future is in Manchester. He still has four years remaining on his contract, and the club have seen enough from him to believe he’s worth persisting with. However, the fact remains that his injury record counts against him, and City simply cannot afford to trust him with a starting spot. Their transfer targets bear this out, plus the fact that Yaya Touré, the player many fans are hoping will be succeeded by Rodwell, has recently signed a new contract.
Rodwell’s situation exemplifies the split psychology of Manchester City’s fanbase. Despite the ‘new’ City being very successful and startlingly ambitious, most fans just cannot shake off the habitual pessimism of old. Thus, every claim of “he’ll be a top player for us,” must be countered with “if his hamstrings hold up”. Steven Gerrard is often held up as an example of a great player who overcame severe injury problems early in his career. Other fans feel it is their solemn duty to list the many players who weren’t so lucky.
So, what next for Jack Rodwell? He could be one of the greatest English players of the next decade, or he could become another sobering “what if?” story. It’s impossible to predict, and almost a year after joining Manchester City we are none the wiser as to what his futureholds. All we can hope for is that in a few years’ time, “if he can stay fit” will be a phrase firmly consigned to the past.