Chris Wilder is making a habit of finding a home for football’s waifs and strays – players who once promised much but have seen their careers drift off course. In amongst his tight-knit Sheffield United squad is Ravel Morrison, the maverick former Manchester United midfielder, and now Jack Rodwell, who has signed a contract until the end of season. Both started in the FA Cup third-round win over non-League AFC Fylde.
Remarkably, Rodwell is still only 28. He’s been in professional football for more than a decade but has failed to make anywhere near the number of appearances that his early introduction to the game suggested he was destined for. A teenage prodigy when he made his breakthrough at Everton, his second full season remains the most fruitful of his career, as he featured in 36 matches.
Even then, Rodwell was always something of an enigma. Big, strong and bounding, his virtues were primarily physical. He was a strapping figure who could play in the centre of defence or midfield with a similarly robust style. The hope that greater technical and tactical understanding could be welded onto his considerable frame prompted a big-money move to Manchester City in 2012, where everything started to unravel.
Needed to pad out the squad and help fulfil quotas for domestic players, Rodwell played infrequently. Injury problems were a factor but, in truth, he simply wasn't up to the standard required. There’s no shame in that; very few are. He arrived on a five-year contract but lasted for just two. Although a couple of trophies were collected, they owed very little to him personally. His international ambitions faded after three England caps, the last of which came against Brazil in 2013.
Upon leaving, Rodwell offered a warning to other young English players about the dangers of joining a club with almost limitless resources and an expectation of uninterrupted success. The pressures are enormous and the performances levels well beyond most. Scott Sinclair and Adam Johnson had similarly unfulfilling experiences and ultimately had to go elsewhere in search of playing time, their stock having plummeted.
In Rodwell’s case, a move to Sunderland, and the chance to be a mainstay at an established Premier League club, followed. After a couple of frustrating years on the margins, he hoped to become a key figure but the decision ended up being a disaster for all concerned. His contribution was limited as the club struggled to keep its head above water under a succession of managers. The uncertainty was debilitating.
Signed by Gus Poyet for £10million in the summer of 2014, his four years at the Stadium of Light were an unmitigated failure. After Poyet was sacked, six more permanent managers came and went during Rodwell’s time on Wearside. None, except former Everton mentor David Moyes, thought much of him. In his third season, he finally played his part in a league win from the start, 1,370 days after his previous one. Even then he had to be taken off injured at half time.
Following relegation and a summer clear-out, he remained the highest-earning player on the club's books. Desperate as Sunderland were to move Rodwell on, interest in signing him was almost non-existent. Doubts persisted about his desire. He became a costly burden, widely disliked by supporters who accused him of clinging on to a well-paid contract to the detriment of his career.
Regarded as a fragile, weak-willed and unreliable player, Sunderland couldn’t wait to be rid of him. Unfair though Rodwell may feel that perception to be, he became a lightning rod for discontent during their descent into League One. He was held up as a symbol of the poor decision-making, financial excess and lack of moral courage that had crippled the club. This wasn't the route that his career was meant to take.
After finally agreeing to cancel his Sunderland contract in 2018, Rodwell spent last season at Blackburn Rovers. He was offered an extension but decided to leave. Except for a curious trial at Roma, which came to nothing, he had few options to choose from. Several months were spent vainly searching for a new club until salvation came in the form of Sheffield United. Invited to train with the Blades, his efforts were rewarded with a short-term deal.
Wilder hopes to provide the platform for Rodwell to resurrect a career that seemed to have gone into terminal decline. Due to a variety of factors, there have already been too many missed opportunities and wasted seasons, but the one-time wonderkid now has an unexpected chance to prove he’s still good enough for the Premier League. He can’t afford to let it slip.