Wayne Rooney was, by his own admission, never all that interested in school. But one subject intrigued him more than others: religious studies. The young Rooney was raised as a Catholic, attended a local primary called Our Lady and St Swithin’s in Croxteth, said his prayers most evenings and still considers himself a man of devout faith. “Wayne’s recall of stories about the life of Jesus is quite detailed,” read an early school report.

In late 2010 Rooney was in turmoil. His frustration at Manchester United had bubbled over into a sensational transfer request. Immediately, however, he was overcome by guilt and self-reproach. “My mind goes into another spin,” he writes in his autobiography. “I feel gutted at what I’ve done. How stupid are you, Wayne? What are you doing?” As it turned out, his desperation for forgiveness – to absolve his wrongs – would provide the fuel for his last great season as a player.

Rooney’s career lends itself to all kinds of different themes but perhaps the most powerful is this idea of guilt and redemption. Many footballers have erred like Rooney but few repent quite like him. When he was sent off in a crucial World Cup qualifier in 2011, he insisted on writing a personal letter of apology to Uefa. There is an anguished, almost childlike penitence there, one that in our current age of faux-emoting and corporate non-apologies feels almost refreshing. Rooney does not just request forgiveness; he supplicates and begs for it, almost as if the pain of sinning is worse than the punishment.

Take, by way of further example, an interview Rooney conducted to promote his new Amazon documentary. Most of the media coverage centred on his admissions of alcohol misuse at the height of his fame: not a new revelation but one that allowed lots of websites to put the words “Rooney” and “booze” next to each other in a headline. But one of the more revealing snippets was his guilt at going to the 2006 World Cup despite not being fully fit. “To this day, I feel terrible for Jermain Defoe,” he discloses. “I literally took his spot at the World Cup and took his dream away.”

Never mind that even a half-fit Rooney was probably worth the gamble, given his talent and form. Never mind that Defoe’s omission owed more to Sven-Göran Eriksson’s bizarre decision to pick the uncapped teenager Theo Walcott. Somehow – almost 16 years later – Rooney still feels a sense of personal remorse, a regret that eats away at him, to the point where he feels the need to unburden himself publicly.

What else is locked away in there? The reason for dredging all this up now is Derby County. It is just over a year since Rooney took on his first managerial role, a job that has since turned into a particularly undignified form of masochism. Administration – which Rooney found out about on Sky Sports News – was followed by a 21-point deduction and almost certain relegation to League One. Liquidation remains a distinct possibility. At the start of the January transfer window Rooney was assured by the administrators that no player sales would be required. Nine players ended up leaving.

Wayne Rooney has been forced to cope with numerous handicaps at Derby County but refuses to walk away.
Wayne Rooney has been forced to cope with numerous handicaps at Derby County but refuses to walk away. Photograph: George Wood/Getty Images

Meanwhile it is down to Rooney to salvage the wreckage left by the former owner, Mel Morris. Training equipment and away travel have been paid out of his own pocket. At times the strain and workload have forced Rooney to sleep in his office. And remember, this is perhaps the most famous English footballer of his generation, a man who could walk away tomorrow with his reputation enhanced and a clutch of superior job offers on the table. What, exactly, is he still doing there? The uncharitable view – because this is modern football and there must always be an ulterior motive – is that Rooney is sticking around out of self-interest, to make himself look good. It’s a free hit, a dire situation that absolves him of any blame for failure. I don’t buy that. Nobody willingly puts a relegation on their CV for the kudos. But there also seems to be something more complex going on here than simple species loyalty.

For all Rooney’s many qualities as a footballer, when it came to career decisions he was often ruthlessly pragmatic. He did not hesitate to leave Everton when United came calling or to hand in a transfer request when he felt United’s ambitions no longer matched his. For this he was frequently demonised and patronised, held up as an exemplar of the modern footballer’s entitlement and moral degeneracy.

And yet, nobody could ever be more reproachful of Rooney than Rooney himself. “I wouldn’t forgive myself if I walked out [at Derby],” he has said. “What kind of person would I be if I went and laid on a beach for two weeks?” This is the Rooney guilt complex at work again: a decision borne not of ego but of duty, not out of positive incentives but of a mortal fear of judgment.

It is the decision, in other words, of a man who has long equated suffering with salvation, who learned from the earliest age that every choice must ultimately be weighed and accounted for. Watch him the next time he’s standing in the dugout. He doesn’t look thrilled to be there. He’s not doing it for plaudits or slaps on the back or a shot at the United job. He’s just a man who has endured enough long nights of the soul to know that the alternative is far, far worse.