Rescue mission

Inside look at Wayne Rooney’s dramatic rescue mission in County Derby

Wayne Rooney has been in Derby County for two years. First as a player-coach, now as a manager.

His debut came in a 2-1 home win over Barnsley on January 2, 2020, a night when what for so long seemed like a surreal story came true – England and Manchester United’s top scorer and one of English football’s greatest talents of the past 20 years donned a Rams shirt.

He made key contributions to victory. His precise free kick prompted Jack Marriott to give Derby the lead just before half-time and Rooney, wearing the captain’s armband, was also instrumental in the game-winning goal scored by Martyn Waghorn.

Only three of the 11 players who started against Barnsley are still on the Derby squad – Curtis Davies, Max Bird and Jason Knight. Only six of the 18 in service that night are still Rams players, underlining the extent of the changes that have taken place at the club over the past 24 months.

Add to that the almost constant turmoil that rocked the club off the pitch during this time and Rooney would be forgiven to think it’s been more than two years since he stepped through the gate of Pride Park.

As a player, his influence on the team and on the young players was instantaneous. Derby have won four and drew out of six in the league and he and Tom Huddlestone gave a masterclass to the midfielder in an FA Cup victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, controlling play and making passes to will.

Rooney’s exquisite free-kicks illuminated victories over Stoke City and Preston North End, and a four-game winning streak saw Derby climb out of the play-offs at the end of the 2019-20 campaign before running out of counter high level opponents and finished the season in 10th position.

The first three months of 2020-21 have been a struggle. Derby sank deep in the league as form deserted the team and individuals, including Rooney, although his magnificent free kick delivered the only victory over Norwich City.

Manager Phillip Cocu is gone after an eight-game winless streak and Rooney has been named co-team manager along with Liam Rosenior, Shay Given and Justin Walker. The next two games ended in loss before Rooney was given the interim reins.

At first it was slow, four draws in five games, before the results improved. Eight wins in 13 league games took the Rams out of the last three and seemingly to the safety of the middle of the table, but the wheels came off in the final 10 weeks of the season.

Rooney was appointed permanent manager in January of last year, but a surprising and hugely disappointing streak of just one win in 14 games in March, April and May has left Derby clinging to its championship status.

Survival ended in a nerve-wracking final day when a 3-3 draw with Sheffield on Wednesday coupled with Rotherham United’s draw at Cardiff saw Derby escape relegation while on Wednesday Rotherham and Wycombe Wanderers were fallen in League One.

Wayne Rooney celebrates Derby goal against Fulham

Relief was the dominant emotion and Derby had been lucky. There have been criticisms against Rooney the manager and what a young coaching staff is. Some criticism was deserved, largely not because of extenuating circumstances, including Krystian Bielik’s long-term injury and the club’s transfer embargo that restricted the team’s much-needed build to loan deals on the final day. of the January transfer window.

The transfer embargo, part of the club’s ongoing struggle with the EFL, continued to strangle Rooney’s plans over the summer. It was frustrating, annoying even, but he, his staff and the players got stuck in a difficult situation.

Ten points put the Derby in 12th place in mid-September, a stable start all things considered before the hammer blow of a 12-point deduction after the club took office.

Derby fell to the bottom of the table with minus two points. They came out of the red and back in the dark before a new nine-point penalty for breaking the league’s profitability and sustainability rules brought the Rams down to minus three.

No team has remained in the Championship after being deducted from 12 points, let alone a total of 21, and it is the scale of the task that awaits Derby.

The Rams have won four and have drawn in eight games since that second points penalty, a tremendous response, especially as five of those games were against teams currently in the top-eight.

The players have received deserved praise for their efforts, as have the fans for their unwavering and loyal support, but when it comes to key contributions, Rooney’s role is there and is being recognized, and rightly so.

Derby County manager Wayne Rooney and assistant Liam Rosenior (right) on the sideline
Derby County manager Wayne Rooney and assistant Liam Rosenior (right) on the sideline

His management of the team impressed as was the way he galvanized the group of players. He and his staff have forged a unity in the camp, a determination, a spirit and a fight, all characteristics that will be needed in the second half of the season.

There is a calm in Rooney the manager, win, lose or draw. He sees the game clearly, as the best players do, and this allows him to deliver clear messages.

Derby spent part of the preseason at Pennyhill Park in Surrey. I spent a day there, interviewed Rooney, chatted with him during training sessions, and was invited to a team meeting. All of this provided a fascinating insight into his thinking and style as a manager, as well as the way he and his staff work.

There is a quiet authority about Rooney and he demands hard work from the players, but he is also open with them as communication is key, especially given the uncertainty surrounding the club.

He was a high level player. Now he has a burning desire to be a top manager. He finds himself on a fast lane in management given what has happened in Derby over the past 12 months, a fast lane that contains elements of a roller coaster. No management manual or management course could prepare a new boss for such a challenge.

Derby County manager Wayne Rooney before the Rams' pre-season friendly match against Manchester United at Pride Park.
Derby County manager Wayne Rooney before the Rams’ pre-season friendly match against Manchester United at Pride Park.

Rooney became a leader off the pitch as the club limped. He stood up when asked constantly about the takeover saga and the ongoing search for a new owner. His commitment to the club and his role is burning fiercely.

On the pitch, he guided the team to seven wins and 11 draws in 25 league appearances. Thirty-two points would have made Derby’s midfield look up rather than down had it not been for the points deduction.

They finished 2021 with a three-game winning streak to narrow the gap between them and safety to 11 points and drew Reading on Monday to maintain that gap. The odds of avoiding relegation remain slim, but they do give themselves a chance to fight.

It goes without saying that collecting points in every game and avoiding defeat is crucial in the Derby position, but it is also important not to get too discouraged if or when a loss does occur as this group of players have shown that they are will not fail when it comes to fighting.

If Derby survives, it won’t be the ‘great escape’, it will be the greatest of football’s breakouts and will be a feather in the players’ caps and an important addition to Rooney’s managerial resume.

He, his staff and the players are doing everything they can to restore hope and make the club proud, but they need help, they deserve to be helped in the form of an ongoing buyout.

Rooney also needs to be able to put his plans in place for the team, which means being able to sort out contracts for players he wants to keep beyond this season. It’s a crucial month and there are only two games left before key defender Phil Jagielka’s contract expires.

Derby has been under administration for over three months and although finding a buyer for the club is a complex affair and has never been straightforward, time is running out as we are still waiting for the announcement of a preferred bidder. It was hoped that this would happen before Christmas and then on Christmas Eve, administrators said “we plan to name Preferred Bidder status imminently.” This has yet to happen, so the frustration and loss of fans’ patience is understandable. Of course, the whole process cannot be played in public, but it is reasonable for them to want to know exactly what the delays are.

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