Think of the defenders to feature in Wayne Rooney’s career and his Manchester United teammates Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand may spring to mind.
Rooney the player lined up alongside arguably the finest centre-back partnership in the world then. Rather than having the best central defenders, Rooney the manager could have none.
Eleven days before Derby County’s season starts, their squad contains nine registered senior players. Two are goalkeepers. None are centre-backs. Rooney is suffering because of the club’s past misdeeds, long before he assumed the reins, and is vowing to remain loyal to them.
“It would be easy for me to walk away because this is not ideal,” he said on Saturday. “It’s a challenge, I am a fighter. All I can do is try and bring some pride and dignity back to this club.”
Rooney might need to fight on. His record in charge of Derby is sufficiently wretched that it might deter any other club from appointing him. Their problems could render it harder to attract other managers. A takeover broke down in the summer and County are left in limbo as owner Mel Morris tries to sell. In the meantime, Rooney and Derby can feel stuck with each other.
His arrival, initially as player-coach before he replaced Phillip Cocu as manager, formed part of an addiction to celebrity. One, in Frank Lampard, almost steered them back to the Premier League. But before the big names came the big spending, the root cause of Derby’s problems.
The Football League imposed a transfer embargo until Derby resubmitted their accounts for three past years after they were found guilty of breaching financial rules. So players left and were not replaced: Martyn Waghorn’s final-day brace against Sheffield Wednesday prevented Derby from dropping into the third tier for only the third time in their history but he is now a Coventry player. Meanwhile, two of the finer players they still own, Jason Knight and Krystian Bielik, are injured.
Derby have lost to Manchester United and League Two Salford in pre-season with a squad padded out by youngsters and the nine free agents training with them. They include the unfulfilled talent Ravel Morrison and the veteran Phil Jagielka, who is three years older than Rooney, his former England and Everton teammate, plus seasoned professionals in Richard Stearman, Sone Aluko and Sam Baldock. Curtis Davies and Andre Wisdom, whose contracts with County expired in the summer, are also among them.
Part of the embargo has been relaxed. Derby can sign up to four players on free transfers, but on limited wages and for contracts of up to a year. “Derby is still a big club,” Rooney said at the weekend. “It's going to be very difficult for us to bring any players in under the circumstances we are in.”
The club has pulling power, but the team was floundering even when Rooney could perm from more players. After six victories in eight January and February matches, Derby won just one of their last 15 games. They took seven points from a possible 45. Despite that remarkable 3-3 draw with Wednesday, they only survived because of the Sheffield club’s points deduction. They only scored 36 goals in 46 league games.
Many an underlying issue predated Rooney’s appointment, but their results under him were sackable form. Leave now and he could be the opposite of Lampard, whose debut year at Derby created him other opportunities, deemed unemployable after one job.
Great players do not always make great managers, but now Rooney finds himself in a situation with similarities to what perhaps the greatest experienced at the start. Alex Ferguson began at East Stirlingshire with only eight players. He had a centre-back, but no goalkeepers.