'Players' manager' Wayne Rooney the silver lining in Derby County's disastrous season

England great made the most out of available resources following club's financial woes, transfer embargo and points deduction but could not avoid relegation to third tier

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July 28, 2021, and a summer downpour soaks the few fans outside Derby County’s Pride Park stadium ahead of a pre-season friendly with Real Betis, who’ve chosen nearby St George’s Park to escape the heat of Seville for pre-season.

Also under a cloud is Derby boss Wayne Rooney, 35, who edges his car into the spot reserved for the first team manager 90 minutes before kick-off. Rooney is front page news for the wrong reasons after attending a party after Derby’s previous friendly.

As he walks towards the players’ entrance, past a gaggle of Derby selfie hunters and Betis fans, one dressed as a panda, Rooney deals with every single request showing no sign of the pressure he is supposedly under.

Pressure from being in charge at a club who can’t sign players, face administration, a transfer ban and multiple point deduction because of financial irregularities.

Somehow, Derby beat one of Spain’s strongest sides 1-0 to register their first pre-season win, but nine out of ten seats in Pride Park’s 33,500 capacity are empty – indicating the low mood among Rams’ fans. Rooney apologised for his actions on television after the game and the cloud lifted above him, if not the club he was in charge of.

Rooney joined Derby in January 2019 after returning to England following a successful spell in Washington and the MLS. He joined Derby as a player; the electric pace had long gone, but his vision and passing was peerless in England’s second tier and he was quickly named captain, then caretaker manager after Philip Cocu was dismissed.

He became permanent manager in January 2021 after retiring from playing following a stellar career where he became Manchester United and England’s leading all-time goalscorer.

Rooney was in charge at a mess of a football club. Derby, who’d enjoyed the highest average attendances in England’s second tier for much of the time after their last relegation from the Premier League in 2008, were sliding.

The club’s fine history is proudly displayed on black and white photos around the stadium. Brian Clough and Peter Taylor are pictured with league titles they led Derby to in the 1970s, and there are images of the Rams beating Real Madrid 4-1 in the European Cup.

Average crowds plummeted from 27,000 in 2019, their league position too after six consecutive top 10 finishes in the Championship, including six play-offs.

Derby broke their transfer record four times, they had Frank Lampard as manager in 2018-19 and he was a game away from promotion back to the Premier League. His young team, with Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Tomori were good enough to knock Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United out of the League Cup at Old Trafford, but promotion and its £170 million prize was elusive.

Derby fell to 10th in 2020 and 21st in 2021, the year Rooney took sole control of the team a few months after Mel Morris, a Derby fan, had put a fortune in to get his club back in the top-flight and those Premier League riches – and failed.

Derby, based in England’s 29th biggest city of 275,000, were bottom of the league in January 2021, six points from safety. Rooney’s side then picked up 31 points from a possible 58 and surged up to 18th. Form faltered, Rooney was criticised for being a rookie boss.

Derby, however, stayed up in 2020-21 on the final day of the season and then two deals to sell the club fell through. On July 8, 2021, the English Football League imposed a transfer embargo leaving Rooney with just nine senior professionals. The embargo was relaxed for signings under a strict wage limit and Derby didn’t start the season badly, sitting 12th after eight games.

In September 2021, the club went into administration, despite Morris telling Rooney that it definitely wouldn’t. Morris had put £200 million of his own money into Derby and apologised to fans and the staff. The club was hit with a 12-point deduction.

Interested bidders hovered and were named, relegated Wycombe and fellow Championship side Middlesbrough weighed up legal action against Derby – which put off bidders.

Derby were hit with another nine point deduction for breaches of EFL profitability and sustainability rules in November. With a points total of minus 3, they were 18 points from safety.

The debts mounted: Derby and related companies owed £29.3m to the tax authorities while other liabilities included a £20m loan from US investment group MSD Holdings, plus various football and trade creditors owed around £15m.

Things would get worse. Colin Kazim Richards, a key player, picked up a long term injury. Veteran defender Phil Jagielka and striker Sam Baldock were, in mitigation, allowed to join the club by the league.

Each time, Rooney, in his first job, dusted himself off and vowed to carry on – and pick up points. He brought the staff and fans together, he worked hard like the people of that proud city famous for making trains, or, in the words of a local poem: “We Are Derby. Rail-track city; birthplace of the industrial revolution. Where inventors span cogs to engineer solutions. We're a city that delivers. From Royal Mail PO boxes. To Royal Crown Derby china. Craft and specialism's our definer. We Are Derby.”

Rooney would drive across England’s beautiful Peak District each morning, leaving his family home in Cheshire at 6:30. In the summer it was a pleasant drive across the hills, less so when the dark nights of winter came.

Unable to bring any more players in, he turned to his youth system and promoted those who were only expected to play for Derby’s under 23s. Malcolm Ebiowei, an 18-year-old winger, got in the side.

He’d spend 12 hours at the training ground, meeting fans and staff. He made all his players believe in what he was doing: he gave them confidence, explained how they had to adapt to his possession-based system.

He went against the grain and appointed Tom Lawrence - who’d been arrested on suspicion of drink driving in 2019, fined by his club and ordered to serve 80 hours of community service and rehabilitation - club captain. It worked.

“He actually loves the responsibility but at heart he’s a players’ manager,” one source told us.

“He’s been a player, he empowers them and listens to them. He got more out of Ravel Morrison than any other manager had. (Morrison, now 29, played more games for Derby last season than he had for his previous five clubs combined going back to 2019). It helped that he knew Ravel from Manchester United and knew his difficult backstory. He’s very good at delegation too."

“I managed against him this season and didn’t hear him speak in 180 minutes of football,” one rival manager tells The National. “I don’t say that as a negative since some managers say too much. With Wayne it was his assistants giving the orders, he was delegating. I think he’s done a good job in difficult circumstances.”

Rooney’s character is backed up by someone who worked with him daily at Manchester United: “He was super famous, but he’s a really outgoing, passionate, friendly, selfless, caring person. He was really grounded and loved spending time with ‘normal’ people.

"He was the only first team player who’d join staff and play in their board games on the way to away matches. He also tried to keep the team spirit high when there were issues. Manchester United’s dressing room really missed him when he left, his experience, character and leadership.”

Being a father of four boys leaves him with little spare time. Those familiar with his situation last season said it was the best and worst time in his football career. Rooney had offers to leave but stayed, maintaining that he had a job to do. Everton, the club he’s supported all his life, sounded him out in January. He didn’t interview for the job because he had one hell of one already on his hands – one he was excelling in.

Wayne Rooney's remarkable career in pictures

After 26 games, Derby’s rag tag collection of players had only been beaten six times. They were still adrift at the bottom but four wins and a draw in five games up to January had made people think the impossible task of staying up was possible. They’d beaten league leaders Bournemouth 3-2, would take four points off Fulham, the strongest side in the Championship.

Then, in January, nine players left Derby. One of the lowest points was when he was unable to register Jagielka as he’d only been allowed to sign as an emergency until the next transfer window. Their youth system had been plundered too.

Every time Rooney and his team got up, someone was waiting to knock them back down. There were bright spots. Jason Knight, a young midfielder, established himself in the Republic of Ireland team. Eiran Cashin, is a 20-year old central defender who could also play for Republic of Ireland at senior level, as could Festy Ebosele, 19. Rooney gave him a chance – and he’ll join Serie A side Udinese in July.

Veteran defender Curtis Davies, 37, enjoyed his best season in football, as did goalkeeper Ryan Allsop who was encouraged to be the team’s last defender – a Guardiola style footballer by the River Derwent.

On April 18, 2022, Derby went down to England’s third tier. They’d done well to stay in contention until the 43rd league game of the season. Without their deductions they would have been a mid-table side.

“It’s a sad day,” said Rooney on the pitch at Queens Park Rangers. “We’re picking up the pieces of what was left behind, We’ve earned enough points to be in this division next season. We’ve played some really good stuff, developed young players, local players.

"So in that sense the future is bright but we need the takeover to happen. Where it has been left, it was a complete mess. I know Mel [Morris] is a big Derby fan so I’m sure he’s sat at home disappointed as we are. We’ve done everything we can to try and not let this happen. We’ve worked extremely hard. Hopefully he doesn’t have a good night’s sleep tonight and that plays on his mind.

“The fans have been incredible all season. I told the players ‘when you walk out the stadium hold your heads up high’. You don’t deserve to be relegated. We have been but be proud of what you have achieved. I’ve very rarely seen a connection between the staff, fans and the players to what we’ve created here."

Rooney’s stock among Derby fans is high. They sing the ‘White Pele’ song about him popularised by Manchester United fans.

“I saw my mate the other day, He said to me he saw the white Pele,” it goes. “So I asked, who is he? He goes by the name of Wayne Rooney, Wayne Rooney, Wayne Rooney, He goes by the name of Wayne Rooney...”

“Wayne has transformed the club,” declares Derby fan Michael Harris. “He is uniting everyone, all the supporters are 100 per cent behind him and his team of coaches and their way of playing. The key to us bouncing back quickly is going to be hanging on to him. The way he has dealt with all the staff redundancies after the mess Mel Morris left us in has been amazing. He has shown himself to be truly a man of the people.”

Rooney will be loyal to Derby to a point. He’s ambitious, he wants to manage Manchester United one day. If new owners come in and he can manage properly like at any normal football club, he will attempt to turn them around.

On Wednesday, Rooney said he expected the bid of Chris Kirchner's takeover to be completed within 10 days. Until the sale is agreed, and EFL checks have been completed, Derby remain under a transfer embargo with only five first-team players contracted beyond this season. Everything is still in doubt, except Rooney’s dedication and ability.

Updated: May 02, 2022, 3:36 AM
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