One man will be watching Derby County’s fifth round FA Cup match against Manchester United with divided loyalties.
Former goalkeeper turned goalkeeping coach Eric Steele – who works with young England internationals – lives near Derby, used to play for Derby and joined Derby after a hugely fruitful spell coaching Edwin van der Sar and David de Gea at Manchester United.
Steele will cover the game as an analyst for BBC Derbyshire and he will be keeping an eye one player who he has known for a long time, in Wayne Rooney.
When Rooney was going to leave United for Chelsea in the summer of 2013, you struggled to find a United fan who would be sad to see him go. Bridges had been burned with fans and while tunes were quickly changed weeks later, Steele wasn’t having any of the criticism when Rooney had few backers.
“Wayne got a great goal to get us back in the 2011 Champions League final,” he said. “Just remember that, fans, when you’re screaming for him to leave. Just remember who stepped up when Robin [van Persie] went nine goals without scoring? I’m a big supporter of Wayne.”
Rooney stayed at Old Trafford, but Steele had just left United after Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down and David Moyes passed on the option to keep Ferguson’s trusted, effective, coaches.
“Wayne will be applauded by both sets of fans on Thursday,” Steele says ahead of the game on Thursday. “He’s United’s all-time top scorer, he was superb at Everton and when he went to MLS. He’s been a major reason why Derby’s season has turned. They were facing relegation but have lost only three in 14 since Wayne arrived.”
The latest positive result was a 3-1 win at neighbours Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday.
“He’s had a huge influence on a very young squad which is restricted by a financial ruling,” says Steele. “There was no investment in January apart from Wayne arriving.”
Steele is a regular Derby watcher. “Wayne has rotated in three positions,” he says of the 34-year-old who joined after a successful but curtailed spell at DC United in Washington.
“He’s added the coolness and calmness, he takes penalties, set plays and his delivery has been a major factor in the percentage that Derby score from set plays going up dramatically since.”
Rooney's best goal was a free-kick against Stoke City, a game where he was man of the match and also set up a goal with a defence splitting pass which no opponents saw.
That was the only Derby match in which Rooney, who left the field to a standing ovation with his work done, has not played for the full 90 minutes. He drives over the Peak District hills from his home near Manchester each morning and plays every minute of every game.
“The forward passing stats, the link play and the transitions have all improved since Wayne arrived,” said Steele. “In Wayne, [manager] Phillip Cocu has got his captain and a coach on the field. Watching him cajoling and encouraging people in games and at training has given everyone a huge lift. There were a lot of 20- or 21-year-olds in the team and he’s lifted them, which is exactly what Derby wanted him to do.”
Derby needed it. Their exciting young team which knocked Manchester United out of the League Cup at Old Trafford last season fell apart when they missed out on a first promotion to the Premier League since 2008 and manager Frank Lampard returned to Chelsea.
Loan players such as Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Tomori returned to their host clubs. At Derby, costs were cut ahead of concerns that the club needed to comply with Financial Fair Play rules.
Without that quality and with off-the-field distractions after key players were involved in a car crash which led to captain Richard Keogh being dismissed, Derby tumbled.
They’ve still won only three of 18 away games, though they’ve remained strong at home where they have the best defence in the league.
Derby are only 13th in the 24 team league, but relegation worries have eased and they’re closer to a play-off spot for the first time all season.
“Wayne’s not just saying the right things to players but doing it on the pitch too,” says Steele. “He’s not lost his range of passing and, like all the really great players, he still wants to cross that white line and play. He’s put a lot of bums on seats and smiles on faces. In my village close to Derby, fans had stopped going to games. Now they’re back.”
What does he think of the outcome of Thursday’s game? “It’s not a foregone conclusion, the idea of this giant coming into win,” said Steele. “Derby have the third best home record in the league. It’s a classic banana skin for United and you have that Rooney factor to make things more interesting.”
United are taking the FA Cup very seriously since Solskjaer needs to win a trophy and they’ll field a strong team, though Aaron Wan Bissaka and Dan James are likely to miss the game due to small injuries. Paul Pogba will be back training with the first team next week, though there’s no return date for the French international.
Pogba could have been the main man at United. Rooney, who offered Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his services when he left America, was for so long. He still wants to show that he’s got it.