How Wayne Rooney transformed Derby from bottom-half shambles to play-off hopefuls
In August of 2019, Derby County announced that Wayne Rooney – the Wayne Rooney – would join them midway through the season.
Having narrowly missed out on promotion in 2018/19 after losing to Aston Villa in the play-off final, many tipped the Rams to be in the hunt once again.
Teasing the arrival of a five-time Premier League champion, a man whose Premier League goal tally is bettered only by Alan Shearer, sent a message of intent.
Two months later, the club were in crisis.
Tom Lawrence, Mason Bennett and club captain Richard Keogh were involved in a car crash after a drunken night out in late September.
The younger pair fled the scene, leaving the latter unconscious in the back seat of a wreckage.
In the fallout, Keogh – who suffered injuries that would prevent him from playing football for over a year – was sacked after refusing to accept reduced pay.
The incident confirmed what more than a few had suspected; there was a widespread attitude problem at Pride Park, an issue that worsened after Frank Lampard’s departure.
The club were criticised for their handling of situation as many fans, journalists and pundits cited the inconsistency of the punishments issued — Bennett and Lawrence were fined six weeks’ wages while Keogh, who had played over 350 games for the club, was dumped unceremoniously.
Things weren’t going much better on the pitch either.
At the time of the crash, Derby had taken just eight points from their first eight games.
Without Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Harry Wilson – who all returned to their parent clubs in the summer – Phillip Cocu’s team looked a pale imitation of the side that beat Leeds in the play-off semi-finals.
Then rumours surfaced of a possible points deduction for a breach of rules regarding profitability and sustainability, including the questionable sale of Pride Park to another of owner Mel Morris’ businesses.
Watching on from Washington D.C, Rooney must have wondered what he had got himself into.
Two weeks after Rooney’s debut, in which he captained Derby to a much-needed win over Barnsley, the club were officially charged for a breach of spending rules.
Since then the club have been waiting for an independent disciplinary commission to give their verdict.
The unusual circumstances of the current campaign seem to have delayed proceedings.
Meanwhile, Derby have been rising up the league table.
With seven Championships to play, they find themselves within three points of the play-offs, with huge games against Preston and rivals Nottingham Forest up next, two teams above them in the table.
The reversal form has aligned perfectly with Rooney’s arrival.
In fact, since he was installed as skipper, no Championship team has won more points.
Statistically, Derby have been the best team in the league since Rooney’s debut.
It is probably overly simplistic to suggest he is solely responsible for the upturn, but his positive influence is undeniable.
Remember, this is not the prolific Rooney of 2010 or 2012, he turned 34 last October.
He has not improved Derby simply by scoring a bucket-load of goals.
Playing in midfield, often as deep-lying playmaker, he has given Cocu control and invaluable experience.
Rooney is probably the best long passer (40+ yards) in the league and his delivery from set-pieces has also become a feature of Derby’s approach.
But perhaps the most important factor is his legacy.
As Man United and England’s all-time top scorer, Rooney commands respect few others are have earned and placing him as the central figure – both literally in terms of formation and symbolically – meant he was able to steer Derby away from rocky shores.
The effect of having Rooney as a team-mate, seeing him pull on the same shirt as you in the dressing room, likely acts as a psychological boost.
It’s no coincidence a flurry of youngsters have started to impress with Rooney as leader.
Teenagers Jason Knight, Max Bird and Louie Sibley have given fans hope for the years ahead.
The latter’s hat-trick against Millwall has been one of the highlights seen the Championship’s restart and who better than Rooney to offer a few words of advice to a emerging talent?
Few players have had pressure heaped on them in their formative years as much as Rooney experienced during his first spell at Everton.
Surely there must be some link between Derby’s prospering youth and their been-there-done-that captain?
Unfortunately, factors beyond their control now threaten to unsteady the club at a crucial time.
Defender Andre Wisdom was stabbed by robbers on Monday night as he visited family in Liverpool.
The 27-year-old is in a stable condition in hospital but is unlikely to play a part in the Rams’ remaining fixtures.
There’s no telling how this terrible incident will affect Wisdom’s team-mates but you sense Cocu may turn to Rooney once again to galvanise the squad.
Promotion may prove to be a step too far, although there are certainly enough games left for Derby to infiltrate the top six based on their form since the turn of the year.
Either way, Rooney’s stint at Derby reflects well on him and sticks two fingers up to those who thought the demanding nature of the Championship would be too much for his ageing legs.
After all, class is permanent.
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