Every Monday, RunSportBet’s Daniel Rouse breaks down the week that was in English football. Welcome to the “Eye on England.”
Wayne Rooney may be quiet away from matches and training, but letting his career fade would’ve been out of character.
Where’s the trademark retaliatory tackle? Where’s that bark and snarl? The playing days of the all-time record goalscorer for both Manchester United and England needed more than a sleepy epilogue. So, Rooney sought out a challenge at Derby County, who were 17th in the Championship before his debut on Jan. 2.
It was a far cry from his exalted status as captain at D.C. United, where he was insulated from the hypercritical English media. At Derby, there was a real chance he could harm his reputation with relegation into the third tier.
Derby before Rooney’s debut:
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Instead, Derby have fashioned the Championship’s best record in 2020. They’ve collected four more points than first-place Leeds United since Rooney began dictating play from midfield, recycling possession and driving long-range passes to his colleagues upfield. The 34-year-old’s set-piece deliveries and lurking presence behind the attackers have also been vital to the Rams’ rise up the standings.
Rooney’s debut onward:
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There are now revised ambitions at Pride Park. Derby have gone from relegation candidates to only three points behind the playoff positions.
Many sporting stories are tarnished by financial matters, and this one is no different. Rooney, who has spoken publicly about his problems with gambling, wears the No. 32 – a brazen reference to the club’s sponsor, betting firm 32Red. The commercial interest behind Rooney’s transfer is no secret.
Derby could also face a considerable point deduction after owner Mel Morris bought the club’s ground for an apparently bloated £80-million sum in June 2018. The dubious transaction allowed the Rams to post a pre-tax profit of just £14.6 million in their 2017-18 accounts, which meant they didn’t violate the English Football League’s profitability and sustainability regulations.
The club could lose as many as 21 points if found guilty of breaching spending rules, according to BBC Sport. Such a penalty would root Derby to the bottom of the Championship table.
But the future is bright as long as they avoid a disastrous relegation. Rooney is as important off the pitch as he is on it while he juggles his playing duties with a role in manager Phillip Cocu’s backroom staff. And with a growing contingent of youth-team graduates establishing themselves in the senior squad, there couldn’t be a better time for Derby to feature one of the country’s most decorated active players.
“The young players, obviously when he first came into the club, were absolutely starstruck. Wayne is someone who’s once in a generation, gifted in terms of his talent and ability and what he’s done in his career,” Derby first-team coach Liam Rosenior told The Athletic’s “Going Up, Going Down” podcast.
Numerous players have benefitted from the introduction of Rooney, who believes his teenage midfield partner Max Bird is the team’s best player. Jayden Bogle, another 19-year-old, has rediscovered his form at right-back. Jason Knight, Morgan Whittaker, and Lee Buchanan are also making an impression in Cocu’s matchday roster.
And then there’s Louie Sibley, the 18-year-old attacking midfielder garnering attention for the range of his finishing and the way he waltzes through defenses. Sibley blasted in from 25 yards against Blackburn Rovers before the pandemic forced a hiatus, and he scored a hat-trick when Derby returned three months later at Millwall. His treble came in just his second league start.
Like Rooney, Sibley adds a combative edge to his attacking endeavors.
“He speaks to the younger players and gives them tips and advice, but I think the best lesson to learn from Wayne is how he trains, how much work he puts in, how much work he practices on his extras,” Rosenior said of Rooney’s influence.
“That encourages the young players to do the same. He’s someone who’s a case in point who can show the younger players especially what it takes to be a player at the very highest level.”
Rooney is proving his qualities as a player and coach at Derby. Even if the competitiveness of the Championship or a punitive point deduction denies the team promotion this time around, he has another year on his contract to try one more time.
After that, he may be ready for his next step. In 2021, he could be keeping tabs on the progress of Sibley and Bird in his position as Derby’s manager.
Boro go to War
Neil Warnock’s touchline temper and route-one tactics certainly belong to an old-school disciplinarian, but the underrated qualities of Middlesbrough’s new boss are in how he simplifies game plans and eases pressure by cracking training-ground jokes at the expense of his players.
The 71-year-old has overseen a record eight promotions in English football and can steer seemingly hopeless sides to safety, as he showed with Rotherham United in 2016.
Boro quickly enjoyed an uptick in form in Warnock’s first match in charge. The wily boss orchestrated a 2-0 win at Stoke City by putting an extra player in attack and providing greater balance in a 4-4-2 formation. The performance left many onlookers in no doubt that Middlesbrough will haul themselves from relegation trouble, including Warnock’s former midfielder at Queens Park Rangers, Alejandro Faurlin: