Derby County may have a potential points deduction hanging over their head, but even in this uncertain period in the club’s history, on the pitch the signs look increasingly promising.
The remarkable signing of Wayne Rooney has had a seismic effect in Derbyshire, a potential watershed event that has rejuvenated a club that had previously been dicing with danger near the foot of the table.
The appointment of Philip Cocu hadn’t the immediate impact the club’s owners may have anticipated, the Dutchman failing to replicate the kind of success now Chelsea boss Frank Lampard had enjoyed in the previous campaign.
Hampered by the loss of the likes of Fikayo Tomori and more evidently, Mason Mount, Derby were lacking in creativity and leadership, resulting in a worrying start to the season which threatened a premature exit for Cocu.
But with the stunning announcement in August that Wayne Rooney, England’s record goalscorer, was to join the club as a player-coach in January, there was always a glimmer of hope the former Man United captain could transform their season.
And since his arrival, he hasn’t disappointed.
Rooney had been enjoying a new life with DC United in Major League Soccer, even if it did end in sour fashion, having tasted a 5-1 playoff defeat to Toronto FC.
But he swapped a lifestyle of sun, sea and sand for the bitter cold surroundings of Derbyshire, sensing an opportunity of not only beginning a coaching career, but helping to restore The Rams to the top flight after a 12-year exile.
Perhaps it won’t be this season – Derby are currently 11 points off the playoffs with 12 games remaining – but Rooney signed an 18-month contract for a reason – and it wasn’t to pick up a pay cheque which would allow him to enjoy the Derbyshire lifestyle to the full.
Unlike Cocu, Rooney has taken to life at Moor Farm straight away. His goal contribution has been impressive, yes, notching two assists and bagging four himself, but his all-round game has been immense; his versatility proving invaluable to Derby’s stark improvement.
Since he was paraded to the home supporters, Derby have won six of their last 12 games, losing just two, propelling them from potential relegation contenders to the comfort of mid-table safety.
Making his debut against Barnsley, in which he was involved in both goals, Rooney played the match in its entirety, which raised eyebrows across English football, considering his age. But it was an indication of the 34-year-old’s commitment and a sign of things to come: since that January 2 occasion, Rooney has started every game, only being replaced in one match.
In what was a fitting way to mark his 500th appearance in English football, Rooney scored a Panenka penalty, epitomising the composure he has brought to Pride Park. It has been said that Rooney changed the culture and thinking at DC United; he has done similar at Derby.
Rooney has taken to England’s second tier like a duck to water and that will be of huge relief to the Derby faithful and Cocu, who must already be thinking of the massive part the former Manchester United star can play next season.
“He is important in all aspects – tactically, in the link up between the tactical staff and the team,” said Cocu.
“Any changes that have to be made, he can adapt during the game. It is always a pleasure for a manager or a coach.
“It is also what he brings to the club. He helps the young players develop, talks a lot, and most of the days before training he is in the coaches’ office to see how we work. He gives his input, his opinion.”
And while they won’t boast about it publicly, Rooney also brings rewards off the pitch for Derby.
Statistics by The Athletic show that shirt sales have risen by 30 per cent since Rooney’s arrival and there were 7.6m social hits in the 24 hours following the announcement that he had signed. In addition, Derby recorded 26,700 new followers across all platforms and the most viewed YouTube video was of Rooney’s debut.
And if Rooney continues in this vein, he may have a big part to play in driving the club’s media following into new territory.
Rooney was born to be a Premier League player and he may just bring Derby back with him, even if it takes until May 2021.