Hot-Take Monday: In Defence of Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney’s life might be starting to look up, a little. The EFL Championship’s very own Kirk Van Houten might have got his racing car bed sorted by now, and his Derby County team isn’t performing anything like as apocalyptically badly as had been expected, before the start of the season. On Saturday they ground out a goalless draw at home to Middlesbrough, a team with ambitions of making the play-offs, and with this result coming off the back of a 1-0 at Hull City on Wednesday night Derby now sit in 14th place in the table, ten places higher than many of us predicted.
Rooney’s Derby team is (ironically, for a team shaped by England’s record goalscorer) built around a solid and experienced defence. Very experienced, as it goes. Phil Jagielka played ten times in Sheffield United’s traumatic last season and is now 39 years old, and he’s been paired up with the similarly former 90s kid Curtis Davies, giving his central defensive partnership a venerable combined age of 75. Other late signings have performed similarly admirably, in particular Ravel Morrison, a player with a reputation for being English football’s ultimate ticking timebomb. If Morrison, who may for some years have been considered one of the game’s great lost talents, could finally find a space to shine at one of English football’s most dysfunctional clubs, the irony would be striking.
Derby may only have scored three goals in their first four league matches of the season, but they’ve only conceded three as well. On the basis of what we’ve seen of them so far this season, the team seems to be holding its own. There remains plenty of scope for the wheels to fall off this wagon (there might have been considerable squawking had they failed to see off Salford City in their recent League Cup First Round match, but they came through a penalty shoot-out after a 3-3 draw) but for now it should be said that Wayne Rooney is outpacing the expectations that many had for him. Considering how threadbare the squad looked just two or three weeks ago, this feels like a significant achievement.
None of this is to say that Derby are completely out of the woods yet, though, and there remains one small cloud on the horizon that is a cause for concern. Derby remain under the threat of a suspended six point deduction over their failure to pay players on time last season, and they have to ensure that they pay their players on time every month until January in order to avoid that deduction from being applied. Under normal circumstances, of course, this wouldn’t be considered anything like a serious issue, but Derby’s last couple of years could hardly be described as “normal circumstances”.
Derby’s attendances for their first two league matches of the season were each just over 16,000, and these figures are more than 10,000 lower than their average attendance for the 2018/19 season, which is the last full season for which such data is available. We can’t see what is going on inside the club’s accounts at present from here, of course, but these considerably lower attendances either mean that Derby have had far fewer people renew their season tickets over the course of the summer, or have fewer people paying for tickets on a match-by-match basis. There has been some talk that a new ticketing system could be partly responsible for this fall. If this is the case, it’s a self-inflicted issue that needs to be resolved as soon as possible.
To some extent, though, the club is caught in a perfect storm over this. The quality of football over the last couple of seasons and the off-field shenanigans may have been upsetting to some, and August is a time when some are still on holiday, while we cannot completely disregard the economic effects of the pandemic, either. Having said that, though, attendances haven’t fallen anywhere else (the Derby fall is 40%) and Derby County are a football club who cannot afford for their revenues to fall by a very big margin this season, certainly not in terms of the ready cash that ticket and season ticket sales (as well as other spending by match-going supporters) bring.
Wayne Rooney, however, is far from the biggest problem that Derby County face at the moment. There was considerable sniggering over Rooney taking this position in the first place (the assumption being that he was parachuted into this job because of his celebrity status alone), and with all this background noise it has been largely forgotten that he has found himself in one of the most challenging football management scenarios there is; managing a team for which there remains a degree of expectation, but which has found itself being torn apart by the club’s financial situation and transfer embargoes put in place because of its maladministration.
There has been talk that the current transfer embargo – which was softened last month in order to give the club the ability to start this season – is set to be lifted in the next couple of days, which would give Rooney the opportunity to pad out his first team squad a little. With a gruelling 46 match season ahead, this would seem to be a necessity. But no matter what happens this season, and no matter what we might think of the status of former high-profile players looking to transition into management, there is no question that this particular one has found himself in a position that the most experienced of managers would consider a challenge. And while there were points last season when his suitability for the job was rightly called into question, so far this season he’s proved quite a few of us doubters wrong.