A lifetime ago, Derby County were always ‘that club’ on the brink of Premier League football – Steve McClaren’s Rams denied Premier League football by a late Bobby Zamora strike, Frank Lampard’s Derby getting to another playoff final before falling at the final hurdle against Aston Villa.
Another ex-England international is now at the helm, but with the chaos currently going on at Pride Park, it’s a very different picture for Wayne Rooney.
Cast your mind back to Frank Lampard’s Derby County side, and you’ll understand how truly bad it has become at Pride Park. The likes of Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Tomori made up the spine of an exciting Derby County side, Lampard’s first season in management gaining him a lot of plaudits, and inevitably, the Chelsea job when it became available.
Ever since that Championship campaign – Jack Marriott breaking Leeds United hearts in the playoff semi finals – Derby have stagnated and become nothing but second tier fodder. After a promising first season under Phillip Cocu, the ex-PSV great departed with The Rams rooted to the bottom of the table.
With the conveyer belt of former world class footballers becoming managers being very hit and miss, Mel Morris’ next gamble as manager would prove to be the most headline worthy to date – Wayne Rooney beginning his managerial career at Pride Park, tasked with saving Derby from the drop in a player manager role. Adopting full managerial duties after, this signalled a new managerial reign at Pride Park.
Unfortunately for fans of The Rams, it would also signal turbulent times ahead.
Managing to stay up on the final day of the season, the celebrations at the final whistle showed how far the mighty had fallen at Pride Park. Once celebrating at Elland Road after dismantling Leeds arrogance to get to a playoff final, Wayne Rooney and co. now delighted in not dropping down to the third tier.
Helped out significantly too by a Sheffield Wednesday points deduction and Wycombe Wanderers failing to find form near the beginning of their Championship endeavour, Derby were fortuitous in keeping their heads above water.
In the offseason preparing for what’s to come, it seems the club is now in danger of drowning. Take Wayne Rooney’s visible annoyance and frustration when speaking after Derby’s friendly with Salford, Rooney can only do so much when he isn’t afforded the luxuries of being able to bring players into a gutted Rams team.
Jack Marriott is an example of Derby throwing away their past talents in order to make ends meet – signing the player for £5 million before allowing him to leave on a free transfer. A consequence of Mel Morris’ money spending habits, Derby are a club in free-fall without a clear resolution in sight.
Under a transfer embargo – which has now been lifted – Derby barely had players in double figures on their books – Rooney has a right to be frustrated, his side cannot compete in the Championship with such low numbers. Resorting to trialists, the likes of Ravel Morrison training with the Derbyshire based club, Derby remain in limbo over who they can sign owing to strict financial limits imposed.
Yet, Rooney doesn’t help himself. A player not too far away from a tabloid scandal, Rooney’s past antics as a naïve player have carried over to his still early managerial career. Pictured out with girls and falling asleep in a hotel room, Rooney continues to sell stories for tabloids and become this figure of controversy. With his club situation as dire as it is, this limelight in the press is an unnecessary distraction.
Likewise, articles surfacing that a fluke Rooney tackle ended in promising youngster Jason Knight being sidelined for two months equally doesn’t help his cause. With barely a 30% win percentage as permanent manager, and the negative press attention piling up, the situation at Derby becomes more of a circus by the day.
The scenario at Derby, a club on the verge of self destruct, is indicative of the modern game – and more explicitly – the dangers facing clubs in the EFL. Sanctions for clubs like Sheffield Wednesday are handed out without much deliberation, yet clubs in the league above remain unscathed and without punishment for the failed introduction of the European Super League.
In the leagues below, clubs like Sheffield Wednesday are obviously easier targets. It follows a trajectory of clubs swallowed whole by the hyper-focussed approach in the modern game to spend without caution, see Bury and Macclesfield as clubs that unfortunately pushed the self destruct button with careless owners.
Mel Morris’ big money spending has come at a cost, pocketing the wealth accumulated at Derby whilst the on-pitch situation only worsens. Seeing what has happened in the past in similar scenarios, it’s a grave warning to Rooney and co in the present.
On the eve of a new Championship season, and with a lack of players still an obvious issue, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for Derby to fall out of the second tier this forthcoming season. The real challenge will be what happens from there, with The Rams at danger of tainting their established position of prestige as a club only presiding within the Football League ladder.