It was a malaise that has summed up Derby’s recent drop towards the abyss.
They had taken the lead at Swansea in a game that, had they won, would have almost certainly secured their Championship survival.
But once again it turned against them. And quickly. Two rapid-fire goals and they were 2-1 down. Six games in a row have now been lost. In three of the last four – including against Swansea – they had led 1-0.
Wayne Rooney stood bereft on the sidelines, with the air of a man who could not believe what was unfolding before his eyes yet again. What once looked such a brilliant start in management has turned into a nightmare slump and battle to beat the drop.
A defeat against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday at Pride Park – live on Sky Sports Football from 12pm ahead of a 12.30pm kick-off – and Derby will be relegated to League One for the first time in 35 years.
Here, we assess the problems at Derby, and what has gone wrong for Rooney…
A bright start, then a swift decline
First things first, it should not be forgotten that Rooney initially took over a side that had won just once – thanks to his own superb free-kick at Norwich – in their first 13 games this season. They were glued to the bottom of the table, and if the 2020/21 campaign had started when Rooney took sole charge in late November, Derby would currently be sat in a far more comfortable 16th place in the table.
But, after 32 games, it has been a mini-season of two halves. In Rooney’s first 16 games, Derby won eight, drew four and lost four. They scored 16 goals, but conceded just 10.
In their most recent 16 games, there have been just two wins and three draws. They have scored 12, but conceded 25. It is the latter tally that is improving extremely problematic.
They have lost six games in a row. Only two sides have had a worse losing run this season, they are both below them in the table, and they face one, Sheffield Wednesday, on Saturday. The other is Wycombe (both lost seven).
Missing Bielik & lacking goals
Things may well be different had Krystian Bielik managed to stay fit. The 23-year-old Polish midfielder was signed for big money from Arsenal at the start of last season, but has seen his time at Derby blighted by injury so far.
Last season he managed 20 appearances before an anterior cruciate ligament injury ruled him out for the rest of the campaign in December 2019. He then returned in November of last year, and managed just 13 more before succumbing to the same injury.
Being overplayed on his return may well have played a large role, but such was his importance to the side that Rooney could hardly leave him out. In the 12 games where Rooney managed and Bielik played, they picked up six wins. Rooney has just four in 20 without him. 21 of Derby’s 43 points have come in his 13 appearances.
Defensively they have been relatively sound under Rooney, but with one game to go they are on track to become the second-lowest scoring side in Championship history. Their total of 33 has only been ‘beaten’ by Bolton, who scored just 29 in 2018/19.
Veteran striker Colin Kazim-Richards leads the way at the club with eight goals, no other player has managed more than three, and the irony has only increased in recent weeks that England and Manchester United’s greatest ever goal scorer is stood on the sidelines trying to steer the Championship’s least-prolific side away from danger.
‘A squad drained of confidence’
Rooney inherited a deeply-unbalanced squad from predecessor Phillip Cocu, who had been brought in in 2019 with the remit of blooding Derby’s promising young talent, but was himself left woefully short of quality in other areas.
With the club bottom of the league, patience ran out with Cocu. Rooney, then player-coach, was brought in on a caretaker basis, moving from the middle of midfield to the heart of the dugout. Initially, there was a leadership group at the helm before he took sole charge.
Eventually, he committed to his retirement from playing to focus solely on management, and it started well. But as performances stuttered the belief in the squad ebbed away.
“The confidence has been drained from a lot of the players,” Keith Andrews told the Sky Sports EFL Podcast this week. “You look and you think there is undoubted quality there, but the way the game swung so quickly back in Swansea’s direction, it was a staggering few minutes and you could see how shell-shocked the Derby County bench was.
“It is all about character. It’s about resilience. The run they have been on has been terrible, picking up just six points from the last 42 available. They have chopped and changed system quite frequently but [it hasn’t worked].
“I think they have got character in that squad, but I look at some of the younger players and think maybe too much has been asked from them throughout the season.”
Failed takeovers, missed payments & chaos behind the scenes
Not to absolve Rooney of all of the blame for their current position, but you can’t discuss the plight of Derby without mentioning the problems bubbling in the background.
The club’s decline has been caused by years of overspending in a desperate bid to reach the Premier League, and a failure to achieve that goal on more than a couple of heart-breaking occasions.
Owner Mel Morris has been desperate to sell the club, with takeover talk and financial problems overshadowing the majority of the campaign.
“This has been the most tortuous season off the field for Derby County for almost three decades, and the team is set for its lowest league finish in 29 years,” explains Sky Sports News reporter Rob Dorsett. “But there’s no doubt that performances on the pitch have been inextricably linked with the chaos off it.
“For a start, the failed takeover by Abu Dhabi royalty in the form of Sheikh Khaled meant that most of the first-team squad weren’t paid for over six weeks leading up to Christmas. There was understandable anger and frustration among the players, and results on the pitch slipped further.
“The aborted bid also blighted the January transfer window, when the wealth of the Sheikh and his family promised a splurge of investment in new players, but instead Derby had to rush through five loan signings on Deadline Day. It wasn’t what Rooney had planned for, or needed.
“And now the club is still in limbo as it awaits the EFL’s decision on whether Spanish businessman Erik Alonso will be permitted to take over the club. It usually takes 10 working days for a change of ownership to be rubber-stamped by the EFL lawyers – the fact that it is now a month since Derby first announced they’d reached agreement with Alonso, without any word from the EFL still, raises real concerns that this takeover will also be stopped in its tracks.
“Current owner Mel Morris is still funding the club, and the estimated £1.2m player wage bill each month, but he’s desperate to get out and hand the reigns over to a solid, ambitious new regime. Morris has been blocked at every turn in his attempts to do so.”
Whatever the future holds for Derby and Rooney, the formula is simple for now. A victory against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday and they will be playing Championship football next season.
For a man who has won it all in the English game, played in World Cups and European finals, you would think he would have the know-how to deal with anything.
Managing a club into a one-off game for survival, however, will bring a different type of pressure entirely to anything he has ever experienced before.
Listen to the Prutton’s Predictions show!
David Prutton joins Sky Sports’ Simeon Gholam to discuss all his Championship predictions ahead of gameweek 46. You can listen below, as Prutton reveals who he is backing to stay up on the final day of the season.