Wayne Rooney the player found ways to score. Wayne Rooney the manager has hit a wall.
The former Manchester United striker finds himself in a relegation battle in England’s second division as Derby’s losses pile up.
The club that Rooney took over first on an interim basis as player-coach and then permanently in January upon his retirement has only one win from its last 13 games.
The Rams have lost five in a row and are dangerously close to being dropped to League One, the third division in the English game. It might not match Derby’s historically poor 2007-08 season in the Premier League but it could dent the reputation of Man United and England’s all-time top scorer.
“Do we want to be remembered for the staff or the players to get Derby County relegated? No, of course we don’t, so we’re doing everything we can in our power to make sure that we stay in this division,” Rooney said Thursday. “I’m confident we will.”
With two games to play, Derby sits just above the relegation zone, four points better than both Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday, the former with a game in hand. Derby plays at Swansea on Saturday.
While the losses have mounted, Rooney has tried to remain positive. One week he told fans not to worry, “we’ll be fine,” followed by a loss. He called another game a “must win,” followed by a loss.
This week, he got out of town — packing up and bringing the players to Swansea days early on Tuesday.
“It was an opportunity to take the players away to focus on our game plan, to make sure the lads are spending time with each other around the hotel,” Rooney said. “As we all know through COVID, players can’t go out and be together the way they used to be able to do.”
Rams forward Martyn Waghorn told club media this week that fans in Derby have been stopping him on the streets: “People are asking you — what’s going on, what’s happening, we need a win.”
Derby hosts Sheffield Wednesday the following Saturday in what could be a decisive final match of the season.
Relegation was rarely in Rooney’s lexicon during his illustrious playing career, which included Everton’s 17th-place finish in the Premier League in 2003-04.
Derby has also been under a cloud of ownership questions all season. A deal announced in November to sell the club was called off in March. Then, in early April, the club announced a new buyer in an agreement that is still awaiting league approval.
Rooney said it’s had no impact on the field.
“I haven’t spoken to the players once about any possible takeover, and the players haven’t spoken to me once over it,” he said.
The 35-year-old Rooney has repeatedly ruled out a return to the field for a squad that has scored a league-low 32 goals this season.
Rooney took over the coaching duties in November, when Phillip Cocu was fired with Derby in last place. He was still playing and was given the awkward title of “senior figure” on the interim coaching staff. He then retired from playing in January and was named manager. Cocu had been hired after Frank Lampard left to become Chelsea manager in 2019.
Saturday’s opponent — Swansea — has already qualified for the Championship playoffs and manager Steve Cooper said he may sit forward Andre Ayew, who has some injury concerns.
Derby wasn’t expected to be battling relegation, Cooper said, but nothing surprises him in England’s second division.
“It’s the world’s best league,” Cooper said, “for unpredictability.”