Wayne Rooney’s Derby lose at Watford – but there are promising signs for the future

Wayne Rooney’s Derby lose at Watford – but there are promising signs for the future

From Vicarage Road Manchester United’s record goalscorer. England’s record goalscorer. Five Premier League titles, one Champions League. Wayne Rooney’s footballing CV is so stacked that I’m just giving you the top lines from it – go on Wikipedia and look at the obscene amount of honours to his name for yourself.

And yet it feels like he was never the glamour name of English football. Off-field issues might have been the reason, but none more so than anyone else in England’s revered ‘golden era’ in the 2000s.

Thierry Henry once said that Rooney would be more appreciated in France or Spain. Xavi called him an ‘extraordinary player with extraordinary capabilities’. Lionel Messi – ‘one of the special players of a generation’.

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Rooney and Messi duelled in two Champions League finals | Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

And yet as his playing career petered out, there was relatively little fanfare to accompany it. Maybe that was due to his sharp decline from Manchester United captain, to hometown hero again at Everton, and then swiftly to MLS. He’s played and retired for Derby County and become their manager since, but the biggest Rooney story of the last few years was Rebekah Vardy-gate.

Fans never got an opportunity to bid farewell to Rooney the player, they’re yet to greet Rooney the manager. How’s he been getting on?

Popular predecessor Phillip Cocu was sacked in November with Derby bottom of the Championship table, and it was expected that Liam Rosenior would take over. He shared managerial responsibilities with Rooney, Shay Given and Justin Walker for 12 days, until the former England international assumed them full-time.

Rosenior seemed like the obvious choice from outsiders – his eloquence regarding the game has long been demonstrated with his punditry on Sky Sports. But Derby owner and chairman Mel Morris (for now at least) has a recent history of giving chances to high profile first-time managers. Looking at you, Frank Lampard.

The situation Lampard walked into was much cushier, however. Derby had been defeated in the playoffs by eventual winners Fulham, and while the squad is in need of refreshing, he used his contacts to secure the big-name loans of Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Harry Wilson. The Rams reached the playoffs again, but were beaten in the final by Aston Villa.

Rooney, meanwhile, took the reins of the worst team in the league. His best players are legendary journeyman Colin Kazim-Richards, Scottish hero David Marshall, 19-year-old academy product Jason Knight, and Poland international Krystian Bielik – the latter of whom suffered a season-ending injury last week. No pressure, Wayne.

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Rooney’s done a decent job so far | Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Despite the huge task at hand, Rooney has navigated a tricky challenge successfully. Derby went into Friday’s 2-1 defeat at Watford in 17th, six points clear of the drop zone and having won eight of his 18 games in charge.

Rooney’s had to get creative and dug deep to squeeze all he can out of a young squad whose financial struggles have been well documented. He’s known for his game-to-game tinkering (take a look at the replies to any lineup from Derby’s Twitter account) and his refreshingly honest responses in press conferences, even regarding the club’s potential takeover.

He was again subject to criticism on Twitter for his team selection pre-Watford, making five changes from their midweek win at Wycombe.

Two goals in a manic few minutes separated the sides, but Derby managed to compete with a technical, high-pressing side that wouldn’t look out of place in the Premier League. The Rams switched back and forth between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 in an attempt to outwit Watford, ultimately without yielding any goals, but keeping one of the Championship’s best sides on their toes.

They did have a goal ruled out from a corner and looked most menacing from set plays – at which point Given would step to the forefront of the technical area and begin micro-managing. Derby went semi-viral recently for their innovative set-piece routines, having their attackers begin at the corner of the 18-yard box and then move in.

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Derby conceded two goals in three first half minutes | Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Rosenior was usually the one giving orders from the touchline, standing slightly behind the imposing figure of Rooney, his shoulders broadened with authority. Think Sam Allardyce and Sammy Lee but without looking like a caricature.

The manager and his assistant called for more urgency as the game went on, now sticking with an attacking 4-4-2 and pressing Watford back. Derby were matching up one of the league’s finest outfits, eventually forcing them into defensive reinforcements and at long last a goal (even if an own goal).

It wouldn’t be enough, but falling 2-1 to Watford at Vicarage Road is a mightily respectful result for a side fighting to beat the drop. Their season won’t be defined by a narrow defeat here.

The Rams still have big problems to fix – the supposed takeover has been dragging it’s heels for months and six of their players are loanees – but with Rooney in charge (flanked by Rosenior and Given, of course), the keys to Derby’s future are in the right hands.

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