Last weekend, Derby County recorded their biggest win of a disappointing season. They were already 2-0 up when Martyn Waghorn and Wayne Rooney stood over a free kick on the edge of the Stoke City box. Once their discussion had finished, the former England captain stepped up and curled the ball delicately into the top corner, beyond the reach of Jack Butland.
He made it look effortless. It was a telling reminder of his consummate technical ability, which hasn’t faded even if his physical attributes have. Rooney may be a shadow of the player he was in his prime, no longer able to compete with the same rampaging intensity, but at 34 he still has more than enough quality to put Championship opponents to shame. There were delighted celebrations in the stands and the dugout to greet his second goal since returning to English football.
Rooney added another from the penalty spot against Northampton Town in Tuesday’s FA Cup fourth-round replay to set up an emotional reunion with Manchester United. He enjoyed 13 trophy-filled years at Old Trafford, during which he overtook Bobby Charlton as the club’s record goalscorer. His former employers will be faced with a very different Rooney this time around, but one who can still transform games with a defence-splitting pass or clinical finish.
On the pitch, his impact has been clear to see. Rooney has brought a calmness and authority to a listless club during a season of great uncertainty. As well as adapting to Phillip Cocu’s methods, Derby have also had to contend with the fallout from the car crash that injured Richard Keogh, who was later released from his contract, and saw Mason Bennett and Tom Lawrence charged with drink driving offences.
Lurking in the background throughout has been the threat of financial fair play sanctions. Derby were recently charged with exceeding the permitted £39million loss over a three-year period as the club’s controversial sale of Pride Park to owner Mel Morris came under scrutiny. Their punishment is as yet unknown but could result in a points deduction.
In this context, the signing of Rooney was a curious one. Considering the commercial benefits of bringing in such a high-profile player, betting company 32Red are believed to have facilitated the deal through additional sponsorship. It's raised questions about how closely gambling has become entwined with the world of professional football, and whether the Rams are exploiting loopholes to help cover Rooney's hefty salary.
With everything else that’s already gone on, Derby could do without the extra attention and negative publicity. Debates about how Rooney’s signing was funded, and whether betting companies should be so heavily involved in football, are understandable and necessary, but in a purely sporting sense, the new recruit has made a serious impression already.
Immediately installed as captain upon his arrival, Rooney’s has been a catalyst for Derby’s improved form. Since making his debut at home to Barnsley at the start of January, he’s helped the Rams to five wins in his first eight appearances, propelling them into mid-table and through to the fifth round of the FA Cup.
In recent years, Rooney has had to accept that he can’t charge around the field as freely as he once did and have such an all-consuming impact on matches. He’s had to scale back his approach and pick his moments more carefully. In the Premier League he found this adaptation difficult, but stepping down a level has made a big difference. Rooney has been able to dictate play from a deeper position and show that, in the right setting, he still has plenty to offer in the twilight of his career.
Speaking to press after the 4-0 defeat of Stoke, Cocu praised Rooney’s fine goal and wider influence on the result. “That’s individual class. He shows on the pitch that he’s a team player. He’s involved in build-up with Birdy (19-year-old midfielder Max Bird), changing the pace of the game and connecting the team. He shows his individual skills as well.”
As someone with great knowledge and understanding of the game at the highest level, Rooney is keen to move into coaching and the possibility of doing so at Derby was a significant factor in his decision to join. A positive role model for the team's young players, his presence is already inspiring them to raise their standards.
It once would have been inconceivable to imagine Rooney playing for a middling Championship club, but he's slotted in well after a successful spell in America with DC United. While his star power was a major attraction, he contributes so much more besides. Fears that he would stifle his teammates and turn Derby into a one-man show have been unfounded.