Wayne Rooney is in the final phase of securing the qualifications needed to manage at the elite level in English football, but it turns out that learning on the job as Derby County manager offers a much more comprehensive education than anything he’s learned while studying for his UEFA Pro Licence.
“I’m going through my Pro Licence [qualification needed to manage in the Premier League] at the moment and it certainly doesn’t prepare you for this,” Rooney told ESPN. “But listen, it is what it is and I have to deal with it.”
“This” is shorthand for the catalogue of problems Rooney, 36, has had to deal with on a daily basis at Derby, his EFL Championship team. The club had persuaded him to cut short his spell at D.C. United in Major League Soccer two years ago in order to take his first steps up the coaching ladder, initially as player-coach under Phillip Cocu before stepping up to manage the team in November 2020.
Since taking charge, Rooney has guided Derby to just 14 wins in 59 games, and the club narrowly avoided relegation to the third-tier League One on the final day of last season. In December 2021, they’re anchored to the foot of the Championship, 20 points adrift of safety, after being deducted 21 points by the EFL: 12 points for entering administration, or proceedings to mitigate financial insolvency, and a further nine points in November for historical breaches of financial rules under former owner Mel Morris.
Derby, the English league champions in 1972 and 1975, are £83 million in debt, which includes an unpaid tax bill of £26m, plus unpaid transfer instalments to various clubs amounting to £8.3m. When it was announced that St John Ambulance, the charity that provides medical support at games, was owed £8,300 by the club in September, Derby supporters raised £12,000 within 72 hours to pay the bill.
The club are also being sued by two rival clubs for loss of potential earnings. Middlesbrough are asking for £45m after being denied a play-off spot and the chance to win promotion to the Premier League by Derby in 2018-19. As part of the lawsuit, Boro says that Derby’s overspending broke financial rules and gave them an unfair advantage. Meanwhile, Wycombe Wanderers are claiming £6m in lost earnings after being relegated from the Championship last season. Wycombe contend that had Derby been deducted nine points last season rather than this, they would have stayed up and Derby relegated instead.
Add in the issue of severe transfer restrictions, which only allow Derby to make loan signings or six-month deals, and it’s easy to see why Rooney is finding his first management job to be tougher than he could ever have imagined.
“It’s not ideal,” he said. “When you go into management, you want everything to be perfect and be in place. But we know football, not just at Derby but other clubs, there are things that are not in your control. You have to deal with them and handle them.
“I have had to react to quite a lot of stuff and be sensible with how I am doing the job. The stuff on the field we need to get right, but the players are giving everything. I always feel that if you do something in an honest way, you can learn from it and you can grow from it, but I also have to make the right decisions at the right time. It’s not ideal, but we will get through this.”
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Derby’s problems pre-date Rooney’s time at the club and can be traced back to former owner Morris’s takeover in September 2015.
Morris, a Derby-born businessman who amassed a fortune in excess of £500m through a dating website and the company behind the Candy Crush Saga mobile games, immediately announced his ambitions to take the club to the Premier League. He seemed to back up his talk, breaking Derby’s transfer record four times in his first three years as owner, with the biggest outlay being £10 million for Arsenal youngster Krystian Bielik in 2019.
The plan was simple: spend big, get to the Premier League and pay the bills once the money flowed in from being in the richest league in the world. But defeat to Aston Villa in the 2019 Championship play-off final sent Derby into a financial tailspin and Rooney is left to pick up the pieces.
The situation at Pride Park has become so bleak that Rooney’s even been forced to dip into his pocket this season to pay for training equipment, including drones that allow sessions to be filmed and studied by the club’s video analysts. Rooney told The Sunday Times in October that he’d even slept on the sofa in his office during the summer transfer window in an effort to get deals over the line.
Matters on the pitch are almost insignificant due to the size of the mountain Derby must climb to avoid relegation, and every press conference is dominated by questions about the club’s survival, the threat of liquidation and prospective new owners. But Rooney insists he is not allowing the off-field issues to drain his focus from the job he is paid to do: manage a football team.
“Does it distract me? Not much, because I know I can’t control it,” Rooney said. “I obviously get updates, speak to the administrators, and people I need to speak to, but my focus is on the players as individuals, as human beings and as a team and my staff. Ninety-five percent of what I am doing is focused on making the team better.
“If you don’t believe [we can stay up], then we may as well all go home. Football is a crazy game at times, and crazy things happen. If we can make the fans smile for 90 minutes or give them the hope we can achieve something, we will do everything we can to do that.”
The one ray of hope on the horizon for Derby is the prospect of the club being bought by American businessman Chris Kirchner, the co-founder and CEO of Dallas-based software company Slync.io. Kirchner is in talks with Derby’s administrators — although other parties have also expressed an interest — and he attended the home defeat against QPR in November, but no takeover has yet been finalised.
“I haven’t spoken to the other parties and I don’t know who they are,” Rooney said. “You hear me mention Chris’s name because he is serious and I know his plans. If he is there and we can get it done, let’s do it. He is the one I know is there. I spoke to him [at the QPR game] and it shows how much he wants it. It was good to get his feedback on what he thinks.
“From all the discussions I have had, this club will be fine. A new owner will come in. I am pushing for that to happen quicker than it is, but that will happen. Once it does, it will be a chance to restart and rebuild and we can start looking forward.”
But in the immediate term, finding a way to get out of the hole they are in at the bottom of the table is Derby’s biggest challenge. They play Blackpool at home on Saturday and Rooney believes that staying up, as unlikely as it seems, is still possible.
“The table doesn’t lie,” he said. “However we look at it, it is not going to be good for next two or three weeks. But I believe that, come February-March, we can look at the table and say we have got a chance or we will get relegated, will have a better understanding of where we are at.
“It would be the biggest achievement in football for me, to deal with everything and manage to stay up, but there is a lot of hard work to do before we start to do that.”