On a balmy August evening, I set off from my West Yorkshire gaff to make the short trip to the John Smith’s Stadium. Just as I was leaving, I saw a text from Tommo, which read: “Have you seen the Rooney link, got to be bollocks”. I thought nothing more of it, given that yes, it was obviously bollocks and got on with making my way to Huddersfield.
When I arrived at the ground, a few lads were chanting “Rooney, Rooney” in the bar area of the concourse, much to my amusement. It was all good fun, but surely nothing serious, I thought, as I wandered to my ‘seat’ to watch the Rams play the Terriers.
The 2-1 victory was probably deserved, thanks to five minutes of magic from Tom Lawrence and a second half which was all about discipline, team shape and concentration. However, within hours, the trifling matter of a three points from a strong away performance was basically forgotten, thanks to the rapid escalation of the club’s biggest transfer story in decades, if not ever.
I was quite looking forward to us being a normal football team again. The “Frank Lampard’s Derby” thing was annoying by the end and there was definitely a downside to being more of a target for the media to latch onto. Under the undemonstrative Phillip Cocu – a great player, but one who never played in England and hence was not a household name on these shores – I kind of hoped we could just get on with our season without being subjected to the unwelcome extra national press and TV commentary which arises whenever a ‘newsworthy’ big name is involved.
But listen, Mel’s gonna Mel.
He initially did what he does every summer, which was make extremely convincing noises about restraint and developing the kids and shopping in the loan market and reining it in, only to then suddenly drop everyone’s jaws by signing one of the biggest names in English football, in a move which he admitted had only became a possibility in the past few days. Whatever the plan was for the rest of the window, the plan changed overnight and a man who was until recently hailed as one of the best players in the world was hopping on a transatlantic flight to sign on the dotted line for the Rams.
The last time England’s record goalscorer played for Derby, the journalist Richard Jolly tweeted, was Steve Bloomer in 1911. In my lifetime, the only signing I can think of with remotely the same level of starpower was that of Igor Štimac, but I’m sure even the supremely self-confident Croat himself would admit that Rooney is a far bigger name. Last summer’s appointment of Frank Lampard felt like the biggest coup we were likely to experience, at least until the club could finally haul itself out of the Championship. And Mel has gone and topped it within twelve months.
It has taken me this long to get an article together on the subject partly because I simply couldn’t begin to get my head around it for a couple of days. It is so far beyond the spectrum of what I had thought possible that it is mind-bending.
So, let’s take a step back, take all the hoo-ha out of it for a moment and try to look with clear eyes at what we’ve actually acquired.
The first point to make is that Rooney’s best days are well behind him. However, in his best days, he was one of the best players in the world. He will be 34 by the time he joins Derby, not an exceptionally ripe age for a player in this day and age, but Rooney peaked earlier than most, partly because of the prodigious development which made him an Everton first-teamer by the age of 16 and a Manchester United superstar before his 20th birthday. José Mourinho described him as a ‘model professional’ when he left United, which is slightly at odds with some of the tabloid tales about his life off the field, but should be taken as a highly encouraging sign about how he will approach his time at Pride Park. He has made it very clear that he is joining in order to help us get promoted and it’s to be hoped that his signing will galvanise the squad, in the same way that it has clearly electrified most of the supporters.
I don’t watch MLS, so can’t claim to have kept an eye on him at all since he left these shores, but Whoscored.com data rates him in the top ten of players currently appearing at that level (Zlatan Ibrahimović is rated #2). Playing as a centre forward, he has scored 11 goals and contributed six assists in 23 appearances this season – about 0.8 goals + assists for every 90 minutes on the field. By all accounts, he has been tremendously influential on and off the pitch at DC United and will be a huge loss to the club. The Washington Post’s ‘soccer’ correspondent Steven Goff describes his impact at DCU as ‘immeasurable‘.
The excellent Ram Srinivas has of course created a graphic, which demonstrates that he has been one of the most effective creative forces in MLS this season. On the flip side, he is no longer carrying the ball regularly, not actually popping up in the box that often and his defensive contribution has been below average for an MLS striker. So it seems he has effectively been afforded a free role, with license to drop deeper as he likes and focus on making things happen around him – DCU have been rewarded with plenty of goals and assists as a result.
It’s also worth considering that his quality from set pieces (and penalty-taking) will be a major asset, especially with Harry Wilson no longer around.
Another important factor is his ability to pass the ball accurately into the danger area (‘deep completions’ are successful passes aimed close to the goal). A big criticism of Lampard’s Derby from the stattos was that they did not create enough high-quality opportunities to shoot on goal (from close range)- on the evidence of his MLS performances at least, Rooney should help to solve that problem.
The question for Phillip Cocu is how to fit Rooney into his line-up. It’s hard to see him starting up-front in place of Martyn Waghorn, who is so important for the team, but playing Rooney as a number ten seems to be a likely answer. In a free attacking midfield role, he could drift into spaces, pick the ball up in dangerous areas and release the younger runners around him. If there is enough energy and pace in other areas of the pitch – for example Waghorn or Marriott up front, Lawrence on the left, new signing Jamie Paterson on the right, Krystian Bielik and George Evans in midfield, Bogle and Malone at full back – then maybe we can afford to carry a creative force with less mobility.
However, like Lampard’s appointment, Rooney’s arrival undoubtedly comes with its darker side. Once again, Derby are a target for the boo-boys – most particularly of course the supporters of two other Championship clubs who I don’t want or need to name. A particular mountain has been made of the issue of Rooney’s squad number, which, it quickly dawned on everyone, had been chosen to marry with the brand of Derby’s shirt sponsor. This was seized upon by those with an axe to grind as an absolute moral outrage.
My personal opinion is that the morality of gambling companies sponsoring football clubs and leagues is dubious. As far as I’m concerned, there is definitely a case for banning them from doing so and I would happily see this implemented tomorrow. Gambling can ruin lives and the way it has gradually insinuated itself into football has to date met with little apparent resistance from the game’s authorities.
As things stand, there is simply no way of children and young people being engaged with the game they love and not being exposed to the big betting brands. If your concern is that advertising betting through football is helping to normalise a potentially harmful product for the next generation, then you should be in favour of an outright ban.
But until the powers that be are brave enough to decide that they do not want bookmakers part-funding professional clubs through sponsorship arrangements, they will just be another potential commercial partner for those clubs to court. And if it is morally acceptable for ’32’ to be emblazoned on the front of Wazza’s shirt, which is where most of the cameras will focus after all, then why isn’t it also OK for it to be printed on his back? What’s the difference?
Supporters of other clubs and some newspapers have been trumpeting a supposed salary of up to £100,000 per week for Rooney at Derby. Nobody knows the real figure, but what we can say, because in the MLS, these figures are not kept secret, is that in 2018, Rooney’s ‘base salary’ at DC United was $3.5m per year – about $67,000 per week, or £55,000 per week, at the time of writing. A fun fact is that MLS players taking home a higher base salary than Rooney include not just Ibrahimović and Bastian Schweinsteiger, but also Giovanni dos Santos and the notorious Sunderland flop Jozy Altidore.
No doubt, Rooney will be on a relative fortune for a Championship player, but as he only joins Derby in January, we will only be paying him for half of this season. He will be under contract for the whole of 2020/21, but a look at our current depth chart, sorting the players by their age, shows that this may not be quite as problematic as some observers would like to make it look.
With the obvious exception of Rooney, the top line of players aged 30+, in red – Davies, Forsyth, Huddlestone, Anya and Martin, plus the loanee goalkeeper Ben Hamer – are all out of contract next summer and will presumably leave the club at that point. Only Hamer, Davies and Huddlestone are important members of the squad at the time of writing (with Forsyth injured), so it’s fair to say that at least some of those veterans can be released without any need for a direct replacement. Letting them go will get a fair chunk of wages off the club’s books and should allow Derby to absorb an extra six months of Rooney’s salary. All of that, of course, is assuming that the Rams don’t get promoted this season – if we do go up, clearly the financial landscape changes beyond all recognition anyway.
The bottom line is, the Mel Morris era is going to make for a cracking book one day. He is going to continue throwing curveball after curveball, all with the aim of getting us promoted in the end (and if it happens, he won’t want a repeat of last time, either). Like it or not, it seems that we will never be far from the headlines while Mel is in charge. Folks used to find the GSE era of financial sustainability under Nigel Clough tedious – well, nobody can complain about it being dull any more.
For now though, it would be great if we could just park the Rooney story for the moment and focus on the first half of the season to come. All the gossip and click-baiting and moral panic should be totally batted away, because Cocu (remember him?) has a lot of games to try to win before he can call upon the former England captain. By the time Rooney steps onto the Pride Park grass for the first time, much of the story of 2019/20 will already have been written.