Training at Moor Farm was finished but Wayne Rooney, a few days after touching down at Derby County via DC United and Dubai at the end of November, was only just getting started, sending a bag of balls, one by one, flying into the top corner from the edge of the box.
It was business as usual for Rooney, finessing his free-kicks in anticipation of pulling on a Derby shirt for the first time after signing an 18-month contract as a player-coach in the summer. The past five weeks have served as a watching brief, with the former Manchester United star contained to the dugout as part of Philip Cocu’s staff. But England’s record goalscorer returned home to play, and the wait is almost over.
When the move was first mooted, Derby’s players on the coach home from an opening-day victory at Huddersfield assumed links to Rooney were a wind-up. However, that rather bizarre image of Rooney navigating the muck and nettles of the Championship, as Neil Warnock refers to the division, is about to become a magnificent reality.
Rooney, almost three years on from surpassing Sir Bobby Charlton as Manchester United’s greatest goalscorer, is expected to make his Derby bow against Barnsley on Thursday after the club submitted the relevant paperwork to the Football Association and EFL at midnight on Tuesday to formally register him when the transfer window reopened. In an instant, Rooney will become the Football League’s biggest superstar.
Last season it was Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, this time around Cocu and Rooney are the coups, high-profile signings and headline arrivals orchestrated by the club’s owner, Mel Morris. Derby may be 17th, nine points off the play-off places but they hope Rooney, a Champions League and five-time Premier League winner, can ignite an indifferent season.
Rooney, too, is desperate to make a difference and finish his playing career on a high. Since arriving, Rooney has trained with the rest of the squad as planned but has also been on a tailor-made fitness programme – a mini pre-season regime – to help get up to speed. Where Rooney plays remains to be seen but the 34-year-old is expected to operate in midfield, possibly as a No 10 in Cocu’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system.
Rooney may no longer be in his pomp but Derby are rightfully excited to unleash their not-so-secret weapon. Understandably, there is a hum of excitement surrounding Rooney’s Derby debut and supporters have been singing his name ever since he was introduced on the Pride Park pitch before a draw against Queens Park Rangers in November.
It was then he took a pew in the second row of the home dugout for the first time, behind Cocu and his assistants Twan Scheepers and Chris van der Weerden. During the victory against Charlton on Monday – Derby’s first win in eight matches – supporters in the South Stand made it known that Rooney is coming to town.
“I feel physically good,” he said. “Of course, I’m not the player I was in my early 20s but I haven’t missed a training session since I rejoined Everton [in 2017]. I feel my body is still ready to play and I’ll play as long as my body allows me.”
The past month offered a glimpse into the future, with Rooney observing Cocu and his staff at close quarters, studying how they deliver analysis clips from a coaching perspective, and sitting in on team meetings. On the pitch he is expected to become a key link, a bridge between the dressing room and management and, while there is a sense he may assume some coaching responsibilities next summer, for now his primary focus is on playing.
Since his arrival Rooney has impressed staff with his attitude, notably his down-to-earth nature and tangible hunger to drive Derby up the table. During his first training sessions, Rooney’s unerring speed of thought was particularly striking. Off the pitch he has been priceless for both youngsters and experienced professionals, giving snippets of advice to players at half-time, while he has acted as a sounding board for Mason Bennett and Tom Lawrence, who were charged with drink-driving in October in an incident that led to Derby sacking their former captain, Richard Keogh. Keogh has appealed that dismissal and the club await an EFL hearing.
Only the bottom club Wigan have scored fewer league goals than Derby this season and Rooney’s creativity and touch will surely help solve that problem. “You can be standing right behind him but you don’t see the pass he sees,” says the Derby defender Matt Clarke. “He is just a level above.”
Then there is Rooney’s experience, nous and game-management, skills that will be invaluable throughout the second half of the season. Rooney has already had an impact on Derby’s younger players, notably the 18-year-old midfielder Jason Knight, who scored both goals on Monday. “He almost reminds me of myself when I was younger in terms of no fear,” Rooney said.
It is impossible to predict quite how big a splash Rooney will make but his arrival has already given Derby a timely boost. “It has given everyone a lift,” says Clarke. “When he first came into the building, everyone was a little bit in admiration and almost starstruck to a point, and rightly so because arguably England’s best ever player is around the training ground, having breakfast and having lunch with you.
“But he has just become one of the lads now, which is a nice thing. In training he has scored goals from crazy angles and chipped the keeper from a position where no one else would even attempt. There have definitely been ‘wow’ moments. And I think that’s to be expected.”