With six days to go until the Championship season starts, things go from bad to worse at Derby with a threadbare squad and a transfer embargo hanging over the club. Wayne Rooney kept them up last season – by the skin of their teeth – but can the ex-England captain somehow do the same again?
A final-day point against Sheffield Wednesday, while Rotherham lost at Cardiff, was enough for Derby to survive in the Championship, even though their place in the second tier still remained in jeopardy due to an ongoing fight with the EFL over their finances.
It was supposed to be a breakwater – a chance for the club to reset under new ownership, and current custodian Mel Morris to see in new investment. But things have only got worse.
Rooney now has less than a week to prepare for the rigours of a new season but can barely field a five-a-side team of first-team players – and injured one, Jason Knight, in an accidental training ground collision when filling in during a session. All while operating under a transfer embargo.
Sky Sports News’ Rob Dorsett analyzes the scale of the challenge facing the club and head coach, who less than a decade ago was leading the line for a manager arguably the best anyone could have learned from.
Rooney ‘will have dearth of resources for Championship season’
The start to Wayne Rooney’s managerial career has been a baptism of fire. England’s all-time leading goalscorer, since becoming a manager in November, has won just 10 of 36 games.
But those figures are rendered meaningless when you consider the nightmarish circumstances he’s had to work under.
Two failed takeover attempts at the club, a Coronavirus outbreak at the training ground which ruled out the entire first team, several months where the players weren’t paid their wages, and now repeated regulatory battles with the EFL which have meant stringent restrictions on transfers .
Rooney has just nine senior players in his squad, and – even if the current negotiations with the EFL reduce the embargo somewhat – he is going to have a dearth of resources to compete in the Championship.
The EFL have decreed Derby have 19 players classed “of professional standing” (meaning they have played in at least one League cup, EFL or FA Cup game in their career) and so the club is only currently allowed to sign four more players – and all of those must be within strict financial guidelines: no loan player can be signed on a deal longer than six months, and any substantive signing can only be paid a fraction of what the average Championship player earns.
Against Real Betis last week, Rooney had five triallists in his starting 11 – under the current restrictions, Derby are not allowed to sign all five.
In addition, the battle with the EFL shows no sign of abating. Derby must publish their annual accounts by August 18, and while club officials hope this might lead to more lenience from the league organisers, there are other financial experts who’ve told me it could land Derby in further trouble.
The possibility of a points deduction still hangs over Pride Park, if they are found guilty of any further financial misdemeanour. A number of Championship rivals are pushing for that, feeling that Derby obtained an unfair advantage with regards to the overall spending limits imposed by the EFL.
All of this is weighing heavily on owner Mel Morris, who is still financing Derby’s losses to the tune of over £1m per month. A Derby fan himself, he has been trying to sell the club for several years.
I’m told there are still a number of interested parties who may want to purchase, but none of those negotiations is advanced, and after two failed buy-outs, Derby are being ultra-cautious.
With so much uncertainty hanging like a dark cloud over the East Midlands club, the long-suffering fans can be sure of two things: it will be a difficult season ahead, and one in which Rooney will have to rely heavily on the products of Derby’s youth academy.
Derby’s timeline of demise
April 2019 – Derby records pre-tax profit of £14.6m, after selling stadium to owner Mel Morris for £80m, but it appears to be valued at £41m in their accounts.
May 2019 – A Frank Lampard-led Derby reach the Championship play-off final but lose to Aston Villa, before Lampard leaves to manage Chelsea; Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani accuses Derby of ‘cheating’ regarding Morris’ purchase.
September 2019 – Middlesbrough threaten to sue EFL for handling of Derby’s finances, having missed out on play-off place to Rams by one point in 2018/19. The Times reports EFL has ordered independent valuation of Pride Park.
January 2020 – Derby charged by EFL for breaching Championship rules over ground sale, and how the club measured value of its players; Wayne Rooney joins as player-coach after leaving DC United.
August 2020 – EFL’s spending charges against Derby are dismissed by independent disciplinary tribunal.
September 2020 – EFL announces it will appeal against part of ruling relating to Derby’s valuation of players.
October 2020 – Derby enter takeover talks with Abu Dhabi-based Sheikh Khaled.
November 2020 – Philip Cocu is sacked following run of one win from opening 11 games, with Derby bottom of Championship, Rooney takes over on interim basis.
January 2021 – Entire first-team squad miss FA Cup third-round tie at Chorley due to the coronavirus outbreak; Rooney appointed full-time manager, having lifted Derby to bring of safety, later ‘seeks answers’ to ongoing delay of takeover.
February 2021 – Rams draw with arch-rivals Nottingham Forest to stay 18th, following run of 19 points from nine games.
May 2021 – Run of six defeats leaves Derby in final-day danger, but club stay up thanks to draw with Sheffield Wednesday; Alonso’s bid falls through but CEO Stephen Pearce insists other negotiations are ongoing; EFL wins part of its appeal against Derby for accounting methods.
June 2021 – Derby are fined £100,000 over accounts by disciplinary commission; EFL, who have the right of appeal, announce ‘interchangeable’ Championship fixture list for 2021/22, pending potential points deduction and reinstatement of relegated Wycombe Wanderers.
July 2021 – EFL decide against appealing commission’s decision, meaning Derby stay in Championship; club remains under transfer embargo, but is later permitted to sign out-of-contract players on wage limits; Rooney apologises after pictures appear online of manager asleep in hotel room with women posing beside him; Rams down to eight senior players after Jason Knight injured by Rooney in training session.
Rooney: We need help
Sky Sports News has been told Derby officials are currently in discussions with HMRC and the EFL and are hopeful new submissions of the club’s accounts will pacify the authorities and allow them to sign more players.
Reports have suggested that as things stand Derby are only able to make loan signings, which is preventing them from offering permanent contracts to players who have been on trial with the club during pre-season, such as Ravel Morrison and Phil Jagielka.
“We’re a little bit close to bringing players in… but still a bit off as well,” Rooney said. “We need help – to bring these players in, otherwise we’re going to be in a very tricky position come next week.
Derby’s opening game of the Championship season is at home to Huddersfield on Saturday 7 August.
Asked if signing the five trialists who started in Wednesday’s friendly victory over Betis would help, Rooney added: “We need more. That’s nowhere near enough.
“There are certain situations which I can’t really go into in detail, but we need that help to allow us to bring more players in, because if not we won’t be on a level playing field with the rest of the clubs and it will be very difficult for us.
“If we don’t get the players in, then including academy players, I’ve got a starting 11 and three to go on the bench.”