Wayne Rooney – a former striker once hailed as the best in the world. Derby County – a team steeped in history and tradition and with a fan base to match those in the upper echelons of the English game. Yet both of them together has simultaneously brought them to their knees in what’s become a footballing horror tale of the modern era.

Little over a week stands between Derby County and their opening game of the new Championship season at home to Huddersfield Town. Rooney has the bare bones of a squad to field against the Terriers, with a particular crisis at centre-back as the Rams juggle a host of free agents.

Relegation is the immediate thought when discussing Derby County’s fortunes in the upcoming 2021/22 campaign. They came close last time round, ending the season with just a point and a place between them and 22nd-placed Wycombe Wanderers, who could’ve replaced them in the second-tier roster earlier in the summer as Derby County faced a nail-biting decision on a potential points deduction which could’ve seen them belatedly relegated.

Instead, the Rams find themselves gearing up for the Championship but with a suspended three-point penalty lingering over them for a single late payment of staff over the course of the 2020/21 season. Current owner Mel Morris is being forced to front the club’s wage bill for July as another late payment would result in said points penalty being activated and applied to their points tally for the upcoming season.

But despite all the off-field trauma currently residing at Derby County, Rooney remains the hottest topic of debate. As he has been throughout his footballing career, Rooney is someone who the press and the footballing community love to goad whether it be in a positive or negative light. At times he’s warranted sympathy – he’s someone who’s been in the limelight from the age of 16, going on to become England and Manchester United’s all-time top-scorer via a career that’s so often been under-appreciated in football debates.

But it’s the negativity that people so love to talk about with Rooney and it’s fair to say that he doesn’t help himself whatsoever. Recent images that have appeared online which surely need no introduction by this point have thrust the 35-year-old into yet more controversy, which has an all too familiar feel about it – this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Rooney in this kind of personal predicament. Soon after that, separate reports regarding Jason Knight’s injury in training, supposedly caused by a tackle from his manager, has cast Rooney in a clown-like state and nothing sums up Derby County’s current fortunes better than Rooney’s.

Rooney; the Rams’ ‘Great Helmsman’

Last season when Rooney was handed the full-time manager’s job, he had the chance to become the leader that Derby County still find themselves in need of. Back in January, Derby fans held genuine optimism for the future of the club under Rooney after he steered the Rams up the Championship table and as high as 18th after a 2-0 win over Huddersfield Town back in February – Derby’s sixth win in eight Championship fixtures.

But that form would come tumbling down and Derby would win just one of their final 15 Championship fixtures. The downfall was in no small part down to the injury to Krystian Bielik but the absence of a single player seemingly bringing a club to its knees on the pitch shows an alarming lack of depth and quality in the side, which stems from factors outside of Rooney’s control.

Prior to his arrival at the club, recruitment had been poor. Considerable amounts of money was spent on players who aren’t even with the club anymore – the 2018/19 campaign alone saw the likes of Martyn Waghorn, Jack Marriott, Florian Jozefzoon and Duane Holmes all arrive for a combined total of more than £12million and all of which have since moved on, with Waghorn, the standout purchase of that lot costing more than £5million joining Championship rivals Coventry City on a free transfer this summer.

More recently in Rooney’s tenure, the Rams have been through takeover hell having seen two bids fail during last season. Morris looks desperate to cut ties with the club but seems no closer to doing so, with supposed debts of £60million said to be deterring any potential buyer from coming in. Add to that the uncertainty around the current squad, the difficulties they’re facing in bringing new names in and the lingering doubts over wages and how the club will pay them, and the sympathetic light in which we’ve so often seen Rooney in comes back into play – or at least it would if it weren’t for his recent calamities.

From dugout, to boardroom, to on the pitch, Derby County is a mess. Rooney has had the chance this summer to really step up to the plate as he did when he hung up his boots, and guided Derby County through a good vein of form and reinstated belief into this crumbling club – but he hasn’t. Those recently emerging images of Rooney – the date of which is debated – are not images you’d ever see from say, Darren Moore at Sheffield Wednesday, who’s side were relegated at the expense of Derby County last season but has since had a completely contrasting pre-season to the Rams’.

And the reports of Knight’s injury… How true the fact that Rooney injured one of his own players during pre-season training remains to be seen but it’s another something to typecast Rooney as the bad guy. National press has always adored Rooney for his controversy and still do to this day. But to this day, Rooney doesn’t cover himself in glory – his Derby County experiment is exactly that and whilst some would say kudos to the board for trying something new, others would and have berated such a move.

Derby County’s flaws of old, both on and off the pitch have landed them in this hot mess they find themselves in today. It’s true that a ‘Great Helmsman’ is needed to turn things around at Pride Park and that could’ve been Rooney. He could’ve earned himself a lot of brownie points with the fans by showing genuine dedication to the job at a time when the owner seems desperate to have no further involvements. His hands are tied, yes, but Rooney’s recent immaturity signals a distinct lack of interest in the task at hand, and a distinct lack of recognition for the severity of it and the grief that it’s causing fans.

Reports emerging recently have suggested that Rooney’s job is on a ‘knife edge’. The Rams boss pockets a cool £90,000-a-week according to The Sun and is contracted to the club until 2023. Unless a mutual termination can be reached then it seems like Rooney will continue in his apparent half-hearted management of the side and where that will lead to is something that Derby County fans might not want to think about. Rooney and Derby County could’ve been an unlikely love story but instead, it’s a tale of two declining giants of the game, two giants who’ve brought the very worst out of each other. There seems to be no turning back from the current predicament – it has to end.