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Rooney leading Rams' revival - Interview
Monday, 24th Feb 2020 17:18 by Clive Whittingham

Wayne Rooney's arrival on the scene has coincided with Derby County going from no wins in seven to two defeats from 13 games ahead of their trip to Loftus Road on Tuesday night. We got the latest from Pride Park regular Ollie Wright.

Very strange season for Derby on and off the field, how would you assess it overall?

It’s hard to assess, because it’s just been one mad news story after the next, relentlessly, since… well, ever since Frank Lampard took over at the start of last season, really.

Unless you want a chapbook, we don’t have time to consider all of the off-field stuff, so I will stick to talking about the team - which is actually pretty good at the moment, made up of some promising young players, some competent older players and Wayne Rooney. Overall, we have won one, drawn one, lost one and hence are mired in mid-table, but form has improved drastically since Christmas.

After a run of no wins in seven games up to Boxing Day, I felt that we needed three or four new players in the January window to stabilise - but we didn’t make any signings at all, which was curious in the extreme. Cocu has made do and mended, blooding academy players and moving senior pros into different positions, so he deserves credit for that. And obviously, Rooney has made a big difference.

Derby league results so far…
Huddersfield 1-2 Derby Grant 30 - Lawrence 22, 25
Derby 0-0 Swansea
Stoke 2-2 Derby Hogan 32, 55 – Waghorn 2, 70
Derby 1-2 Bristol City Marriott 85 – Weimann 16, Brownhill 45
Derby 1-1 West Brom Waghorn 6 – Zohore 84
Brentford 3-0 Derby Mbeumo 17, Watkins 18, 45
Derby 1-1 Cardiff Malone 6 – Gltazel 19
Leeds 1-1 Derby Lowe og 20 – Martin 90
Derby 3-2 Birmingham Martin 2, Waghorn 50, Paterson 74 – Gardner 56, Sunjic 59
Barnsley 2-2 Derby Halme 16, Woodrow 90 – Martin 34, Huddlestone 43
Derby 2-0 Luton Pearson og 13, Lawrence 70
Charlton 3-0 Derby Bonne 6, Sarr 48, Gallagher 67
Derby 1-0 Wigan Shinnie 90
Hull 2-0 Derby Bowen 74, 80
Derby 2-0 Middlesbrough Lawrence 22, 84
Forest 1-0 Derby Grabban 56
Derby 1-0 Preston Waghorn 33
Fulham 3-0 Derby Reid 7, Mitrovic 40, Cairney 89
Derby 1-1 QPR (Waghorn 23 - Eze pen 45)
Blackburn 1-0 Derby (Armstrong 57)
Derby 1-1 Sheff Wed (Martin pen 82 – Fletcher 23)
Derby 0-1 Millwall (Bradshaw 25)
Reading 3-0 Derby (Adam pen 5, Joao 58, Meite pen 86)
Wigan 1-1 Derby (Garner 81 – Waghorn 90)
Derby 2-1 Charlton (Knight 10, 77 – Taylor pen 83)
Derby 2-1 Barnsley (Marriott 45, Waghorn 57 – Simoes 50)
Middlesbrough 2-2 Derby (Wing 16, McNair pen 67 – Knight 57, Holmes 90)
Derby 1-0 Hull (Clarke 64)
Luton 3-2 Derby (Ruddock 67, Daniels 73, Bogle og 86 – Rooney 63, Martin 85)
Derby 4-0 Stoke (Waghorn 21, Martin 24, Rooney 67, Bogle 74)
Swansea 2-3 Derby (Dhanda 56, Naughton 58 – Waghorn 8, Holmes 64, Lawrence 80)
Bristol City 3-2 Derby (Wells 38, Benkovic 44, Diedhiou 58 – Waghorn 61, Martin 82)
Derby 1-1 Huddersfield (Lawrence 61 – Taffolo 81)
Derby 1-1 Fulham (Rooney pen 55 – Mitrovic 71)

Noticeable uptick in from since December 30 - the Rooney effect, as Sky would have us believe, or something more?

Rooney has mostly played in central midfield and his headline stats are nine league starts, three goals and two assists, with a pass completion rate of just over 80 per cent. So just putting it into those bald terms, he has made a positive impact. Much is made of his age and the fact that he has more miles on the clock than most 34 year-olds - and he has never been of the Cristiano school of reaching for physical perfection, to put it politely - nevertheless, he has played the whole of every single game in league and cup since signing, with the exception of the Stoke game, when he asked to be subbed after we went 4-0 up, to get a breather ahead of playing at Northampton Town.

Yes, he is being paid a vast amount (nobody knows exactly how much, but reports tend to peg it at around £90,000 per week, or £4.5m per year - 15 per cent of the club’s entire turnover in the last set of accounts). Even with the much-debated ‘star player’ clause Derby wrote into their sponsorship contract with 32Red, which triggered a bonus payout from the bookie, there’s an argument that Rooney’s wage could instead have spread out to cover three or four players, which would have given us more depth and a better chance of success this season. But he’s here now and we’re all enjoying the deluxe passes and touches, the sheer quality of his play. And he has undeniably made the team stronger.

There was a wonderful moment in the TV coverage of our FA Cup win at Crystal Palace where the camera cut to Roy Hodgson, who was bringing James McArthur on as a sub and could be seen ranting at his midfielder, waving his arms left and right to make it clear that he was sick of watching Rooney and (the currently injured) Tom Huddlestone spraying marvellous long-range passes hither and yon. Give Rooney time to play, as Palace and Stoke City notably did, then he can still destroy you.

Other teams have sought to limit his influence - and even Northampton did this well at their place - by sticking a man on him. At Middlesbrough, young full back Djed Spence sprinted a good 20 or 30 yards to close Rooney down, take the ball off him and put him on his arse. As much as Rooney is a talisman for our fans, he’s a target for players of other teams, who understandably want to ‘sack the quarterback’, if they can.

How has Cocu done in his first year? Have the fans stuck with him?

I recently polled the fans on Twitter and out of more than 1,000 responses, 92 per cent said they were either happy or even very happy with the job Cocu is doing.

What we have badly needed and what Cocu has provided is somebody to hold it all together while chaos reigns externally. I think he deserves immense credit, given the sheer amount of nonsense which has been piled onto his plate.

That’s not to say that he has got everything right and the grumbling was definitely becoming louder before Christmas, when form flatlined. But after winning with ten men in what had become a must-win game against Charlton on 30 December, the team has managed to bounce somewhat, bang a few goals in and dispel any fears about a relegation scrap.

You looked quite a stodgy, difficult watch when we played at Pride Park, has the style of play developed/improved as the season has gone on?

I totally agree with that assessment, we were poor against you guys and that level of ineffectiveness has reared its head on more than a few occasions this season, especially in away games. The interesting thing about that particular game is that Cocu went into it with a back three, which he then junked after about ten minutes, leaving us with full back Jayden Bogle playing as a winger. Cocu will sometimes change our system to react to what he thinks the opponents will do. On that occasion, it backfired on him.

What we have managed to do a lot in recent weeks is be very, very clinical. Against Stoke, we scored four goals from ten shots, at Swansea, we scored three from eight shots, at Boro, two from seven. There is still, even with Rooney in the team, an underlying issue with creativity, which isn’t helped by the loss of attacking midfielder Duane Holmes, who was showing his best form as a Ram before suffering an ankle injury against Huddersfield Town. But some of the football we've shown in recent weeks has been much, much better than the last time we played you.

It's worth noting that the reverse fixture immediately followed a nadir in our season, when we lost 3-0 at Fulham without having a shot on target. We've just competed much more strongly with them at our place and could easily have won the match, had their keeper not been man of the match.

Ins: >>> Krystian Bielik, 21, CDM, Arsenal, £7.3m >>> Graeme Shinnie, 27, CM, Aberdeen, Free >>> Wayne Rooney, 34, CF, DC United, Free >>> Jamie Paterson, 27, AM, Bristol City, Loan >>> Kieran Dowell, 21, AM, Everton, Loan >>> Matt Clarke, 22, CB, Brighton, Loan >>> Ben Hamer, 31, GK, Huddersfield, Loan

Outs: Luke Thomas, 20, RW, Barnsley, £1,2m >>> Craig Bryson, 32, CM, Aberdeen, Free >>> David Nugent, 34, CF, Preston, Free >>> Nick Blackman, 29, RW, Tel Aviv, Free >>> Alex Pearce, 30, CB, Millwall, Free >>> Bradley Johnson, 32, CM, Blackburn, Free >>> Efe Ambrose, CB, Released >>> Marcus Olsson, LB, Released >>> Jacob Butterfield, 29, CM, Luton, Free >>> Ashley Cole, LB, Smoker’s Section, Free >>> George Thorne, 26, CDM, Oxford, Loan >>> Scott Carson, 36, GK, Man City, Loan

Player of the season candidates?

On current evidence, I will probably end up voting for Rooney. But all the chatter I’ve heard so far has suggested that, before his injury at least, Holmes had a great chance of winning this time.

Other than those two, it’s hard to say. Martyn Waghorn is top scorer. Curtis Davies deserves big credit for stepping into the breach and captaining the side after the drink-driving fiasco.

Speaking of which, Tom Lawrence has played the most minutes under Cocu and has scored a few crackers - he is gradually being rehabilitated after the off-field scandal, but is nevertheless unlikely to get many votes this season, for obvious reasons.

Weak links in the side?

Central defence is an issue. After your pal Richard Keogh got himself sacked, Davies was brought in to replace him - Curt is a proper old-school defender, who is 35 next month and doesn’t suit the way Cocu wants to play (out from the back). Matt Clarke, on loan from Brighton, has more style about him on the ball and is a good defender, but his lack of pace is a clear hindrance and can cause a problem at times. Other than those two, natural full backs Andre Wisdom and Craig Forsyth are the only senior options.

Goalkeeper is also an issue. Derby went into the season with Dutchman Kelle Roos installed as number one, despite his attack of the vapours at Wembley. The fans, to put it frankly, simply aren’t having him anymore. Ben Hamer, who was loaned in the summer as a back-up option, was brought in after Roos had a ‘mare at Fulham, but he is what he is - a journeyman with his own limitations, which have started to show after a run of games. But with Hamer ineligible, Roos came back in against Huddersfield and promptly made a mess of pretty much the only shot he was called upon to deal with.

How do you see the rest of the season panning out?

When I did an edition of the Derby County BlogCast to preview the January transfer window (that wasn’t), one of the contributors, Ram Srinivas, asked us how we would feel if we ended up finishing 12th - 15th, while the academy players like Jason Knight, Max Bird, maybe even the next cabs on the rank, Louie Sibley and Morgan Whittaker, got plenty of minutes. It now seems most likely that this is how it will be. Yes, our home form has been great, but the away form has been pathetic on the whole and we still have home games to come against three of the current top six.

Assuming you don't storm the play offs and go up, are there fears over the FFP situation and ground sale thing coming back to bite?

Kieran Maguire, of Price of Football fame, was kind enough to record a BlogCast special with me on this very issue. His assessment of the situation is that the water we are in is nowhere near as hot as certain tabloids have been making out and he believes that Sheffield Wednesday’s situation is potentially far more grave than ours.

Derby have a relatively robust case and even if the tribunal rules in the EFL’s favour, it seems unlikely, in Kieran’s opinion anyhow, that the penalty imposed will be high enough to drop Derby into the relegation fight. To be a ‘doomsday’ points deduction, it would have to be ruled to have been an ‘aggravated breach’ of the rules and from what we know, Derby communicated everything about the stadium sale with the EFL, had it officially sanctioned and recorded it all in the accounts in a transparent way. The only bone of contention is the independent valuation, which EFL have decided they no longer accept. That is a very different situation to the current mess at Hillsborough, which seems to me to be much more complex and much harder for the Owls to justify.

Some very notable results for your academy side this season, U19s beating Dortmund recently, any names we should be watching out for coming up?

It’s worth pointing out that Bogle, Knight and Bird were all young enough to play in the Dortmund game, but are all in the first-team. The aforementioned Sibley and Whittaker, who have been on the fringes of the first-team, did both play and Sibley scored the third in the very impressive 3-1 win. Next up in the Europa Youth League are Energy Drink Salzburg.

Of the others who featured against Dortmund, Lee Buchanan has played some first-team games at left back this season, while utility man Jordan Brown and Archie Brown, a winger who is big for his age and quick, are both tipped to have a shout at breaking through into contention next season.

Links >>> Official Website >>> Derby Telegraph – Local Press >>> Derby County Blog – Contributor’s blog >>> DCFCFans – Forum

The Twitter @loftforwords, @DerbyCountyBlog

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TheChef added 10:00 - Feb 25

First time I've seen the word 'chapbook'!

NayDaze added 13:05 - Feb 25
Good interview, thanks.

TacticalR added 19:20 - Feb 25
Thanks to Ollie.

It's always going to be a bit mad at Derby with Morris in charge. What you said about Cocu reminds me of Warnock's time at QPR: 'somebody to hold it all together while chaos reigns externally'.

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