How escape act could hand Wayne Rooney a ticket back to Toffees
Everton fans would welcome former star's return after poisonous reign of Rafa Benitez
From mission impossible to the prospect of an improbable miracle, Wayne Rooney will be in the running for Manager of the Year however the season finishes for Derby County.
Against all the odds, Rooney has guided the stricken Championship club into a position where hopes of survival are flickering more brightly with each passing week.
It is one of the uplifting stories of this season, and exactly why Everton are considering a move for the man who burned his name into the national conscience as a 16-year-old, with that star-is-born moment against Arsenal.
Growing up in Croxteth, his dream as a child was always to pull on the blue jersey, and his association with Everton began at the age of nine, with two separate spells as a player. At Derby recently, he spoke of his bitter disappointment at the way his second coming with Everton ended prematurely under Sam Allardyce in 2018.
Everton chairman Bill Kenwright is understood to be pushing the credentials of Rooney as the club’s next manager, and an approach is likely to be made for the 36-year-old.
After the poisonous and bewildering regime of Rafael Benitez, the appointment of Rooney would be an emotional and popular one for supporters, and immediately get them back onside. After retirement as a player last year, Rooney has now reinvented himself as a manager who is in contention for arguably the greatest escape act of all time.
Derby have suffered a 21-point deduction, been embroiled in a protracted takeover saga for more than 12 months, while the manager possesses a squad so threadbare his substitutes sometimes have milk teeth.
Before last weekend’s 2-0 win over Sheffield United, their fourth victory in five games, Rooney was given the shattering news that the club were under a new transfer embargo after administrators Quantuma failed to provide the Football League with proof of funding to finish the season.
Experienced defender Phil Jagielka quit to join Stoke, in another huge setback, but Rooney has established such a siege mentality that Derby always seem to defy the odds.
The victory over Sheffield United lifted them off the bottom of the table. The gap to safety is now eight points, and suddenly relegation to League One does not appear so inevitable. This season, Derby have beaten Bournemouth and West Brom, drawing at Fulham.
Rooney has fostered a spirit and atmosphere in the dressing room where they never give up, and his players, a combination of gnarled warriors and academy graduates, are playing above themselves.
A football obsessive who would happily watch non-League on the television at home in the absence of any other matches, Rooney has taken all the best bits from the management manuals of Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.
Shrewd tactical tweaks, intuitive game management and fine coaching have all been evident. He has revived the careers of former England international Jagielka and Curtis Davies, while bringing through young talent such as Jason Knight and Max Bird.
Rooney has also got a tune out of Ravel Morrison, an old team-mate at Manchester United who has endured a nomadic career across Europe. He now has 15 league appearances, the most for any club since Birmingham City in 2013.
There is also the backdrop of a takeover, which is still no nearer completion. Quantuma announced that a preferred bidder was “imminent” on Christmas Eve, but interested parties are still waiting for a decision. Bitter rows with Middlesbrough and Wycombe are also a major hurdle to a sale.
Staff at Derby are fearing for their futures, and are wondering whether there will be a club by Febraury 1, when Quantuma must provide evidence they can fulfil the fixtures. Rooney has been the totemic figure during Derby’s lowest ebb, and is revelling in his role.
Of course, it may still end in relegation. There are 20 games remaining and Derby simply could not sustain their results last season, needing a dramatic final-day draw against Sheffield Wednesday to survive. He is wringing every last drop out of this squad, and it is taking a monumental effort, especially during these times of Covid-19.
There will be more than enough Championship clubs insisting relegation is a fitting fate for Derby, after their fights with the English Football League.
The interest from Everton comes at a difficult time for Derby. But, for now, Rooney deserves every accolade coming his way. He has proved to other former players that it’s not always worth waiting for the perfect opportunity.
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