Rooney avoids relegation by the skin of his teeth

Wayne Rooney burst onto the soccer stage as a 16 year-old in 2002, the same year Power Line entered the blogosphere. I’ve been writing about Rooney ever since — his sensational performance at Euro 2004, his exit from Everton the same year, his champagne play at Manchester United for whom he is the all-time leading scorer (as he is for the English national team), his return to Everton, and his brief but unforgettable stint with D.C. United before “the missus” decided the family needed to move back to England.

There are two words I never thought I would use in the same sentence: Rooney and relegation. I figured that no team with Rooney in the side could be bad enough to finish in the bottom three of any league, and therefore be demoted. And no team that might conceivably be relegated could retain Rooney’s services, as Everton found out all those years ago.

But Rooney is in management now. He returned to England as a player coach for Derby County in England’s second tier league, and became the interim manager after the Rams started poorly this season.

At first, Rooney’s appointment gave the club a bounce. Then, the Rams sank like a stone. In fact, they had lost six matches in a row entering yesterday’s season finale.

I kept wondering whether Rooney would lace up his boots in an effort to boost his team. He did not.

Entering play yesterday, the Rams were fourth from bottom. If they could remain there, they would stay in the second tier. But if overtaken, they would descend to the third tier for only the second time in their proud 130-year-plus history, and the first time since the 1950s.

Survival depended first of all on the outcome of Derby County’s match with Sheffield Wednesday, their fellow strugglers. A defeat would see the Owls vault ahead them. A draw would suffice to keep the Rams ahead of the Owls. However, if Rotherham defeated Cardiff City, the Millers would overtake Derby County on goal difference in the event the Rams could only snatch a draw.

The good news was that Derby County would play at home. Rotherham would play away, in Cardiff against a superior team, albeit one that had little incentive to go all out.

I should also note that Derby was ahead of Sheffield Wednesday in the standings only because the Owls had received a deduction of six points for some sort of a breach of financial regulations. Absent the deduction, Derby County would already have been relegated.

The Rams-Owls match began fairly quietly. It was scoreless heading into first-half stoppage time. But then, after three extra minutes, Sheffield Wednesday scored from a corner kick to take a 1-0 lead.

To make matters worse, Rotherham scored in Wales to take a 1-0 lead into halftime. If both results held, the Millers and the Owls would pass Derby County. If only one of them held, the Rams would still be relegated.

But Rooney’s half-time talk must have inspired his team, for Derby County scored twice in the first seven minutes of the second half. Veteran Martyn Waghorn scored the first and assisted on the second, a firecracker of a shot from outside the penalty box by Patrick Roberts.

Unfortunately for Rooney’s men, a defensive mistake by long-serving left back Craig Forsyth gifted the Owls an equalizer in the 62nd minute. Seven minutes later, the Owls took the lead after more slack defending by the Rams.

Meanwhile in Wales, Rotherham continued to lead 1-0.

Back in the Midlands, Rooney threw on two substitutes in the 73rd minute. One of them, Kamil Jozwiak, drew a penalty kick in the 78th minute. Waghorn converted it for his second goal of the match and only his fifth of the season.

Now, the Rams needed only to hang on for about a quarter of an hour to finish ahead of the Owls.

There was still the matter of the Millers, though. They were clinging to a 1-0 lead — enough to see Derby County relegated — as the match in Wales entered the final five minutes.

Or were they? Just as Waghorn equalized for Derby, word came that Cardiff had equalized in the 88th minute. A few minutes later, when the final whistle blew in Cardiff, the Rams knew that a 3-3 draw would keep them up.

To ensure that result, Rooney took Waghorn, a striker, off and brought on 36 year-old defender Curtis Davies, a veteran during his days in the Premier League of several encounters with Rooney. Thus fortified, the Rams’ defense staved off the Owls. Rooney had his draw.

After the match, Rooney said:

It was a roller coaster. The 90 minutes sums up our season. A lot of difficult moments both on and off the pitch. Thankfully the season is done and we have done what we set out to do. I am delighted for the players. They have given me everything. Today at half-time I said stay calm, we have 45 minutes left we can still win the game, manage it how we need to manage it. I am really pleased for them because they put a lot of work in.

For the fans, we will get better, I can assure them of that. It has been a very difficult season for everyone connected to the club. We need to get everything sorted as soon as possible off the pitch to give ourselves the best chance of moving forward as a club.

Will Rooney be around to help make good on his assurance? It appears that the club will have new ownership, and the new owner might well want a new manager, especially given Rooney’s lack of success this season, albeit under difficult circumstances.

Wayne Rooney is a legend, but not a Derby County legend. And even legends whose teams perform much better than the Rams did aren’t immune to the sack. Just ask Frank Lampard, the Chelsea legend fired by Chelsea earlier this season.

I think Rooney has a future in management if he wants it. However, he may have to wait a bit before he’s back in charge of a club.

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