Derby County 2-1 Stoke City
As Wayne Rooney congratulated his players at the final whistle, the chant reverberating around Pride Park was “the Rams are staying up”.
It is Mission Impossible, surely, but try telling that to Rooney and Derby’s supporters, as the club prepare for a 12-point deduction that will plunge them to the bottom of the Championship.
Derby are heading for administration after being pushed towards the abyss by severe financial problems and a bitter two-year battle with the Football League, yet this was a defiant response from Rooney’s squad.
Rooney revealed he only found out the news on Friday night at his Cheshire home, while also admitting he had not spoken to owner Mel Morris for weeks.
Derby’s second league win of the season temporarily lifted the gloom but Rooney is now preparing for the biggest challenge of this new chapter in his stellar career.
“It’s a very difficult and emotional moment for everyone,” he said. “We’re going to have tough times ahead in the near future but it’s my job to start rebuilding this club.
“If it is nine or 12 points [deducted] we might have a chance [of survival]. If it goes beyond that then we might have to start preparing for League One as well. We have to look at every possibility, and treat it very seriously.
“I’d imagine there will be staff members who will lose their jobs, who have mortgages and bills to pay. To have that snatched away from them is heartbreaking.
“These fans deserve my full attention and I’ve got to make it a more attractive club for potential investors to come in. It’s important to get the right people to run this club properly.”
Derby will appoint administrators early this week, with the decision to be ratified by major creditor MSD, the holding company linked to American billionaire Michael Dell.
The automatic 12-point deduction will then be imposed, while a further nine-point deduction for breaching financial rules is expected to follow. A bitter legal dispute with the Football League has been ongoing since January 2020 and a further sanction of nine points, plus a suspended three points, was broadly agreed last week.
Relegation to League One, for the first time since 1986, appears inevitable though the future of the club is the gravest concern.
There are huge financial issues ahead for any future buyers, as it can be revealed that Derby owe £26 million to HM Revenue and Customs, more than £6 million in unpaid transfer fee instalments, and £5 million compensation to former manager Phillip Cocu and his staff.
With mutiny in the air and the threat of protests, Derby called an emergency meeting with the Safety Advisory Group at 9am on Saturday, before the match was given the green light.
Morris did not attend and he will address staff on Monday.
It is understood that Morris has pumped in around £30 million over the past two years alone to keep the club running, but the gamble to reach the Premier League has badly backfired.
— Wayne Rooney (@WayneRooney) September 18, 2021
Two years ago, Derby were play-off finalists and beaten at Wembley by Aston Villa. Steve Nicholson, who has reported on the club for the Derby Telegraph since 1985, believes administration represents the lowest point in their history.
“When I arrived Derby were in the old Third Division and had just escaped a winding-up order in the High Court, but administration is obviously something else,” he said.
“It’s remarkably sad that a club of this size, a founder member of the Football League, finds itself in this position. There is an incredible fan base and they are the ones I feel for the most. Their emotions have been absolutely shredded over the last 18 months.”
With all the chaos off the field, and a transfer embargo, Rooney deserves immense credit for keeping Derby competitive. Last season they survived on the final day of the season by just one point.
There was clear evidence of a siege mentality here against Stoke, with academy product Max Bird and Curtis Davies, 36, scoring in the first-half.
Ravel Morrison, the former Manchester United midfielder, somehow failed to add a third goal early in the second-half, placing a shot wide of the empty net, before Stoke responded through Tom Ince.
Derby defended resolutely in the final stages and this win takes them to 10 points, though not for long.
On Derby’s shirts, under the name of their sponsor 32Red, are the words “Set Your Limits”, and now it seems prophetic.