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“We won’t be in there [the relegation zone] at the end of the season,” Wayne Rooney said bullishly on Boxing Day and, with one seismic game against Sheffield Wednesday to go, it is time for his Derby players to prove him right. For Derby it is as simple as winner-takes-all but for Wednesday victory will not be enough to avoid relegation if Rotherham prevail at Cardiff. Saturday’s 90 minutes will surely shape Rooney’s nascent managerial career.
Either way, Rooney insists he is staying put after what he has labelled the most significant game of a football journey that has taken in World Cups and European finals. “Regardless of where we’re at, my future is with Derby County,” he says. “I’m never one to walk away from a challenge. I want to push this club forward. My plan for next season is to look at the squad, add players to the squad and push further up the league.”
In recent weeks Rooney has been asked repeatedly, in roundabout ways, whether he has considered putting the boots back on in an attempt to stop Derby’s slide – his answers, understandably, have been getting shorter and sharper – but there is no escaping something has to change if they are to avoid dropping into the third tier for the first time since 1986.
Rooney oozed confidence at his pre-match press conference but his team are fragile – they have not come from behind to win since last June – and confidence is brittle after one win in 14 matches and six straight defeats. “Before the  Champions League final in Moscow, I lay in my bed and watched Sister Act, and relaxed,” Rooney says. “I might watch a different movie this time …”
Rooney has tried to instil belief and last week took his squad to the Vale Resort outside Cardiff four days before the game against Swansea in an attempt to increase harmony. It did not do the trick and for the third time in four matches they surrendered a lead. “The game management is vital tomorrow,” says Rooney. “We need to make sure we’re ready. We’ve trained for different scenarios that could come up.”
Where did it all go wrong? They have been flaky in defence and blunt in attack, scoring a league-low 33 goals. After Colin Kazim-Richards, their top scorer on eight, rescued a draw against Nottingham Forest in February, they were 17th having won six of their previous eight matches, 10 points above Wednesday and 15 above Wycombe. They were also above Luton, who are on course for a top-10 finish. Derby have not lost seven successive games at this level since 1955, when they were relegated.
On the face of it, Derby and Wednesday have a lot in common: beset by off-field problems after an attempt to reach for the stars. This season both have paid players late and worked under transfer embargoes.
Derby were at the centre of a debilitating failed takeover, by Bin Zayed International, which had previously tried to buy Newcastle, and there are doubts over whether the Spanish agent Erik Alonso, who has worked as an adviser to the Wednesday owner, Dejphon Chansiri, will complete another, with his deal awaiting ratification from the English Football League. Alonso said on Thursday “we will go ahead”. He has been saying all the right things but supporters are weary of soundbites. The Derby owner, Mel Morris, will see supporters’ frustrations first-hand on Saturday, when fans are set to protest outside the stadium.
Off-field problems hampered Derby’s recruitment and the five loanees signed in January have not worked, especially when compared with the trio who thrived under Frank Lampard en route to the play-off final two years ago: Harry Wilson, Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount. The season-ending injury the £10m record signing Krystian Bielik sustained in January has not helped – 21 of Derby’s 43 points were won during his 13 appearances – and the absence of the club captain Curtis Davies since December has also been felt.
The way they have played pass the parcel with the captain’s armband – eight players have worn it in the league, from 20-year-old Max Bird to the Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall, who has lost his place to Kelle Roos – is symbolic of the mess and uncertainty.
Two years on from reaching Wembley under Lampard, the landscape could not be more different for Derby. Lampard, Phillip Cocu, who was sacked in November with the club bottom, and Rooney were not appointed with League One in mind. They have been stuck in the Championship since recording the lowest points tally in Premier League history in 2008, when the Wednesday manager Darren Moore was in the heart of the Derby defence, but the top flight has never felt so far away.
The picture at Wednesday is not much better, with fans tired of Chansiri, who is on his third permanent manager of the season. One of their biggest results came when an appeal led to an independent commission halving their 12-point deduction in November, giving them a fighting chance of survival. Last month Moore contracted pneumonia after having Covid and on Saturday he could return to the dugout – or at least the stands – for the first time.
“It [relegation] could have been [confirmed] last week,” says Jamie Smith, his assistant. “Fingers crossed we can get the right result and things go our way again. It will probably be a bit cagey but you need that little bit of luck in times like this.”