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Fittingly, nobody won. Even for Derby, there would be no crowning glory, no moment of triumph and precious little dignity. Certainly Wayne Rooney had the decorum and sense of place not to go charging across the turf as if his side had finished any higher than 21st. Instead, vaguely abashed relief and very probably an urge to go and lie down in a dark room for several hours.
On a day of high drama and occasionally high farce, it was Derby who staggered to safety, pipping Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham despite conceding three goals at home in a must-win game.
No heartwarming triumph here, no satisfying redemption stories; just a parable of the bad and the worse, a snapshot of English football in 2021 that, if anything, tells you more about the state of the game than any “big six” hype-fest.
For Derby and Sheffield Wednesday the path that brought them to this point has been littered with bad choices, suicidal choices and yet largely forced choices.
In his six years as Derby owner, Mel Morris has invested around £200m in an attempt to chase down the riches of the Premier League. Now, he’s had enough. One opaque prospective buyer has already come and gone. Another, the oxymoronic No Limits Sports Limited, was expected to seal the deal “in the near future”. That was a month ago.
Wednesday’s relegation, meanwhile, has felt inevitable since before a ball was kicked. In a way, their 12-point penalty for financial irregularities (later reduced to six) was just the start. There have been familiar issues over recruitment, an incoherent strategy with Garry Monk’s passing-based 3-5-2 replaced with Tony Pulis’s 4-5-1 replaced with Darren Moore’s 3-4-3, and the lingering suspicion that the owner, Dejphon Chansiri, delegates a significant proportion of club business to his 12-year-old son.
The game itself? Well, it was exactly how you would expect of one between the 21st- and 23rd-best teams in the division.
Derby let another lead evaporate; Wednesday scored three goals from a combined total of about nine yards. Every pass felt loaded; every touch felt heavy. There were innumerable long balls, long shots, clumsy fouls and – particularly in a chaotic second half – grievous errors.
The desperation got to almost everybody, but Tom Lawrence and Barry Bannan kept their cool in midfield and Martyn Waghorn was a force of pure scrawny will.
On the touchline Rooney had developed the habit of taking frequent sips of water and then spitting it straight on to the ground, as if bothered by a bad taste in his mouth that he just couldn’t rinse.
It was, in short, a tough watch, and worse still if you were a fan of the clubs involved. And for these two former heavyweights, a reminder that to an increasing extent football is won and lost not on the pitch but in the boardroom and the transfer market, the tribunal and the secret WhatsApp group.
You tirelessly run the channels for 46 games, only to be relegated on a technicality. You invest your time and your emotion and your iFollow subscription, but are powerless to stop the club you cherish being mismanaged into the dirt.
Grief is the price you pay for love. Despair is the price you pay for hope. But for the growing number of clubs in the dungeon of English football, the equation between hope and despair has never been more cruelly weighted. A life of eternal serfdom to the Premier League giants: that’s the best-case scenario, by the way. Meanwhile your wage bill is 130% of turnover and there are still no fans in the stadium.
English football is a pyramid scheme and here at the fuzzy end of the Championship nobody’s earning their money back.
For Wednesday, a new life in the third tier. Darren Moore is a popular manager and should get another go, but time alone will tell what sort of squad he has to work with.
For Derby, the takeover remains uncertain; the finances remain precarious; the squad still wildly unbalanced and underperforming. Perhaps this was why the celebrations at full-time were so muted. The present may have been salvaged. But the battle for the future feels more unwinnable than ever.