Eyebrows were perhaps understandably raised when Championship side Derby County announced in August 2019 that Wayne Rooney would be joining their club in a player/coach role in January of the following year.
Rooney had impressed during a two year spell in America with DC United, with his last season in England coming with boyhood club Everton where he managed 11 goals in 40 games.
Aged 34 and sporting number 32, Rooney’s switch to the Championship added a new level of intrigue to an already fascinating campaign.
Arriving at a new club half way through the season, how would England’s record goalscorer adjust to life at Derby County?
16 games in and he’s proven to be a massive hit.
Before Rooney arrived at at the Rams their season had been a very challenging one.
Having lost the playoff final the year previous, their manager Frank Lampard and key men like Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Timori, Derby struggled, winning just one of their first eight league games under new boss Phillip Cocu.
Add to that the now infamous drink driving incident involving Richard Keogh, Tom Lawrence and Mason Bennett, which saw the former leave the club, and Rooney was coming into a club that desperately needed a boost.
Fast forward a few months though and thanks in no small help to Rooney, the club sit just three points off the playoff spots with the former Manchester United striker their new club captain.
Rooney has adjusted to a much deeper position at Derby playing as a holder in their midfield – a role he had dabbled in during his career, but never to this extent.
He has managed a respectable six goals and two assists since his arrival while is influence on Derby’s upturn in form has been staggering.
In the 16 games since his arrival Derby have picked up nine wins and 31 points – one more than they had managed in the 25 before that.
No other team in the Championship have won more points during that time, a run which has seen Cocu’s side go from as low as 18th in the table, to level on points with Cardiff in sixth.
They have also averaged more points per game (2) and more goals per game (2.1) in those games, with Rooney leading their charge.
It’s also important to remember that Rooney is at the club in a semi-coaching role and has had a brilliant effect on some of Derby County’s promising youngsters.
The likes of striker Louis Sibley and midfielders Jason Knight and Max Bird have all been excellent since Rooney’s arrival.
“He’s just said to be confident and keep playing the way I play football,” said Sibley of his teammate.
“He knows I’ve got a bit of edge about my game, I do like a tackle.
“Before the United game, when I was starting, he came up to me and just said Louie, just make sure you keep doing what you’ve been doing and play with no fear.
“That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been taking the advice he’s been giving me and he’s been great with all the young lads.”
Rooney has also taken the time to publicly praise some of his younger teammates who have impressed him during his time at the club.
“He gets the ball and moves it on,” Rooney said of Bird. “He keeps it simple and defends well. He has been great, to play alongside him has made my job easier.”
While he outlined that he feels Irish midfielder Knight ‘reminds him’ of his younger self.
“I’ve been really impressed with the way they’ve trained, particularly Knighty. His energy, his attitude. He almost reminds me of myself when I was younger in terms of no fear,” Rooney told Rams TV.
“And he’s got an aggression about him, not in terms of how he’s tackling, but in terms of how he runs, how he gets about the pitch. I’m looking forward to see how they do as I feel he can give us a lot of energy and a lot of creativity.”
Not only has Rooney’s influence been seen on the pitch, but perhaps more importantly, off it too.
After Richard Keogh’s departure, this young Derby side needed a leader to galvanise them and taking on the mantel of club captain, Rooney has done just that.
When you consider the situation Rooney found himself in when he arrived at Derby – a struggling side underachieving, with the spotlight set to be increased even more – it makes this run for the playoffs even more impressive.
He hasn’t done it single-handedly, but just like Bruno Fernandes at his former club, Rooney’s arrival has been the catalyst for an outstanding turnaround.
For context, last season, where Frank Lampard’s Derby were lauded, reaching the playoff final and sensationally dispatching Leeds United on the way, they sat ninth on 60 points after 40 games. This year they’re 7th with 61.
If they can jump into the playoffs, then Rooney and co. will fancy their chances at pulling off what had only a few short months ago seemed impossible.
For all his achievements in the game, taking Derby County back to the Premier League in his first season at the club would unquestionably be one of his finest.