At least Wayne Rooney was able to see the funny side when, on the eve of the season, a journalist asked whether he breaks games down into chunks of six or eight to target points. “In blocks of one,” Rooney replied, laughing, having already answered questions about the eye-watering sums attached to the Jack Grealish transfer, a world away from Derby’s financial predicament. “At the minute I can’t spend £100 on one player, let alone £100m.”
After losing Colin Kazim-Richards to a long-term injury on Saturday, the club successfully applied to the English Football League for special dispensation to register a replacement, signing Sam Baldock, who spent pre-season training with the club, until January. Phil Jagielka has also signed a short-term contract, with the defender Krystian Bielik another long-term absentee. Until Baldock’s arrival, the teenager Jack Stretton, who was on loan at Stockport County earlier this year, was the only recognised striker in the Derby squad. “That’s where we’ve allowed ourselves to get to and that’s where we’re stuck,” Rooney said following defeat at Peterborough.
Derby, operating under a transfer embargo imposed for breaching EFL regulations, are treading water in the Championship. The signing of Ravel Morrison filled their 23-man quota of players of “professional standing” –players who have played at least one minute in any first-team competition (excluding the EFL Trophy) – permitted under current restrictions. Rooney insists he will not be making any excuses for performances but his body language has shifted from cautious optimist to pained pragmatist, stressing the need for reinforcements if Derby are to compete. “All I can say is us as coaches and players, as a group, need help,” he said.
Derby are on the naughty step for various reasons, including failing to provide audited accounts and defaults in payments to HMRC. They visit Hull on Wednesday evening hoping to register their first league win of the season but Wednesday also represents a significant deadline. After being fined £100,000 some of their accounting policies, specifically annual amortisation costs – how the club measure the value of players – Derby were ordered to resubmit their accounts for 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18 by 18 August.
Those accounts must comply with the EFL’s profit and sustainability rules, which permit a loss of £39m across three seasons, to avoid any potential charges. For now all eyes are on whether Derby clear the latest hurdle without any hiccups but lingering in the background is a suspended three-point deduction, which would be activated if they fail to pay their players before next June. The sideshow is the reason Rooney said any experienced manager in his position would walk in and walk straight back out.
Minutes after Derby avoided relegation to League One on the final day of last season, Rooney made it clear the club could do without the off-field sagas – including two failed takeovers – that have punctuated his reign. But the picture has not cleared and he remains powerless. “It [a takeover] hasn’t happened as quickly as I would have liked, as the fans would have liked and everybody at the club would have liked it. There are steps being taken. We are trying to move this club forward both on and off the pitch. My job is to focus on the pitch, so I can do my job and hope other people do theirs.”
Ravel Morrison’s arrival has boosted Derby on the pitch but added to complications off it as they cannot register any more players. Photograph: Joe Toth/Shutterstock
Mel Morris, the Derby owner, and Stephen Pearce, the chief executive, met supporter groups at the start of this month in an attempt to assuage concerns among the fan base. Morris explained he is in advanced talks with several investors but any deal hinges on the outcome of discussions with the EFL. Those fans present signed non-disclosure agreements, a condition to attend the meeting. Morris told how he has been trying to sell the club for two years and said he cannot continue to fund the club “in perpetuity”.
Last week an undercover Al Jazeera documentary – The Men Who Sell Football – showed Morris meeting fictitious investors introduced to him by Christopher Samuelson, an influential middleman previously involved in takeovers at Aston Villa and Reading. In footage filmed the day Frank Lampard left to take charge at Chelsea, Morris shows “Mr X” the stadium and says Derby’s average attendance is “about 28,000”. Morris told Al Jazeera that the club would only be sold to “appropriate custodians” and that they had not had any formal association with Samuelson “for some time”.
A crowd of 16,249 made a racket for their opening-day draw against Huddersfield but it was Derby’s lowest-ever league attendance at Pride Park and the lowest home crowd since March 1996, when home was the Baseball Ground. The average crowd during 2019-20, Phillip Cocu’s first season in charge, was 26,727, the third-highest in the division. The key reason behind the absent numbers? Derby’s season tickets do not go on sale until Wednesday, when the ticket office and ticket hotline will reopen. “It goes hand in hand with what appears to be a poorly run club at the moment, doing everything with the bare bones,” says one source. The sense of apathy and disillusionment at the running of the club has also turned supporters away, while holidays and the pandemic will also inevitably impact attendances.
It is a messy scenario and the absurdity of the situation is typified by the fact that, under current restrictions, Rooney cannot promote any Under-23s yet to make their debut into the first team. Scholars are, however, permitted to feature. For the first game of the season, before Morrison was registered with the EFL, Rooney named the 19-year-olds Eiran Cashin and Liam Thompson among the substitutes but knew he could not bring either of them on without jeopardising Morrison’s impending arrival. The average age of the six outfield players on the bench that day was 19. Rooney said being effectively locked out of the first team is heartbreaking for a wave of youngsters. “I don’t want to kill their careers before they’ve even started,” he said.