Tuesday 14 January 2020 2:27 pm

Wayne Rooney has given Derby reason for optimism after sluggish start to the season

It has been a difficult season so far for Derby County. They have been off the pace required to earn promotion to the Premier League, while the drink-driving incident that saw Tom Lawrence and Mason Bennett charged by police and former captain Richard Keogh sacked has also cast a shadow.

But the New Year has brought reasons for optimism. Wayne Rooney became eligible to play for his new club this month and has already helped steady the ship with successive wins against Barnsley and, in the FA Cup, Crystal Palace before a 2-2 draw at Middlesbrough last weekend.

The 35-year-old joined Rams manager Phillip Cocu at the start of December in a player-coach capacity but was confined to the dugout until he could officially be registered as a player following his return from the USA and an 18-month spell with DC United.

His last stint in England came to an end in April 2018, with Everton deeming him to be no longer at the level required to play in the top-flight.

Rooney disagrees. But if the Rams are to be promoted this year and is to he have the chance to prove otherwise it will need to be via the play-offs, with the club currently 17th in the Championship and 18 points off the automatic promotion places.

So congested and competitive is England’s second tier, though, that Derby are just eight points off sixth place – a margin that could easily be overturned with a positive run of results.

There is little doubt that Rooney’s addition to the team has enhanced that prospect.

England and Manchester United’s all-time top scorer came straight into the starting line-up against Barnsley as captain two weeks ago and inspired his side to a 2-1 win.

Derby County v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship
Wayne Rooney celebrates with Martyn Waghorn

He assisted Derby’s opening goal with a free-kick delivered into the penalty area from deep that found forward Jack Marriott with pinpoint precision.

It was the perfect example of the range of passing Rooney has at his disposal and why he shows signs of evolving well into a midfielder.

So far at Derby he has been operating even deeper than we have previously seen in the Premier League, playing alongside a fellow central midfielder in Tom Huddlestone or Max Bird.

In the FA Cup tie with Palace, he and Huddlestone pulled the strings from midfield and Derby did not look out of place against a Premier League side that they would beat 1-0.

It is testament to Rooney’s knowledge of the game that he has adapted to a new position well and, although early days, bodes well for his planned future in coaching.

Crystal Palace v Derby County - FA Cup Third Round
Rooney has been great on the ball for Derby in a deeper position

What has also been evident is his willingness to pick up the ball under pressure and drive the team forward, playing it between the lines and getting it to forwards like Lawrence, Marriott and Martyn Waghorn. It was his initial pass in the build-up that led to Derby’s goal against Palace.

One caveat to his performances so far is that, while he has worked hard to press and close opponents down, his defensive positional awareness has been lacking at times, which is not ideal for a deep-lying midfielder.

Against Middlesbrough he could have done more to prevent the shot from which the hosts took the lead and some of his tracking back was found wanting.

However, he has shown his capacity to coach from the pitch, shouting at team-mates and directing instructions in both attack and defence, and clearly has a tactical awareness even if he does not always adhere to it himself.

It is a promising sign for his coaching ambitions, but it is still his technique and ability on the ball that stands out most of all and exemplifies the old cliche that while form is temporary, class is permanent.

With 19 games to go, there is plenty of reason to believe that a Rooney-inspired Derby could break into the upper echelons of the Championship, and perhaps even have an outside shot at promotion.