Derby County captain Wayne Rooney is relishing the prospect of returning to competitive action in the Sky Bet Championship next weekend - but he knows it is going to be a whole different experience for everyone.
The EFL announced at the end of May that it had agreed to a provisional restart date of the weekend of 20th June 2020 for matches, behind-closed-doors, in the Championship.
The date is subject to the strict proviso that all safety requirements and UK Government guidance is met; and that clubs receive clearance from their local authorities to stage matches at their home grounds.
Games haven’t been played for almost three months owing to the COVID-19 outbreak, which severely impacted on the UK back in March.
Derby will return to action with a trip to Millwall on 20th June in the first of nine matches to be played behind-closed-doors to round off the league campaign.
Their last fixture came in early March as they defeated Blackburn Rovers 3-0 at Pride Park Stadium, with Rooney watching on from the stands owing to a minor muscle injury which ruled him out the match.
He is, however, fit once again and has been training as normal with the rest of the squad in recent weeks as their preparations for the return of competitive action intensify.
Rooney says it will be a strange experience playing before empty stadiums, with fans only able to watch on at home via live streams or through the EFL’s broadcast partner Sky Sports, for everyone involved.
The 34-year-old has highlighted the need for the Rams to approach the games with the right mentality and focus to ensure the competitive feel to fixtures is as strong as ever.
Speaking to RamsTV as part of the 'Stay Safe. Stay Fit. Stay Connected' programme following a training session at Pride Park Stadium this week, Rooney said: “Going into competitive games, when at times you need the fans behind you, it will be strange and a different atmosphere and feeling.
“Days like today (training with no fans) will give us a better understanding of what it’s going to be like.
“Everyone knows it’s going to be different and the preparation for games will be like that as well. It’s about having the right mentality and focus when the matchdays come around.”
Derby’s squad returned to training, under the EFL’s Return to Training protocols, at the end of May and their workload have been able to gradually increase under the EFL’s strict guidelines.
Rooney says the squad have enjoyed being back on the training pitches once again to return to some sort of normality.
Strict guidelines are in place ahead of every training session and Rooney insists that players must be able to adapt to the situation in an unprecedented time across the world.
He said: “We’ve been back in training for the last few weeks and it was a strange time being off and locked in your house really.
“It is good to get the work in and everyone has come back in good condition and ready to finish the season.
“As footballers you want to play every week and to not be able to play, or train, was tough but it was what required for the country to try and get through this difficult time. We all understood it and stuck to the training plans as best we could to make sure we were right when we came back.”
He added: “It is different to what we’re used to as players and it is strange going in each morning in your training kit and not showering until you get home.
“That is where we are at, as a whole football world, so we have to adapt to it.”
Derby were in a reasonable run of form prior to the unexpected break in the season in March.
They had recorded back-to-back league victories against Sheffield Wednesday at the end of February and Blackburn at the start of March to climb up to 12th spot in the table.
Phillip Cocu’s side are five points off the play-off spots with nine games left to play and Rooney says if Derby are to make a late challenge for the top six, they need to hit the ground running.
He said: “We are in the same position as when the season stopped; we are five points off the play-offs with nine games to go.
“We have a chance and the first two or three games will be important and give us an understanding of where we are in terms of getting to the play-offs.
“We have to be ready for that first game at Millwall and then the first home game against Reading after that. We have to give ourselves every chance.”
Rooney, who officially joined Derby from Major League Soccer side D.C. United at the beginning of January, has made 15 appearances in all competitions since his return to English football with the Rams and scored four times.