Wayne Rooney was quick to admit that he was relieved to see Derby County preserve their status in the Sky Bet Championship for the 2021/22 season following an action-packed 3-3 draw against Sheffield Wednesday on the final day of the campaign.
The game at Pride Park Stadium carried huge significance for both sides as Derby knew a win would keep them out the bottom three, while a defeat would see them relegated to League One – while a draw would provide an element of unknown.
Wednesday knew that they would have a chance of staying up if they could win and Rotherham United failed to pick up three points in their final day clash at Cardiff City.
Derby trailed at the break after Sam Hutchinson opened the scoring for the Owls in the fourth minute of added time at the end of the first half.
Rooney’s side, however, turned the game on its head as Martyn Waghorn and Patrick Roberts netted quickfire goals after the break to give the Rams the lead.
Callum Paterson drew the visitors back on level terms just after the hour mark to throw the game back into the balance.
Julian Borner then scored from close range to put Wednesday ahead again, before Waghorn’s second of the game, from the penalty spot after substitute Kamil Jozwiak was fouled, earned Derby a draw.
The point, with Rotherham drawing 1-1 at Cardiff, proved to be enough following a challenging season for the Rams.
Rotherham, Sheffield Wednesday and Wycombe Wanderers made up the bottom three after 46 matches, meaning Derby finished the season in 21st place in the Championship table on 44 points.
Speaking to RamsTV after the final whistle, Rooney said: “It’s great to be able to say that we are safe as it’s been a tough season on and off the field at the football club.
“I can’t stress enough how good the players have been through this period, they’ve given me everything and they’ve got what they deserve for their hard work; I’m delighted for them.
“It was so important for this football club that we stayed in this division, and the preparations for next season have to start now from the top down to me and the players.”
Rooney added: “At half-time, I asked the players to stay calm and not to panic. I knew the game would be hectic. What I wanted to see was us to control the game and calm it down, which we didn’t do in the first half.
“We managed to go 2-1 up, then we gave away some sloppy goals. the reaction was brilliant. The last 10 minutes was about managing the game.”
Rooney says there is plenty of hard work to get through ahead of next season in order to move the club forward to avoid a repeat showing of such a disappointing season.
Derby have played the whole season without supporters due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the manager admits he shares the same frustration as the fans.
“The preparations for next season have to start tonight,” he said. “We have to put a plan in place to move this club forward. We all have questions and we need answers.
“We’ve all been frustrated and I share the fans’ frustrations. We want some stability and clarity and hopefully in the next few days we will get that, so we can move forward.
“We can’t have another season like we had. We have to move forward and progress, which has to start tonight.”
Rooney, who took over as Derby’s manager on a temporary basis in November and retired upon taking up the position permanently in January, is relishing the prospect of moulding his own squad.
The 35-year-old said: “I don’t think I’ll have another season like this, even if I manage for another 20 or 30 years.
“I’m committed to this football club, regardless of what division we were in after today. I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given and I’m a loyal person. I know I can improve, and I know I am determined to move this club forward.
“I can relax for the next few days in terms of not constantly thinking of football and spend time with my family and then spend time at Moor Farm to make sure preparations are starting for next season.”
Derby’s players will now head off on their post-season breaks before returning for pre-season training in July ahead of the 2021/22 campaign.