Wayne Rooney had nothing but positive words for Derby County’s players after his ten-man side tasted a cruel 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United on Saturday.
A late penalty from Blades striker Billy Sharp condemned the Rams to defeat in the Sky Bet Championship at Bramall Lane despite a spirited and hardworking performance.
Sharp wasted a good early chance for the hosts, but it was Derby who went closest to taking the lead midway through the first half as Phil Jagielka, on his 700th appearance in club football, hit the crossbar from a header against his former club.
The opening 45 minutes saw the Rams soak up plenty of pressure, but they had two reasonable chances before the interval to take the lead with Sam Baldock shooting wide and Graeme Shinnie forcing a save from Robin Olsen in the home goal.
Derby were reduced to ten men just before the hour mark as goalkeeper Kelle Roos was shown a straight red card for bringing down United striker Billy Sharp as he burst clear on goal from a long ball forward.
That meant the Rams had to play over half an hour against a constant wave of Blades pressure as they looked to make their numerical advantage count.
Derby nearly saw themselves over the line but a penalty in the final minute, for a handball by Curtis Davies, saw Sharp hand the hosts all three points.
There could have been another dramatic late twist in the tale in added time as skipper Tom Lawrence got a shot away inside the box, but his effort hit the post and bounced away to safety.
Despite the defeat, Rooney had nothing but praise for his players after a challenging week off the pitch which formally saw the club enter administration and drop to the bottom of the league table after being deducted 12 points.
Speaking to RamsTV after the game at Bramall Lane, Rooney said: “We knew today was going to be a tough game. The plan was to try and stay in the game and nick a win towards the end but going to ten men changed things.
“From that moment we tried to get out of here with a point and we nearly did. I can’t fault the players for their effort and fight today.
“Sometimes things happen for a reason. We went a man down and it highlights the work the players are putting in for each other with a player less.
“They run extra yards and I thought they were incredible. I thought every player put the effort in on the pitch and showed the desire to try and get something out of the game.
“I can’t fault the players for the work they put in. On another day, we might have got a point with Tom Lawrence’s chance at the end.”
He added: “For the effort alone and the work rate, I said it last week after we won the game against Stoke, that if they keep putting that work in and effort, everyone will see what we are trying to do then they will appreciate that.”
Derby were backed by 2,000 away fans at Bramall Lane and Rooney was, as ever, thankful for the supporters’ backing.
He said: “I said a few days ago that the fans have been incredible and the support they gave the lads today was excellent.
“To see how many fans were there, it’s a credit to the fans for coming out, getting behind the players because we know we are in a tough spot.
“I’m sure they will get right behind the lads and it’s an important next two games at Pride Park before the international break.”
Derby are back in Championship action at Pride Park Stadium on Wednesday night when they take on Reading in their first home midweek league fixture of the campaign (7:45pm kick-off).