Wayne Rooney couldn’t hide his delight at the performance of his Derby County players after they put Fulham’s promotion party on hold on Friday night.
Derby were 2-1 winners over the Cottagers at Pride Park Stadium to keep their hopes of survival in the Sky Bet Championship alive as they battle against a hefty 21-point deduction.
Fulham knew ahead of kick-off that a win would seal automatic promotion back to the Premier League, but the Rams stepped up to produce a fine display and collect all three points.
Despite a positive start against the league leaders, Derby found themselves behind after 20 minutes through Fabio Carvalho’s composed finish.
Rooney’s side remained in the game and equalised shortly after half-time through Luke Plange’s close-range finish from Lee Buchanan’s excellent cross.
Rams goalkeeper Ryan Allsop denied the division’s leading goalscorer in Aleksandar Mitrovic with a fine save and, with 74 minutes played, Derby took the lead as Tom Lawrence’s low cross was turned into his own net by Cottagers defender Tosin Adarabioyo.
Derby held on to reduce the gap to nine points to safety with four matches left to play and, while the chances of survival remain small, Rooney is delighted with the character of his players to remain in the fight.
Rooney told RamsTV after the final whistle: “I think it’s the best win we’ve had this season, purely because I thought we would win the game tonight.
“Throughout the day, we saw the other results coming in that were against us and you always hope that the players react in the right way.
“The lads were outstanding all night. We were in the game in the first half but in the second half I thought we were excellent.
“At half time, I said we would win the game and we changed a few things. I told the players that they have to have more belief in the final third that we can score because I could see there were opportunities there.
“The whole group were fantastic from front to back, I have to say.”
He added: “Every game now is must-win, we know that. We will give it a go; we know we are a good enough team to win matches so we will do everything to make it happen.”
Plange had been without a goal since the end of January ahead of the game but the England youth international ended his goal drought with a crucial equaliser.
His display saw him collect the Sky Sports Man of the Match award and Rooney was pleased to see him back on the scoresheet.
He said: “I am delighted for Luke to get back on the scoresheet. We’ve been working a lot on him staying in the middle of the goal and you have to trust that your team-mates will get the ball to you.
“Thankfully he got his goal tonight and he had a bit part in the second goal as well, so I’m pleased for him.”
Derby will make the journey south to visit Queens Park Rangers in West London on Bank Holiday Monday in their penultimate away fixture of the 2021/22 Sky Bet Championship season.