If it is cliché to attach Wayne Rooney’s name as a near-permanent prefix to the team he manages, then it is at least better than constantly preceding Derby County with words such as ‘troubled’ and ‘toiled’, yet double jeopardy follows England’s all-time top scorer’s club at every corner.
Though the Rams secured their safety on the pitch with that last-day drama-fest against Sheffield Wednesday – themselves consigned to relegation with South Yorkshire rivals Rotherham United – over a month later there is yet to be a definitive answer on whether that alone was enough to grant Derby Championship football in the 2021/22 season.
Fixture release day brought with it an unusual bout of drama alongside the oft-expected anticipation; with the EFL announcing that Derby and Wycombe Wanderers – who finished 22nd and could yet be granted a second-tier reprieve – have potentially ‘interchangeable fixtures’.
This is a tale which has already had far too many chapters, twists and turns to make it believable anymore. And once belief is suspended, the story becomes farcical. Clearly, on paper, the possibility of a second chance in the second tier for Gareth Ainsworth’s side is the stuff of fairytales, and for Wayne Roo-, sorry, for Derby County, it is the opposite.
And yet, more than anything, this state of limbo serves neither party better than the definitive heaven-or-hell scenario a final decision would serve. For while there is a chance, even the slimmest chance, that Derby and Wycombe could yet swap places in the league pyramid before August, their summers cannot truly begin; that could have negative repercussions that neither club deserves.
To discover why, we journey back over the past few months. From around February and every February before it, until the end of the same season, a pattern emerges of clubs who know they will be safe from promotion or relegation signing existing players to contract extensions while those at either end of the table have to wait longer and longer still, many players unwilling to commit precious years of their careers to a club unsure of its short-term destination.
However slim the chance of such an unprecedented occurrence – an actual league swap! – is irrelevant; the fact that there is a chance is an embarrassment to the EFL.
There is of course the obvious retort that Derby have only themselves to blame. You would be hard pressed to find even the most ardent and biased of fans arguing against that point, but the punishment should always fit the crime.
Derby have committed enough of the latter to serve quite the sentence, though they are far from the only serial offenders. The sale of Pride Park was almost artistic in its similarities to that of Sheffield Wednesday owner Dejphon Chansiri, who sold the Owls’ historic Hillsborough home in similarly unflattering circumstances, a decision for which Wednesday themselves are still paying the price.
Overvaluing such tangible assets – in the eyes of the EFL – allowed Derby to write off their losses, which fell far below the threshold allowed for a three-year period. That Derby owner Morris essentially sold the stadium to himself at a heavily inflated price was never going to sit well with the disciplinary commissions. Then there is the player amortisation shenanigans.
Every other club in the country tots the value of their players at an even pace through each individual player’s contract. That is, if a player has a value of £5million on a five-year contract, they would be worth the initial value upon signing, then worth £4million after a year has passed and so on and so forth until the final year of said contract when the value decreases from the final incremental £1million to absolute zero.
Derby chose, not technically illegally but certainly known to be frowned upon, a less linear approach, choosing a line of best fit in their own eyes in which the first years of value amortising decreased far less than an even split. This allowed them greater control over their own financial destiny and, as is well-documented, the EFL have taken particularly unkindly to this in the years since Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson brought the matter to light.
The FA understood the EFL’s grievances, but did not believe the charges fitted the punishment. Steadfastly, the EFL disagreed and seven months later, the fallout continues.
To say Derby brought this on themselves is true on paper, but that is an accusation which can be attributed to a good handful of clubs running on similarly tight margins for error.
That the EFL send appeal after appeal is not a good look on them, and means the two clubs at the centre of the storm will require more than good luck the longer it takes to put the matter to bed. Derby, like Sheffield Wednesday and others, like Stoke City are in danger of doing, have committed misdemeanours (rather than crimes) which they knew weren’t sporting or entirely legitimate, but they should be used as the last exception to the rule, the warning that any other club acting in such a way will be punished far more harshly. Save that for those who break the law and let the 2021/22 season begin with a clean break for all clubs.
After all, the other 70 EFL clubs know exactly where they will be. It is now time to put the matter to bed and for the EFL to admit defeat in this battle. The war that has ensued is not worth it.