‘Somehow it has come together’: Derby ready to rise off the canvas

Thursday morning at Derby County’s Moor Farm training base and the head of performance, Luke Jenkinson, is putting a revamped squad through its paces as they build towards their League One opener at home to Oxford on Saturday.

Soon after Liam Rosenior, interim manager, following the departure of Wayne Rooney, tots up the number of passes as his players try to score in miniature goals. Then it is time for an 11 v 11 game on a full pitch – purple bibs v green. Rosenior is in his element. “Shape, shape,” urges Richard Stearman. Summer arrival Tom Barkhuizen whips a delicious cross in from the left for another new face, Korey Smith, who crashes a header against the bar. Ben Warner, the head of analysis, controls a drone overhead.

David Clowes, the property developer who took over the club at the start of this month and whose company’s headquarters are 11 miles away, receives a call confirming Curtis Davies will captain the side this season. Last week Clowes, Derby’s players, coaches, office staff, groundsmen and chefs, plus their families, convened on the academy pitches and car park for a barbecue, a get-together proposed by the longstanding chief executive, Stephen Pearce, to thank staff for their commitment during a distressing period: nine months in administration, numerous false dawns and two years of various hiccups. There were bouncy castles, picnic blankets and an ice-cream truck. A band of Derby fans provided entertainment.

“Whether you’re the tea lady or the owner, everyone is just as important as each other,” Rosenior says. “If we have that spirit through the club, you can fly really, really quick. We had James with us [shadowing at training] today, Vicky, the laundry lady’s son, who is doing a coaching diploma at university. I met him at the barbecue and we were talking and I said to him: ‘Come and help us with training.’ He is here for two days on a kind of work experience … I introduced him to the players and he nearly fainted. But that’s the culture I want here. I want people to enjoy being part of it.”

Those days of uncertainty, when the club’s future was in limbo, have evaporated. Rooney has left, taking assistant analyst Pete Shuttleworth with him to DC United. Rosenior recalls conversations with the kit man, Jonnie, and Philomena, who works in the canteen, about how they would refresh Twitter praying for positive updates amid the backdrop of redundancies.

The thing that pained him was that he rarely had the answers. “The hardest thing in leadership is to turn around to people and say: ‘I don’t know’,” Rosenior says. “We had a session and our fitness coach lost his job while he was putting out cones for the warmup. Players were asking: ‘Where is he?’ There have been so many traumatic events that you almost become anaesthetised to it, and you learn to deal with it.”

Clowes has long been a season-ticket holder in the North Stand – he is thought to have not missed a home or away game for around six years – and staff have told him to stick with watching games at Pride Park from behind the goal, even if his profile has increased tenfold since the takeover was completed.

The timeline is staggering. Clowes, who has memorabilia from Derby’s days at the Baseball Ground, purchased their current stadium from former owner Mel Morris in mid-June, four days after Chris Kirchner, who compared Derby to Kentucky, pulled out of buying the club.

Amid the looming threat of liquidation, Clowes, a private individual, felt compelled to make an offer for the club and a week later he was putting the finishing touches to a deal that was formally completed at 5.26pm on 1 July, a day that will live long in the memory of supporters.

Confirmation followed almost half an hour later as the administrators declared the club saved. Clowes, a qualified commercial pilot, arrived for his first day at Moor Farm on Monday 4 July, after flying guests from Silverstone to Scotland before returning to East Midlands airport in the early hours.

Derby have assembled a squad in two weeks. They have made 11 new signings and Rosenior, who wants four more, is about to meet another prospective player and the player’s agent in the manager’s office. Derby were unbeaten at home against the top six in the Championship last season but Rosenior believes the arrival of experienced players such as Conor Hourihane and David McGoldrick will help them pick up more away points.

Krystian Bielik is training alone, working with the head physiotherapist, John Hartley, after aggravating his knee. Rosenior knows Derby are playing catchup given they returned to pre-season a week later than most. “The reason it was delayed was because we didn’t know if there was going to be a football club. We are working from behind but the biggest thing is we’re still a football club and we’re still competing. We had five players at the start of pre-season. If someone said to me three weeks ago that I’d have this group of players to work with, I’d be like: ‘You’re crazy.’ But somehow it has come together.”

At the beginning of pre-season, numbers were so low that under-18s, under-23s and first-team players combined for training, as Rosenior, Justin Walker, the first-team development coach, Pat Lyons, the U-21s coach, and Jake Buxton, the interim first-team coach, and the rest of the staff attempted to create some normality. Even then there were only 21 players in total.

Clowes has committed to maintaining their academy’s category one status. Darren Robinson, a second-year scholar, is among those who have impressed in pre-season. The idea of those youngsters not having a team hurt Rosenior. “We have our pre-match [meal] here on a Saturday morning, when the academy teams are playing on the top pitches and the parents walk through,” he says. “The thought of losing that … absolutely no chance.”

Such has been the rapid turnaround, there are inevitably some teething problems. They wore last season’s training kit for the first few weeks, are still without a shirt sponsor and are set to start this campaign – their first season in the third tier since 1986 – without an away kit. They cannot pay agents’ fees or transfer fees and have a wage cap as per a business plan agreed with the English Football League. “I came from Brighton, and a long time ago Brighton were at the Withdean [stadium] and their fans were going on marches to keep the club alive. It was exactly the same position at Derby, with fans going on marches to keep the club alive … nothing would make me happier in five or 10 years’ time to see Derby in Brighton’s position.”

Clowes’s priority was to add bodies to a skeleton squad but the overarching task is to bring stability to a club that in recent times has lurched from one bad news story to another. He is keen to give Rosenior, who joined Derby as a specialist first-team coach under Phillip Cocu three years ago, a chance to make the job his. “Whether I’m interim or full-time manager, I know the job comes with pressure,” Rosenior says. “I’ve always known that – my dad got sacked after 10 minutes [at Torquay]. If I don’t produce, I’ll be out of a job, whether I have a five-year contract or a one-year contract.”

Rosenior was interested in the job when Cocu was sacked but Rooney was appointed. Rosenior was promoted to Rooney’s assistant, having worked closely as co-managers on an interim basis after Cocu’s exit. “Looking back now, I’m so grateful for the experiences I had with Wayne, because of the experiences we’ve had together and the experiences I’ve had in my coaching role and building the team last season,” he says. “I feel if I had been manager two and a half years ago, I wouldn’t be half the manager I am now. This has come at the right time.

“Since I’ve had this job, I’ve got more energy. I put more pressure on myself as an assistant to not let Wayne down. Now I’m making decisions, I know it falls on me. I’m in control, and I’m calmer. I know that if I fail, it’s on me. If we don’t play well, it rests on my shoulders. I’m completely accountable. I have to make sure every process is right, but I’m in control of it so I’m sleeping better. Basically, I’m a control freak,” Rosenior says with a smile.

Of Rooney’s departure, Rosenior says: “I understand in three weeks the difference between being assistant manager to being a manager. You have to pick people up. You have to have positive energy whenever you walk around, otherwise people won’t follow you. If you’re constantly fighting things for two years, it can wear you down, and I think that’s just where Wayne got to. I don’t think he felt he had the energy to continue in this job.”

On Wednesday Rosenior received a call from his father, Leroy. “He called me – and I don’t speak to him about football – and he said: ‘Liam, I don’t want to put too much pressure on you but I’d love to be at your first game, can I come?’ I said: ‘Of course you can come. It won’t put pressure on me, dad. Come to the game.’ I used to pick teams with him when I was eight or nine years old. He knows my passion. He knows how hard I’ve worked to get to this situation.”