FORGET about Wayne Rooney, this was not a day for one of this country’s most decorated players to enjoy a return to the Riverside. This was an occasion when, in many respects, Middlesbrough’s young guns upstaged the former England captain.

It would not be fair to make this purely about Rooney’s shortcomings, as he settles into life in the Championship after returning from the United States, but by the time the final whistle had blown he was lucky not to have ended defeated.

If the 34-year-old wasn’t too familiar with the academy graduates emerging from Middlesbrough before his first appearance in this neck of the woods in 11 years, he is now. Jonathan Woodgate’s youthful red and white army are on the rise, and this was further proof his methods are working.

From the moment Djed Spence brushed Rooney aside as if he was battling with a Derby debutant rather than a Premier League winner in the sixth minute, before playing in Ashley Fletcher to shoot wide, the Rams’ skipper suddenly knew what the fuss is about on Teesside.

Spence is attracting interest from the Premier League, unsurprisingly given the impact he has had in his eight appearances this season and the 19-year-old is out of contract in the summer. Middlesbrough have not lost in any of those games.

Ten minutes later Lewis Wing, still only 24 having moved up from the non-league scene a couple of years ago, curled in a brilliant right-foot opener that was just as reminiscent of Rooney in his pomp as it was “Paul Scholes-esque” as Woodgate described.

Wing’s excellent finish inside far post, having wrapped his right-foot around the ball from 22 yards to the right of the penalty area, arrived after a lovely move when Patrick Roberts’ turn and pass was flicked into the midfielder’s path by Marcus Tavernier.

That triumvirate has given Middlesbrough extra energy across the pitch, while the wing-backs Spence and Hayden Coulson bombing up and down are allowing the team to play with the sort of attacking freedom Woodgate has always wanted.

Woodgate was delighted and, again, hugely encouraged by that phase of play, and the rest of the first half performance in which the only frustration was that Middlesbrough weren’t more than a goal up. Spence’s strength to outmuscle Rooney and then play in Fletcher set the tone.

“It’s not just when it’s Wayne Rooney, it’s when it’s any player,” said Woodgate. “He did it against Jan Vertonghen, he closed him down. Vertonghen was receiving the ball on the 18 yard box and Djed Spence set off - and I must have watched it about 30 times because I can’t believe he gets there because of his pace and his energy.

“It’s first class for Djed, he’s taken his opportunity and he’s got a bright future but he needs to keep improving and listen to the right people who give him advice and keep on pushing because you don’t want to stay at that one level, you need to keep improving to get to the pinnacle to maximise your career.”

Given his contract situation Woodgate appreciates why Tottenham, among others, are keeping an eye on Spence.

“Everyone gets linked don’t they? Agents can be up to different things,” said Woodgate. “Marvin Johnson was linked to Bournemouth the other week, Britt Assombalonga’s been linked with Villa, Darren Randolph’s been linked with West Ham, Daniel Ayala’s been linked with a few teams. It’s all speculation. We’re in negotiations (with Djed).”

Spence is a confident lad, but the smiles and the shrug of the shoulders in the tunnel after the draw with Derby highlighted how there is still a likeable shyness and he is flattered following his sudden rise.

“It is a good feeling, I just stay focused,” said Spence. “I want to play well and stay focused, not let it get to me. It has been a good feeling being in the team, I just want to keep going and stay in the team, stay unbeaten.”

And what about that Rooney moment? He said: “I didn’t have too much go through my mind at that moment you are talking about. I just wanted to keep playing well, but clearly it gives you confidence. We have to fight for each other.

“You are going to come up against great players at times and Wayne Rooney is a great player, he has been a great international, so it is a good feeling when you play well against them.

“You have to stay focused, level-headed and not get complacent. The manager has said that as well. I have to be confident in myself, my ability and go out and enjoy it. That is what I am trying to do.”

While Spence was doing his thing down the right, Coulson was attacking his man down the left. His early cross into the area evaded both Fletcher and Tavernier when it looked like Middlesbrough would have a second. An unmarked Wing had earlier headed wide from a corner.

After the restart Derby pushed Rooney, who started in central midfield, further forward and they became more direct. That changed the flow of the game and Middlesbrough were never as effective.

Even after the Rams levelled when Jason Knight’s fortuitous cross looped over Aynsley Pears and dropped inside the far post to level nine minutes into the second half, Middlesbrough managed to get themselves back in front with 24 minutes left.

Roberts, excellent again before he made way for Lukas Nmecha, darted into the area and was brought down by Matt Clarke, even though Derby boss Philip Cocu claimed it wasn’t a penalty. McNair, brilliant at the back again, converted the spot-kick.

Middlesbrough should have seen the game through from there but with the final attack of the game, McNair’s decent enough headed clearance dropped invitingly for Holmes to strike a brilliant dipping volley that bounced inside Pears left-hand post.

It was a blow that left the dressing room “gutted” but that is a sign of the recent progress because Middlesbrough head to Tottenham for the FA Cup replay on Tuesday night still unbeaten in six.

“It’s been a good spell for the team, I have contributed and we have had points on the table. I want that to carry on and keep going forward. It has been a good feeling,” said Spence.

“Tuesday is a big game for us, we will need to put in a solid performance. I have lots of family and friends going.” And Boro’s fans are thankful to have such promising talents coming through.