Is it time for Derby County to seek a Sporting Director?

The spinning of the managerial merry-go-round has been intense at Derby County ever since Steve McClaren replaced Nigel Clough back in 2013. In fact, until now, a new manager has been at the helm at the start of every season since then:

2013/4 Nigel Clough
2014/5 McClaren
2015/6 Clement
2016/7 Pearson
2017/8 Rowett
2018/9 Lampard

The unwelcome, monotonous, unrelenting speculation surrounding Frank Lampard’s future this summer makes it look ever more likely that Derby are about to go into their seventh successive season with a different manager at the helm. And across the English game, it feels like that the days of a manager coming into a football club, being left alone to get on with the job and putting his stamp on things over a long-term period is almost entirely over. You still get the odd exception, but overall, the trend is for managers to leave clubs sooner rather than later. So, why leave everything to them?

What if Derby had a separate, senior, influential figure tasked with running the club’s recruitment department? In the Bundesliga, these figures are generally known as Sporting Directors and take responsibility for buying and selling players, extending contracts and hiring and firing coaching staff. Instead of having a traditional English-style ‘manager’ running everything, like Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, or Brian Clough as the ‘perfect dictator’, clubs run on this model have a ‘head coach’ to pick and train the first team, in line with a playing philosophy and recruitment model which is agreed with the Sporting Director.

Such an appointment should, in theory, mean that even as ‘head coaches’ come and go, continuity in the club’s style of play, scouting and recruitment policy would be assured, which would mean that the upheaval caused by constant ‘managerial’ departures, whether due to a sacking or because the guy was recruited by another club, would be significantly reduced.

If we consider the different styles of football pursued by the last four Derby managers – from Paul Clement’s dogmatic possession game to Nigel Pearson’s preference for 4-4-2 and fast forwards, to Gary Rowett’s counter-attacking style and finally Lampard’s possession-based, high-pressing preference – it’s obvious that each manager had totally different requirements when it came to playing staff. Just as an example, Rowett wanted full backs who were defenders first, like Andre Wisdom or Chris Baird, whereas Lampard wants his full backs to fly forward, like Jayden Bogle or Scott Malone.

This has led to very different types of players being brought into the club, only to find themselves out of favour within a year.

In the period immediately after Nigel Clough left, Derby’s transfer policy changed out of sight, from tedious penny-pinching and strict book-balancing, to something more akin to a drunken lottery-winner screaming ‘spend spend spend’. With the former agent Sam Rush pulling the strings as chief executive and an exuberantly wealthy new owner signing the cheques, Clement in particular was furnished with a series of wildly expensive signings as he aimed to get Derby out of the Championship. According to my records, Clough was allowed to spend about £3m during 2012/3, while recouping about £2m. Fast-forward to 2015/6 and Derby were suddenly committing something like £25m on transfers, without recouping any meaningful fees at all.

Yet sadly, by the time Pearson departed, the squad was actually nearer to dropping into League 1 than it was to the Premier League, in spite of Mel’s millions. By the time Rowett came along, it was clear that the breaks had to be put on the spending to an extent, with good players being sold to allow the Brummie some budget to remodel the squad.

Then Rowett was gone and his replacement, Lampard, was backed with funds to overhaul the squad yet again – but only after he had sold Matej Vydra (and Morris had to purchase Pride Park, to prevent the historical losses accrued from landing Derby with a season-ending points deduction).

Things went badly wrong at Derby in the Clement / Rush period. The nadir was clearly August 2015, when the club spend north of £10m on Bradley Johnson and Jacob Butterfield, but the incontinence only got worse the next January, with more millions wasted on Abdoul Camara and Nick Blackman, before Morris abruptly pulled the plug on Clement. Rush continued in post for some time, but eventually left too, after a bitter feud with Morris became public knowledge.

With hindsight, perhaps an experienced Sporting Director, with the right mix of footballing expertise and business nous, could have acted as a break on what became an unholy trinity of an overenthusiastic owner, a chief executive with close links to particular agents and an inexperienced coach in Clement, who between them, presided over a ruinous binge of spending which the club are still trying to recover from years later. There was nobody with sufficient clout within Derby County to raise the alarm and suggest alternative targets when the fees being discussed for Butterfield and Johnson, for example, became ridiculous.

There are pluses and minuses to the Sporting Director approach. One clear ‘con’ is the fact that in England, we’re not used to the model and some managers would simply refuse to countenance working with one. Of Derby’s last six managers, only McClaren and Clement, both of whom have worked on the continent, would have been open to such a working arrangement. So using a Sporting Director / Director of Football makes it more likely that you would have a foreign coach in charge of picking the team – something which has still never happened at Derby County in its history (unless you count Scots).

A couple of prominent examples of the model working well in the Championship last season were Leeds, where the great Marcelo Bielsa works with DoF Victor Orta and Norwich City, where the German head coach Daniel Farke was supported by DoF Stuart Webber to build a squad which achieved automatic promotion at the second attempt.

Nigel Clough never had a lot of money to spend. I remember reading articles in which it was explained that Clough wanted to sign strikers ranging from Billy Sharp to Gary Hooper to Chris Wood, but there was never the money available to do it. Nevertheless, he came up with some signings reminiscent of the Oakland A’s story, as narrated by Michael Lewis in Moneyball.

Chris Martin, signed on a free transfer, became irreplaceable in the McClaren side which went on to Wembley. Craig Forsyth, nominally a left-sided midfielder at Watford, was repurposed as an ungainly but effective left back (and was missed last season, after a serious injury ended his campaign early). Jake Buxton was signed from Burton Albion to hoots of derision, but became a cult hero. Richard Keogh was a signed as a like-for-life replacement for Jason Shackell in 2012 and is still giving his all for the badge as we approach the new decade.

Youth was prioritised under Clough and while Mason Bennett was arguably promoted to the first team squad too quickly, Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick went on to become Premier League players, while Mark O’Brien might have done, had injuries and health issues not hindered his development. There were plenty of flops too, as Clough trawled the bargain bins looking at misfits, cast-offs, those whose talent had been overlooked, for whatever reason. But it’s undeniable that the foundations he put in place during his tenure were solid and allowed the club to go on to challenge for promotion in the years that followed.

Clough’s most popular signing and arguably his biggest hit was Craig Bryson. First linked to Derby in the Billy Davies era, Bryson signed for Clough from Kilmarnock and went on to become a genuine club legend, thanks to his role in Deforestation Day. The £350,000 fee invested in Bryson truly puts the mis-spending of the following seasons to shame. Or as the club put it, in a more understated way: “Few can argue that the six-figure fee that the Rams paid out eight years ago has been value for money.” Clough and his staff, the club added: “scouted Bryson extensively in the months leading up to his arrival and knew the type of character they were adding to the dressing room.”

Bryson left the club this summer, after eight years of exemplary service. On departing, he said: “I really wanted to pay back Nigel Clough too for giving me a chance. I think I am forever in debt to Nigel for bringing me to this club. I stay in contact with him a fair bit and when he was here he was more than a manager, he helped me off the pitch too. He taught me right from wrong really and what was expected at this club. I am forever grateful.”

I’m not saying it needs to be Clough himself, but a Scouting Director with the diligence, creativity in scouting, faith in youth, ability to work within tight budget restrictions and, just as importantly, the moral compass – the sense of what the club expects of a player – Clough brought during his tenure would undoubtedly be helpful, in an era when we are finding it impossible to keep a ‘manager’ with us for more than 12 months.

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Great expectations – the Championship challenge ahead for Derby County

“Happiness is when your expectations are exceeded” – Mel Morris, at the March Fans Forum

It’s a great quote, when you think about it.  And the question it puts to us as supporters is what we expect for our club – where we expect it to be.

On raw attendances, Derby County in the Premier League would be a mid-table proposition.  Leicester, Cardiff, Wolves, Brighton and Southampton all pull in 30,000 spectators on average in the top flight and so would we.  On that basis – on pure size – there is no reason why we shouldn’t be in the tier of Premier League clubs which, with a fair wind, could end up in the Europa League, but should at least be aiming for consolidation among the other middleweights. 

Anything can happen of course – Burnley in Europe, Leicester winning the thing, Sunderland in League 1 – but that should essentially be our lot in life and it’s acknowledged in the club’s latest Strategic Report, which states: “The Club’s vision is to [be] a sustainable and perennial competitor in the Premier League.” 

But after another opportunity to get there was missed at Wembley, the top flight feels as far way as ever. 

Derby have effectively been a second division team for nigh on twenty years now.  As a young man, I revelled in the Jim Smith era, so did all my mates.  Our fathers (it seemingly was just the dads, in those days) had the magical Brian Clough and Peter Taylor era, a feast of football to nourish them through their whole lifetimes.  The odd glimmer of hope aside – and this season in particular had some glorious moments – today’s kids basically have to depend on their ability to generate pithy memes to haul themselves through the long winter months of supporting a club which is forever finding new ways to fall short. 

‘Next season’ has been the mantra for too long now – but on this occasion, anticipation for 2019/20 is boosted by the knowledge that change is genuinely coming, with a group of overpaid underachievers finally, finally being shifted off the books, making room for a new breed of younger replacements, who in most cases can hardly fail to be better.  Once they’ve taken a break to recover from the epic disappointment at Wembley, there is a hell of a lot for the club do this summer. 

Here is Lampard’s most used Championship XI in terms of minutes on the pitch. The players whose names are in bold have contracts running into next season, at the time of writing:-

Carson (2,700 mins)

Bogle (3,755)
Keogh (4,392)

Tomori (4,062)
Malone (2,256)

Bryson (2,120)
Johnson (2,364)
Mount (2,511)

Wilson (3,456)

Waghorn (2,204)
Lawrence (2,845)

Other players who played more than 1,000 minutes in the Championship were Tom Huddlestone, Jack Marriott, Kelle Roos, Duane Holmes, Florian Jozefzoon, Mason Bennett and David Nugent.

Seven of that group of 18 players – Tomori, Wilson, Mount, Bryson, Johnson, Roos and Nugent – reached the end of their Derby deals this month. Nuge has been released, as expected.  Harry Wilson and Mason Mount, who are far too good for the Championship, said their goodbyes very quickly after the play-off final defeat.  Fikayo Tomori was lovely enough to say that he would be open to staying for another season, but in reality, he will get better offers and you’d have to be much more optimistic than me to believe that he’s likely to return.

A long-term extension for Roos has been announced, now that the dust has settled after Wembley.

Given the public silence over Bradley Johnson’s future, I was expecting him to leave, despite his late-season return to favour. However, it has now been disclosed that his contract was actually extended by twelve months earlier this season, on what we are told by the Derby Telegraph are ‘vastly reduced’ terms (Johnson was the biggest of all the dismal Paul Clement / Sam Rush-era signings and so it’s safe to assume that he will be still be on a generous wage).

Craig Bryson has been offered an extension, although reportedly has to weigh this offer against opportunities to return to Scotland and so we still await a decision on his future.

This is going to be an extremely busy summer for the club, which has been handed what feels like a unique opportunity for renewal.  Along with the aforementioned players, out go the Clement / Rush-era signings Marcus Olsson and Alex Pearce, with last January’s short-term cover signings, Efe Ambrose and Ashley Cole, also released.  

Street parties to coincide with the departure of two deeply unpopular players – Nick Blackman and Jacob Butterfield – will have to be postponed, albeit hopefully not for long. Their contracts were finally due to expire this summer, or so we thought – and so it was thoroughly bemusing to see their names included in Derby’s retained list. The club came out with some weak guff about ‘protecting their value’, but ultimately, it’s just another piece of administrative manoeuvring to help absorb the ruinous cost of these infamous flops by spreading the pain into the next financial year. In other words, an embarrassing little kicker to add to the tale of woe which was the club’s transfer business during Rush’s tenure.

We are not out of those thoroughly bear-shitted woods yet, not by a long chalk. Not only are the club still trying to shed that pair, three more malnourished ghosts of Christmas past – George Thorne, Ikechi Anya and Chris Martin – also have a further twelve months to go on their existing deals.  There have been no shortage of Championship options for Martin so far and hopefully, somebody will take him on a season-long loan, but 31-year old Anya has not played senior football for a long time now, while the luckless Thorne failed to break into the team at League 1 champions Luton Town, after the manager who signed him left for Stoke City within days of his loan move being confirmed. 

In those three cases, the Rams will be on the hook for most if not all of the players’ generous wages for one more season (at least).  All of which helps to explain why it was necessary for any Financial Fair Play worries to be parked for now, courtesy of a £14m profit booked in 2017/8, following Mel Morris’ purchase of Pride Park for £80m. 

That manoeuvre bought Derby time and now the club needs to decide what to do with that time.  Do they grit their teeth and continue to get their house in order by cutting costs – working within their limitations, weathering the criticism which would rain down for a lack of ‘ambition’ – or do they push the boat out once again and continue to invest in new players, hoping that this time, they get much more bang for their buck than Rush was able to deliver (and that maybe, in the interim, the EFL’s controversial and in some quarters derided FFP rules are relaxed again)?

It’s probably worth mentioning the Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson’s vendetta against Derby. Having failed to get the Championship clubs to rally round and take action against clubs who have dealt with FFP through creative accounting, Gibson is now apparently intent on suing Derby. Mel Morris responded by raising the creative practises used by Gibson himself in previous seasons and inviting him to stop ‘bitching’. Perhaps Gibson’s sabre-rattling is his way of keeping the issue in the media spotlight for long enough that the league feel obliged to exclude the sale of fixed assets such as stadia from FFP accounting in future.

But that’s more than enough of all that. Let’s put these unseemly shenanigans to one side for now and get back to the actual football….

The main item of business for the club is that before August, they somehow need to replace their two best attacking midfielders and a centre back with serious pace and ability on the ball. The three loanees took Derby higher up the table than they would otherwise have gone.  It was a coup for Frank Lampard to get them in the first place – no other Championship team could have borrowed Mount, while Wilson was wanted by everybody.  Lampard made the difference and if he stays, he will again push Derby towards the front of the queue when next season’s top prospects review the options for the next step in their development. 

If the aim is to compete at the top end of the division again, then put bluntly, Derby need to sign quality.  Any club would struggle to cope with the loss of three of its best players in one window, which is what Derby are facing up to. And given the number of players who are leaving (or frozen out until we can afford to pay them off), they’ll also need to sign quantity.

As it stands, the core of senior players who will form the basis of Derby’s team next season is as follows (listed in age order):-

Goalkeepers

Carson
Roos
Mitchell


Defenders

Davies
Keogh
Forsyth
Malone
Wisdom
Lowe
Bogle


Central midfielders

(Bryson has been offered terms)
Huddlestone
Johnson
Shinnie
Evans
Bird


Attacking / wide midfielders

Jozefzoon
Lawrence
Holmes


Forwards

Waghorn
Marriott
Bennett


And by no means all of even that small group of players can be expected to stay.  Scott Carson is contracted until 2020, but lost his place in the team to Roos this season and seems almost certain to be moved on.  Andre Wisdom barely featured under Lampard and, barring a change of management, has no obvious future at Pride Park.  Rumours swirled on January’s deadline day that Huddlestone could be leaving for Italy and although his contract was later extended to 2020, this was only due to an appearance-related clause in his existing deal, not through the club’s choice.

Meanwhile, there seems no point in retaining three senior left backs, not when money needs to be saved and when one of them, Max Lowe, is a young player who needs to be playing regularly at this stage in his career.  

And even Lampard’s own signings Florian Jozefzoon and George Evans, who didn’t exactly set Pride Park alight during their debut seasons, could be considered as possible candidates for the exit. 

On a more positive note, Jayden Bogle will doubtless be continually linked with a big-money move to the Premier League this summer, after his fantastic breakthrough season. Another positive is the return of Curtis Davies, who should hopefully be fit again for pre-season, with Craig Forsyth also hopefully due to return.

Beyond that, it’s about the youth. Luke Thomas, now 20, did well out on loan in League 1 and will expect to continue his development, either here, or out on loan again.  We’ll have to wait and see whether Max Bird, much-praised for his attitude as a young professional, is ready to force his way into the first team reckoning, or is destined to become the next Jamie Hanson and forge his path at a lower level.  Another 18 year-old, Jayden Mitchell-Lawson, got a single sub appearance this year.  17 year-old England youth midfielder Louie Sibley is hotly-tipped by Rams youth-team watchers, but didn’t feature in the matchday 18 last season, while newly-capped Eire U’21 midfielder Jason Knight was added to the bench for Wembley and the second leg of the play-off semi-final at Leeds, alongside a relative veteran in 21 year-old defender Calum Macdonald (whose only senior experience so far came on loan at Barrow. Macdonald has been retained for next season).

The younger prospects have the opportunity to play in the under-19s UEFA Youth League next season, which will hopefully be a great stage for the likes of Sibley, Morgan Whittaker, Lee Buchanan and Tyree Wilson to shine on.

Despite the eight senior departures, there is probably just about a starting XI to build on, as we stand. For example:-

Roos

Bogle
Keogh
Davies
Malone

Shinnie
Johnson
Holmes

Lawrence

Waghorn
Marriott

(Bench options)

Carson / Mitchell
Evans
Wisdom
Forsyth / Lowe
Huddlestone / Bird
Jozefzoon / Thomas
Bennett

It’s clear that this squad is short of the depth and quality which would lift the Rams into promotion contention.  Indeed, Lampard spoke about being left with a “squad of 12 or 13” after Wembley – a comment which might have been hyperbole at a highly-charged moment, but did suggest that most of the underused fringe players are not part of his thinking and will remain firmly on the sidelines until new homes can be found for them.

With Carson clearly earmarked for replacement, we might see a new first-team goalkeeper by August (unless the club have decided to persist with Roos).  At least one centre back, if not two, will be required to compete with Richard Keogh and Davies.  Matthew Pennington of Everton was a target in January and could be linked again.  A transfer for Wisdom (or Bogle) would mean reinforcement at right back would be essential.

Central midfield is another obvious position for renewal.  With Bryson’s future still to be determined, the club currently has the new signing Graeme Shinnie, Johnson, Huddlestone and Evans as senior pros in this position, with Bird as a younger cover option.

Marriott and Waghorn are both great options for any Championship team up-front and are guaranteed to score goals, but with the veteran Nugent leaving, they are now the club’s only two mainline senior strikers. Harry Wilson finished the season as top scorer from midfield and his goals will need replacing.

And there will be a need for much more guile to supply the strikers.  Mount was the chief provider of chances last season, with Wilson not far behind him.  While Waghorn has played wide right, it’s obvious that this is not his best position.  Much here depends on the manager’s assessment of whether Thomas and maybe Mitchell-Lawson are ready to play for Derby, or need further development out on loan. Whatever happens, it seems likely that at least one more attacking midfielder will be recruited.  

So in terms of ‘ins’, I think we need, as a bare minimum:-

Goalkeeper
Centre back
Utility defender
Central midfielder
Wide attacker
Centre forward

We’re not sure at this stage what kind of budget the manager will have available to him, but we do know that it won’t be massive. That said, any talk of a summer which will be all about belt-tightening may be not be quite right. 

To the justifiable scorn of football finance analysts and fans of rival clubs, the sale of Pride Park stadium to Mel Morris led to a profit being booked in 2017/8.  The academic Kieran Maguire estimates that Derby would have breached the EFL’s permitted loss threshold by a whopping £14m, had it not been for the Pride Park sale. Instead, that transaction means that there will be room to manoeuvre again.  

Derby County profits (+) or losses (-), per season

2013/4 – £7m
2014/5 -£10.1m
2015/6 -£14.7m
2016/7 -£7.9m
2017/8m +£14.6m

Without the stadium sale, Derby would have lost more than £25m in 2017/8 and breached the ‘sustainability’ threshold set by the EFL.  As we’ve seen from the case of Birmingham City, this would have led to a major points deduction and perhaps even a transfer embargo. 

The wage bill is much, much too high, as everybody knows:-

Wage bill / turnover (wagebill as percentage of turnover)

2013/4 £14.5m / £20.2m (72%)
2014/5 £19.3m / £21.5m (90%)
2015/6 £33.1m / £22.6m (147%)
2016/7 £34.6m / £29m (119%)
2017/8 £40.5m / £29.6m (137%)
 
I won’t go too far into the finances, as I’m not an expert – two men who are, Maguire and the authoritative Swiss Ramble, have done detailed studies of the club’s accounts (the latter acknowledging that even for him, the task had not been easy).  Without getting lost in the weeds of ‘amortisation’ and ‘EBITDA’, it’s enough to say that the Pride Park sale has given Derby the option to continue investing in new players for 2019/20, if they choose to.

We were told to expect cost-cutting before Gary Rowett’s departure last summer, only for the club to go on to spend millions – largely funded by the sale of Matej Vydra, but still, £5m for Martyn Waghorn was not a small deal, coming on top of £4m for Jack Marriott, plus £2.75m for Brentford’s Florian Jozefzoon (the Bees must have been absolutely delighted with that) and an undisclosed fee of probably around £2m for Huddersfield’s Scott Malone.  

Until things improved somewhat last summer, wretched recruitment had dogged Derby County’s Mel Morris era.  When you think about the millions squandered on players who were average at the absolute best, you want to weep – lord only knows how Mel feels about it, with his investment now up to around £200m. 

Lampard and Jody Morris have shown signs of being much more switched on as recruiters than some of their predecessors.  Marriott was manifestly a good signing and we have yet to see the best of him, in my opinion.  Waghorn is clearly a great Championship-level professional and at 29, has a couple of years in him yet (albeit the club will eventually lose money on him).  Malone is far from universally popular, but goes down as a decent signing in my book as an attacking full back to suit Lampard’s purposes, while little Duane Holmes has been embraced by the fans, at least partly because of the novelty of the fact that he cost less than £1m, yet can clearly play a bit.    

Their good signings significantly outweigh those who did not impact on the season – Jozefzoon, an odd buy who was nowhere near as cheap as people seem to think and Evans, who signed on the basis of Lampard’s time training with him at Manchester City, but struggled badly in his limited midfield appearances to date (albeit his heroic cameo at centre back during the run-in helped the Rams to make the play-offs).

I’ve written before about team cohesion – Sheffield United are a great example of how a unit can develop over season, having blossomed under Chris Wilder since their League 1 days, with a core of players clocking up plenty of experience working together.  Norwich City have also benefitted from such stability, hanging onto Daniel Farke despite a deeply underwhelming first season under his stewardship and reaping the rewards of sticking to the same recruitment and tactical plan for a second season.

The Canaries tapped into European markets – most notably Germany, but also picking up key men Teemu Pukki from Denmark and Emi Buendía from the Spanish second division. Derby have been unwilling or incapable of doing this for many years now – having had their fingers burned by signing Abdoul Camara and Raúl Albentosa, they seemed to decide that it wasn’t really worth the hassle.  Which is bizarre, in my opinion.  Both Camara and Albentosa were major failures of scouting, in different ways, but that just means that better scouts are required.  The answers to our problems may well lie beyond these shores and there’s certainly better value to be had in those markets than there is in the Championship, where any half-decent player’s fee is inflated by the fact that clubs with parachute payments can afford to pay over the odds. Camara and Albentosa may have flopped, but their reported transfer fees added up to less than what Jozefzoon cost, or less than half the cost of Jacob Butterfield (Albentosa was even sold on at a profit).

What we badly need is some stability at the top of the football side of the club, so that a team can start to grow and develop together.  Chopping and changing managers so regularly has led to an uncoordinated mishmash of players at the club, all signed by different people for different reasons, only to be discarded by the next manager.  It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect any manager, let alone one with no direct experience, to walk in and fashion a bloated, uneven squad into a Championship-destroying unit overnight.  So it goes down as a genuine achievement for Lampard to have hoisted his group to within 90 minutes of the Premier League. Ultimately, we simply weren’t quite ready to accept the Wembley opportunity and so simply have to take it as a positive that we got as far as we did.

At this stage, all we can really do is sketch out the current situation and hazard a few guesses about what might happen in the next couple of months. As Mel reminded us in March, happiness is when our expectations are exceeded.  In the second division, we are a big fish and we expect to win much more than we lose. How would we, as fans, cope with a genuine ‘transitional’ season – one where the wage bill is radically slashed, departing players aren’t replaced, our own youth players instead promoted through the ranks – resulting in a team with less experience, less match-winning quality, which would find a run at the play-offs a much more difficult ask?

So much depends on what Lampard chooses to do.  Hopefully, he is up for seeing through a long-term project here at Derby.  But clearly, he is an ambitious man (with an abiding love for Chelsea) and it’s hard to see him being content with slumming it in the second division for very long.  Would he be happy to patiently oversee the development of a younger team through a difficult, ‘transitional’ season in the hope that things would improve the season after, will he be cajoling Mel behind the scenes to allow him to bring in the classy players who would allow him to seriously press for promotion straight away – or will he just bugger off to Chelsea, on a wave of emotion?

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Too little, too late – Derby County 1 Aston Villa 2

Somebody has to grab a game of this magnitude, take it by the horns and wrestle it into submission.  At least, that’s an easy platitude to reach for.  In this case, however, nobody ever really did.

Instead, Villa profited from a defensive lapse and a goalkeeper’s howler, then held on in the face of a furious, vainglorious late rally from Derby, which only served as an exasperating pointer to what might have been for the Rams – who now have the ‘honour’ of being the joint longest-serving Championship club with Nottingham Forest, following Ipswich Town’s relegation.

After the inevitable frenzy of fouls, it started to settle as the adrenaline eased and the players got their bearings.  And it was Villa’s players who adjusted to their surroundings more quickly and with more authority.  They deserved to win, because they had the edge in terms of attacking quality, at least for the first hour of the game.

But what is galling from a Derby perspective is that such a highly-talented Villa side didn’t create any clear-cut opportunities and both of their goals were effectively gifted to them – for the first, what should have been an unthreatening, routine deep cross was not defended by young Jayden Bogle.  The second, sadly, came from a potentially career-defining gaffe from Kelle Roos. 

You wouldn’t mind as much if Jack Grealish had scored a corker, or if Tammy Abraham had proved simply too hot to handle for the Rams’ defence, but no. Instead, Villa had the lead and ultimately promotion to the Premier League, with all the fabulous riches that status confers, handed to them on a plate. For us to work so hard to stifle them for the most part, only to be killed by two lapses of concentration, rather than moments of overriding quality, is hard to take.

I played in goal as a kid and have huge sympathy in the vast majority of cases when a ‘keeper makes a big error in a big game. In this case, even having had time to cool off, I am really struggling to sympathise with Roos, because I just cannot understand what was going through his head when he didn’t reach for the ball.  It should have been a routine claim, one you would expect any professional goalkeeper to make almost in their sleep.  The dice are so loaded in the ‘keeper’s favour in these situations that I had half looked away, before I realised the disaster which was unfolding.  It beggared belief.

Since taking over from Scott Carson, Roos has looked good, in some aspects – he’s agile, tall, a fair shot-stopper – but a vital part of any keeper’s game is his ability to command the box by dealing with crosses, without brooking any argument. In this regard, Roos has never looked convincing, especially for a guy of his height and sadly, in the end, this flaw was the chink in the black-and-white armour which turned out to be our downfall.

It came at a time in the game when Derby desperately needed somebody to send out a message of calmness – that it was OK, we were still in it, only a goal adrift.  Nothing was settled. 

Tom Huddlestone had been presumably selected to try to ensure a measure of control and prevent Villa from dominating the ball too much.  Judging from his comments after the match, Lampard would have started Duane Holmes, had he been available.  But he clearly felt that using Wilson and Mount as twin central midfielders and starting Marriott (with Waghorn not quite fit enough to make the XI) was too much of a risk.   Which was a shame, because I’ve always thought that Derby look rubbish when they try to play safety first. 

And the first-half pattern was something we’ve seen and not particularly enjoyed before this season – Derby trying stubbornly, laboriously, to move the ball out from the back, not quickly enough, not getting it to the dangermen with enough regularity. Huddlestone clipped a few of his trademark, admirably measured and aesthetically beautiful passes around in the first half.  But Derby created nothing and Villa’s tactic of pressing high to prevent us from building momentum was generally successful. 

In truth, until Jack Marriott and Martyn Waghorn finally appeared, the game had been a total non-event from a Derby perspective.  There had been occasional promising moments, mostly down the right flank through Bogle’s raids, but the build-up play was usually too slow for Derby to at all ruffle a Villa side who remained compact and disciplined out of possession. And with a front two of Tom Lawrence and Mason Bennett, there was nobody there you would back to actually get onto the end of a move and finish it.

Villa wouldn’t leave Abraham out.  They built their team around him and he rewarded them with a sackful of goals. In my opinion, Derby should do this with Marriott next season. Perhaps Lampard’s newly-discovered midfield diamond should become the default system, because it would give Marriott and Waghorn the opportunity to gradually form a productive partnership.

Switching to a diamond would put a lot of emphasis on the full backs to push forward and provide the attacking width.  In Bogle, we have a perfect player for that system and he was always a likely source of attacking joy at Wembley.  If he stays, which I hope he will, I believe he’ll soon be widely recognised as one of the best full backs outside of the Premier League.

However, Ashley Cole was never going to provide the same vigour on the other flank, which was why the addition of Florian Jozefzoon as a late sub on that flank was necessary to stretch Villa’s defence.  Whenever he got on the ball and ran at his full back, he threatened to make a difference. But as has been the case with the Dutchman all season (unless he was playing against Hull), there was ultimately little end product.

It’s easy to be critical of Derby’s milky attacking performance for the first hour and to question a team selection which only served to hand Villa the initiative, but it’s worth remembering that they are a very good, very expensive side, which is still stuffed with Premier League players.  And to Derby’s credit, they did not create very much at all.  A dodgy Roos kick gave Grealish a massive chance early on; an Abraham surge into the box almost ended in what would have been a magical floated finish into the top corner; Anwar El Ghazi got his goal by picking off Bogle with ease and was a thorn in the side throughout, floating into dangerous pockets of space. 

But Villa finished with only nine shots – none from the dangerous Conor Hourihane, none from Albert Adomah, only one from the 26-goal striker Abraham.  While Derby did look slightly shakier than their opponents at the back for the first hour or so, they were never ripped apart, for all of the guile and trickery at Dean Smith’s disposal.

Maybe the gravity of the situation got to Villa late on, because from 70 minutes, they looked vulnerable every time Derby picked up the ball.  Suddenly, chasing a lost cause and forced to commit to it, Derby were working the ball through the lines, playing with width and more pace, loading the box – in short, playing the game we knew that this team was capable of.  They got a goal – through Marriott, of course – but all it sought to do was underline what pretty much the whole of Derby (and most neutrals I’ve spoken to) had been thinking, which is that Marriott should have started.  

Lampard said none of his four strikers had 90 minutes in them due to fitness or personal issues (the latter referring to Lawrence) and he held Jack back as an impact sub. To me, that only made it feel worse.  Yes, it was a good idea in theory – the night-and-day transformation of the Rams’ performance after 70 minutes showed what he was driving at – but his gameplan depended upon Villa not taking the game away from us before the substitutes could be introduced. Given that Derby hadn’t kept a clean sheet in any game against a top six side all season, that was a massive gamble and even without Villa firing on all cylinders, it didn’t pay off.

So, very sadly and reluctantly, that’s it, then – another season is over. A positive to take is that in this case, it’s a very hard season to say goodbye to, because there have been so many great moments. I wasn’t ready for it to end, at least, not with such a sour taste as this. And we will be losing the three loanees, all of whom have been absolutely outstanding. How can we replace three players of such quality, while also continuing the wider squad rebuilding job Lampard began last summer and keeping the wage bill at a manageable level?

Hopefully, Lampard himself will remain, although exasperatingly, we won’t know for sure under Chelsea work out what they’re doing about their (actually rather successful) misfit manager Maurizio Sarri.  You can’t help worrying that is not just two players who will be returning to their parent club from a season-long loan.

But those are questions for another day.  For now, it’s a sad farewell to the boys of 2018/9, a team which flickered briefly, promisingly, but has now been confined to the history books by Wembley defeat. 

It was a huge low, but again, looking forward positively, we are in for a very eventful summer and I don’t think it will be very long before a major squad overhaul begins in earnest. Retained lists, new signings and pre-season friendlies will be announced before you know it and the next chapter will begin.

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We’re the famous Derby County and we’re going to Wembley – Promotion play-off final preview podcast

Well. We’re going to Wembley.

I thought the next podcast might end up being a season wrap-up job – as it turned out, it was a play-off final special. Chris was on board, of course and this time round, we were joined by Derby County Podcast originator Joel Clyne.

I figured you might need something to listen to on the trip down to London, so this is a bumper edition, running to about 75 minutes. Going into depth on our opponents Aston Villa, looking back on a phenomenal night at Elland Road and a bit of discussion about Mel, Frank and the future for Derby, regardless of what happens in the big game.

Come on you Rams!

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Leeds United 2 Derby County 4 – The Rams are going to Wembley

Cards on the table – I didn’t give us a prayer.  I kept my mouth shut after the first leg, because in honesty, I had nothing positive to say.  We had been managed so comprehensively, so easily, at Pride Park that what grounds for optimism were there at Elland Road?  The Spymaster had us sussed.  Frank Lampard was too green a manager to find a way to ruffle the legendary Marcelo Bielsa.  They were a fearsomely drilled stormtrooper unit with the tactical edge over us.  They were not unbeatable, far from it – and their players seemed to be dropping like flies, despite (or maybe because of) the brag that they had ‘run more than ever’ in the first leg of this semi-final – but we simply were not the team who could beat them, not this season, anyway. 

So I expected nothing. 

What I got was far and away the best football moment of my lifetime of supporting Derby County – a delirious, ‘I was there’ evening, which I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to witness.  The 5-0 was a once-in-a-lifetime event (probably), but the intensity was not the same that day, because it became so easy so quickly.  This was a very tough game, which could easily have gone the other way, yet panned out as such a dramatic and deeply satisfying triumph for the Rams that we couldn’t have scripted it better if we’d tried.   Neutrals have been approaching me all day to talk about this game – all with massive smiles on their faces, because they were entertained, royally. It will go down as a one of the classic encounters in the history of two famous clubs with a mutual emnity stretching back over decades.

I reached my ‘seat’ in the John Charles Upper seconds after kick-off and the atmosphere was immediately on a different level to anything I have experienced before.  The Derby fans were absolutely rocking – this was a big game and the fans were determined to rise to it. 

And for 20 minutes, the pendulum threatened to swing ever so gently towards the visitors. 
This was nothing like the Pride Park game.  Leeds were unable to settle on and hog the ball, as they had so contemptuously at times in the first leg.  An intriguing gambit from Frank Lampard was the selection of Mason Bennett and Tom Lawrence as centre forwards, with Harry Wilson playing as a number ten, at the tip of a midfield diamond.  Bielsa, banned from spying, definitely had not seen this system change coming.  And his side suddenly weren’t so sure of themselves.

Until they were handed an absolute gift.  I didn’t realise in real time what a cock-up Richard Keogh had made of defending the free kick, but it was obvious that something had malfunctioned horribly, an appallingly soft goal given away at the worst possible time.  And that, I couldn’t help fearing, was probably that.  Suddenly, those free white scarves, which had been under the seats for the previous twenty minutes, created a white wall and for a few minutes, it seemed as if the tie was destined to be ripped away from us.  It probably would have been all over had the shot which ricocheted off Keogh’s noggin and clipped the underside of the bar been a few millimetres lower and nestled.  The margins between success and failure are always thinner than you think and on this occasion, they were as gossamer.

Lucky breaks don’t matter unless you capitalise on them, though.  And when, after the greatest substitution in football history, Marriott gleefully gobbled up a freebie put on a plate for him by Kiko Casilla – who is quite mad – I have to inform you that I charged up and down the aisles, screaming “COME ONNNNN” at anybody within range.  I was not smiling. I was possessed in that moment.  And everyone was screaming right back at me.  That devil was in all of us and from that moment on, we all believed that it could happen.

And so it felt natural enough when Mount levelled the tie within seconds of the restart.  Because it was happening, basically. After one of Derby’s four goals, I took an elbow in the kisser – I think it was when Wilson buried his penalty, a la Sam Winnall.  Wilson went to his own right, this time – Casilla had done his homework and dived the way Wilson usually goes.  What a player Harry is – regardless of the centre backs’ ever-presence and consistency, I stand by my vote for him as player of the season.

I think Mount’s goal was my favourite of the four.  When that went in, it didn’t matter who you were – black, white, Asian, young, old, you were getting hugged.  A pile of Derby fans rolled out of the aisle and arrived at my feet and I think I was standing on the seat above them, or surely not standing on them, or… floating?

Tom Huddlestone was introduced to try to shore things up, but Leeds levelled it up on aggregate straight away. Oh, for an away goals rule.  A lad next to me, hands behind his head, had a thousand-yard stare that wouldn’t have looked out of place in ‘Nam.  At times, Leeds were slicing through our midfield much too easily for comfort and extra time could have been a real test – which is why it was so utterly brainless of their defender Gaetano Berardi – already on a yellow – to go sliding recklessly into a challenge that wasn’t even in the same timezone as the ball and get himself dismissed.  Thank you very much, you utter bellend. Of course, Berardi wouldn’t even have been playing had Pompous Jansson, who spent the pre-Pride Park press conference bragging that he would play in a wheelchair if necessary, had been declared fit enough to start.

Still, Leeds tried to play their way through Derby, but a Rams winner was on the cards, with Wilson striking the inside of the post before that sumptuous finish from Marriott proved a fitting end to the tie.  We don’t have anybody else who would have scored that goal – he was born to score and I absolutely love him.  I have been worrying and worrying about his spell on the bench and praying for him to come back into the side.  It is a surprise to absolutely nobody that his goal took us to Wembley – all he needed was that one chance.

To walk into that ground without even a thought of Wembley, but to have been galvanised immediately and believed so strongly with a group of people and to see it unfold in the manner it did was staggering.   My voice was utterly shot by the 300th rendition of Joy Division, but it didn’t matter.   Eventually, I just stood there miming the injection of the overwhelming atmosphere into my veins


For the supporters to generate the atmosphere they did and to celebrate with the team, manager, staff and chairman as they did is a moment that has to mean something bigger than just that one night at the Home of Hubris.  It is a moment for us to build on as a club, regardless of what happens at Wembley – yes, Wembley, let it sink in.

Remember Chris Martin talking about “the monster of expectation”? Last night was the opposite of that.  I can’t speak for others, but I felt truly liberated by not expecting a thing.

Which was why the post-game celebration was so wonderful.  To see Lampard stride forward and pump his fist at the fans in the manner of a man who felt and meant it with every fibre of his being and then, inevitably, give us The Bounce – this moment of togetherness has to mean something more than just a great, historic victory.

Regardless of the result at Wembley, the way in which everyone – players, staff, manager, chairman/owner, supporters – were so tightly bonded has to have a meaningful legacy.  It has to be a platform that we build on as a club for seasons to come. 

If we lose in the final, so be it – the cash from the play-off final gate receipts will at least be a bit of a boost for the transfer kitty and we go again. 

If we win, then that is a different story altogether. But that is a big if. 

It is also a subject for a different article (and maybe for a podcast, too…)

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