Bye bye, Bucko – Jake Buxton leaves Derby County for Wigan

According to himself, Zlatan Ibrahimović arrived at PSG ‘like a king and left a legend’. Jake Fred Buxton, on the other hand, arrived at Derby County with a plastic bag slung over one shoulder and leaves, if not quite a legend, at least with the genuine, heartfelt thanks of every Rams fan for his seven years of honest service.

Remember the reaction when he joined the club?  As I recall, it was mostly incredulity, bordering on contempt, from some quarters.  But Clough, of course, believed in character more than anything and was right to back Buxton – like John Brayford – to handle the jump up the league pyramid.

He was 24 then, is 31 now – and I dare say that every Rams fan with any soul will feel sad at his departure.  Derby County simply will not be the same without him.  In a world where most footballers are so different from you or I that they might as well be an alien species, Bucko was treasured for his honesty, his straight-forwardness – his reassuring, solid, yeoman-like normality.  You knew where you were with Bucko.

I will always remember with the greatest fondness that interview he gave before a Forest game, when he expressed his intention to “get in their faces and put them on their arses”. It was startling because it was so much the kind of thing that fans like to hear their players say, but which is media-trained out of them, even if they possessed the instinct.  Bucko possessed the instinct and was never taught to avoid saying anything interesting during his time at Mansfield or Burton.  He was always 100 per cent, refreshingly honest in interviews.  Back then, it was the club which was ‘on its arse’ and was in dire need of heroes.

He became a favourite talking point for Sky Sports pundits, who picked up on his ‘hands-on’ approach to marking strikers at set pieces.  He earned the ironic, but genuinely affectionate nickname ‘Buckobauer’ and the equally ironic, but equally affectionate chant of “Jake Buxton’s a football genius” (his brother deserves the chant “Jed Buxton’s a supporter liaison genius“, by the way – but alas, it doesn’t scan).

Jake was the sub who came on against Forest after the injury that ended Shaun Barker’s career and scored the winner – not knowing how to celebrate, he simply clapped his hands in sheer delight.  Everyone loved him then.  And after Clough was replaced by Steve McClaren, Buxton became an integral part of what Ramspace called the ‘champagne supernova’ of a team who went all the way to Wembley and within a minute of going to the Premier League.

But at the same time, the homespun values of dedication, professionalism and sheer effort can only take you so far.  And though it was Richard Keogh who got the criticism for the Bobby Zamora goal, it was a Buxton error which led to the cross which led to the disaster.

Bucko had reached his peak.  He may have held off the challenge of Raúl Albentosa, but in the end, a combination of injuries and the arrival of Jason Shackell limited him to the role of ‘squad man’.

His last notable act as a Ram was to clatter a blatantly goalbound Benfica forward (one of those guys who is different enough from you or I to be an alien species).  Bucko felled him like he was a lumberjack chopping down a young tree.  He thus received a yellow card – no easy feat in a friendly.  That was the moment when it seemed very clear to me that he would be leaving this summer.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was curious to see what Nigel Pearson did with the popular Buxton and am not surprised that he has not been kept around for sentiment’s sake.  All things come to a natural end and it’s the right decision to let him move on.  With a year left on his contract and no realistic hope of an extension, a transfer to Wigan Athletic offers Buxton a deserved financial reward, plus the chance to extend his Championship career and win the hearts of a new group of fans.

Derby County will not be the same without him – but change is inevitable and sometimes, it’s for the best all round.  Best of luck and thank you, Bucko.  Getting in Chris Martin’s face and putting him on his arse will not be the hardest challenge of your professional career, but I know you’ll enjoy every minute of it all the same.

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SL Benfica 4 Derby County 0 – Plenty to ponder for Pearson

Arranging articles into fun, bite-sized, ‘five reasons why…’ chunks is all the rage these days, so here you go – a bumper crop of NINE bullet points, after the first friendly game of the Nigel Pearson era ended in comprehensive defeat at the hands of the mighty Benfica.  

***

The game was too early in pre-season – It was a mismatch.  The first half-hour was embarrassingly one-sided and the second half, after a promising start, soon petered out into a procession.  For Derby, too many good players were missing, but Benfica were never a suitable opponent for a ‘mix and match’ game with two separate XIs anyway.  It was a strange fixture to take on at this stage, but hopefully, the players benefited from the warm weather training camp, the fans who made the trip enjoyed the break and Pearson now has a clearer idea of what changes he needs to make to the squad.

The squad is light in some areas – Derby have a large squad, but it is not balanced.  There is no depth at right back, or in defensive midfield, for example.  OK, the absent Chris Baird or Jamie Hanson can ‘do a job’ in either slot, but nevertheless….

Reinforcements are coming – Things may have been quiet in the market so far, but expect to see signings and departures before the start of the season.  Pearson was very clear in his post-match interview with Colin Gibson that he expects better and wants better quality than we currently have.  He said:-

“What is important for us is that, very quickly, we can affect some change…

“I knew we were going to be up against a very talented side and a very deep squad – which we haven’t got at the moment…  If we are going to make a serious challenge this season, I want to see some qualities that run right through the squad and we’ll get that.”

Will Hughes is our best player – As someone dreams wistfully of seeing Derby County compete in Europe, it was chastening to witness the technical chasm between the current squad and a Champions League club – with the exception of Hughes.  Although he was rarely given the ball, whenever he was, he threatened to make things happen. His beautifully flighted chip across the box for Darren Bent should surely have resulted in the most undeserved of equalisers for the first-half XI.  It was a moment of vision to match anything that the fleet-footed Benfica players produced.  The team must be built around this man.

Andi Weimann is super-fit – While everybody else did their standard 45 minutes, Weimann stayed out there for 85…

Andi Weimann is not a wing back – Although he certainly has the stamina, Weimann doesn’t have the defensive mindset to play as a wing back.  I think this was just a ‘needs-must’ move from Pearson and would be extremely surprised to see replicated in a competitive game.

Back four is best – The back three resonates strongly with Derby fans, because of Ígor.  If you have a player as good as the sainted Štimac to play sweeper, fine – but we don’t.  Based on the personnel currently at his disposal, I would be surprised to see Pearson field a back three again.

Chris Martin is a continental-class diver – The Wardrobe’s ability to confect a free kick is truly up there with the best in Europe.  The outraged howls he provoked from the Benfica fans were hilarious – perhaps the chat in the Faro bars afterwards was about these dastardly foreigners, coming here to cheat…

The kids are all right, but not ready – What a great experience against high-calibre opposition this was for the academy prospects who got a run-out.  Rawson, Lowe, Elsnik, Santos and Cover all showed promising signs and will hopefully develop into fine players. That said, all of them will need loan spells to get matches under their belt before they can be considered potential first-team squad members.

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Could Derby County field a diamond formation in 2016/7?

Derby’s squad is pretty big at the moment.  Of course that’s good, in some ways – we know that over the season, players get injured, or lose form and it’s always massively important to have a strong bench to turn to.

That said, as things stand, there are going to be senior pros who can’t even get into the matchday 18 on a regular basis (unless of course, there is an injury crisis.  But let’s not go there.)

Midfield is a particular issue.  Making two permanent signings, Butterfield and Johnson, to cover two long-term injuries was a curious decision and now everyone is back again, we have six senior central midfielders to choose from.

If Derby stick to the 4-3-3 they’ve played for the last couple of seasons, that would leave three from Hughes, Bryson, Hendrick, Butterfield and Johnson out of the team (assuming Thorne, when fit, features – which is a fair assumption, as he is the only senior holding midfielder).

Meanwhile, there is the age-old ‘no Plan B’ issue to chew upon.  If Martin isn’t fit, or being a bit mardy and not playing well, how do we cope?  Does Bent play up there on his own?  That’s not an ideal solution. Similarly, Blackman, expensively purchased from Reading last season (and proclaiming on arrival that he wanted to play up-front)  lacks the attributes to play as a lone striker.  Weimann, meanwhile, is a sort-of striker (Chris Spaceram described him as a ‘central attacker’ when we discussed it on the Derby County Podcast recently).

So, how about this as an alternative to 4-3-3?

On paper, I think it might work – but then again, I’ve never coached a football team, so what do I know?  Well, I do know that this system could, in theory, bring the best out of many of the players we have on the books.

We know that the two full backs are basically attackers, who will always provide attacking width.

Bryson and Hendrick are both mobile, energetic players who naturally cover a lot of ground.  With Thorne (once fit) anchoring the midfield, they would have a bit of license to roam – albeit also a duty to shuttle ‘box-to-box’, covering the defence when necessary.  They can both do that.

Then you have Hughes at the tip of the diamond, freed up to receive the ball in dangerous areas, link in with the forwards, amble into the box on those beguiling slow dribbles of his, or play his lazer guided passes.

Martin would be there to combine with the forward-thinking midfielders, or as an option for a longer ball when needed – and he would have a partner to flick the ball onto, in, for example, Darren Bent, the arch predator.  All he does is score…  And that is all he would have to do.

There will be those who know more than me who could pick holes in this proposed system – there are no wide attackers, is the obvious downside – but I think when your strength is your central midfield, maybe you should play to that.

Other people might pick Butterfield ahead of Hendrick (or Burnley might actually get serious and decide to pony up a realistic sum to buy him).  Others might opt for Johnson.

Ince isn’t included in my nominal XI above, but he likes to play the ‘number ten’ role, so he’d be at home in this formation too.  In a home game against a particular defence-minded team, Hughes could even drop back into the ‘controller’ role, with Ince further up, in the freer role.

Weimann, Russell or Blackman could play with Martin in a front two, instead of Bent – and you would arguably get more out of them that way than if they start wider.

The only player in the squad who would struggle to find a place in this system is poor old Razza Camara – but he could still be a useful option to come on and add width, if required.

The more I look at this ‘on-paper’ formation, the more I like it.  Of course, I could be completely wrong, but I don’t see any reason why Pearson wouldn’t try something along these lines at some point in pre-season.

We shall see.  Saturday marks the start of a new era.  Nigel, it’s over to you….

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A few thoughts on the Derby County Podcast pre-season special

I was really pleased that Joel Clyne asked me to take part in a season preview Derby County Podcast, alongside Chris Smith (Ramspace) and Jonathan Rodgers (@popsider).

The discussion was good, but as is always the way with these things, there were a couple of things I didn’t get the chance to say – so thought I’d do a mop-up piece here, to be read alongside the audio.

I didn’t say as much as the other guys on Pearson.  Joel, Chris and Jonathan are all highly positive about the appointment and I agree that it was logical and sensible.  Even my reservations about his character have been mitigated somewhat by the identity of his number two, the excellent Chris Powell.

One point I did want to make though is that the nature of the managerial role has changed out of sight in recent years.  Today’s managers are appointed with a brief to tackle a particular job – win promotion, steady the ship, fire-fight against relegation.  They come in almost as ‘project managers’, rather than with an eye on building an institution.  The clubs insulate themselves from the possibility of a new Clough or Ferguson or Wenger coming along, in some ways.  They cannot allow a manager to take complete control.  The sums of money involved in the myriad sponsorship deals and the recruiting of star ‘assets’ (players) are too vast to allow for a new breed of Cloughian ‘perfect dictator’ to emerge, motivated solely by thoughts of footballing glory and acting as a law unto himself.

Since Arthur Cox, we’ve had almost as many managers as we did in the first hundred years of the club’s history.  More, if you count the interim guys!

Derby County had 16 managers in its first 100 years and 13 in the past 32 years.

So, it seems unlikely to me that Pearson will still be at Derby in five years’ time – maybe not even in three.  He’ll come in, hopefully do the job he’s been hired to do and, fingers crossed, will leave the club in a better position than it is in now.

Judging from the way that the pressure got to him in 2014/5, he may not be the right man to stabilise us in the Premier League – but let’s worry about that after we finally get there.

***

In his first round of interviews, Pearson never used the word ‘Academy’ once, that I heard – and I found that interesting, given that Clement was reportedly sacked, in part, for not being sufficiently focused on the academy.

The cue I took from this omission was that there has been a pragmatic acceptance by the club that if we’ve got academy players who are good enough to be in the squad, great – but if we don’t, that also has to be OK.  You can’t have an inflexible target that six or eight of the 22-man squad will be academy products by a certain point in time – it isn’t realistic.  If Pearson doesn’t think that Jamie Hanson is ready, for example, he won’t play him – and he won’t be sacked for it, either.

The academy should be churning out a good standard of young professionals all the time, but it probably won’t be the case that a really top player is produced every year, or even every two or three years.  How often does a Will Hughes come along?

The point of having a strong academy in a strong club is that whenever a Hendrick, Huddlestone or Hughes does crop up, the Rams can offer them a career path – and are not in a situation where the starlet has to be quickly sold, to balance the books, or feels the need to leave for a club that can meet their ambitions.

The progress of Hughes and Hendrick under Clough was partly down to necessity.  We didn’t have loads of money to spend on players at the time.  You can’t have your cake and eat it – you either put up with their growing pains and have an inconsistent team, or you buy experienced players who have developed elsewhere.  Derby have gone for the latter option.

By the way, I suspect that Hughes will depart if we don’t go up this season.

***

As Chris and Jonathan alluded to, the appointment of Pearson signals a major cultural shift for the club.

I was leafing through Jonathan Wilson’s biography of Brian Clough before we recorded the podcast and noticed a story that felt oddly relevant to the situation today.

Under Tim Ward in the 1960s, Derby had, as they do now, a popular player named Buxton.   Cromford-born Ian Buxton played up front and was a throwback to the glory days of the amateur sportsman.  Once the football season finished, he donned his whites and turned out for Derbyshire County Cricket Club.  Buxton had an agreement with the Rams that he could play the full cricket season for Derbyshire, then have a two-week break before reporting back to the Baseball Ground – meaning that he missed the start of the football season.

Clough quite rightly pointed out that this was madness and had to stop – and Buxton was promptly sold to Luton Town.

I wonder what Pearson’s attitude to today’s “Bucko” will be?  Will he indulge the cult hero – now 31 and entering the final year of his contract – and keep him on the books, even if he clearly isn’t going to be first choice, or will he let him leave, despite his popularity with supporters?

***

Chris and Jonathan both mentioned 4-4-2 as a possibility, but I think it’s very difficult to organise the current squad into that formation.  We have four extremely good central midfielders (Thorne, Hughes, Bryson, Hendrick) and I don’t see how you could leave two of them out, or shoehorn one of them onto the wing.  That doesn’t even reckon in Johnson or Butterfield – and, although Chris pointed out that Johnson could play on the left of a four, that would still leave no less than three good central midfielders with no place in the starting line-up.

This is a squad currently configured to 4-3-3 – not even 4-2-3-1, as we only have one genuine holding midfielder, in Thorne.

Of the wide players at the club, Russell and Weimann could probably ‘do a job’ on either flank of a midfield four – maybe Camara, too, who knows? – but I don’t think you’d be getting the best out of them that way.

Perhaps (and I’m speculating here) we could try a diamond formation, with Thorne, Bryson, Hendrick and Hughes playing behind two strikers.  Now, that might be interesting….

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Roundheads v Cavaliers – the debate over which way Derby County should turn in their manager search

If Twitter is anything to go by, the majority of Derby fans – 58 per cent of 753 I polled – see Nigel Pearson as the most appointable of the four men reported last weekend by the Mirror to be on the club’s shortlist.

Roberto Martínez, a surprise new addition to the field, came second with 22 per cent. Former bookies’ favourite Gary Rowett was third, with 17 per cent.  ‘The interim one’, Darren Wassall, came fourth, with three per cent of the vote.

I assume that those who favour Pearson are well aware of what the BBC’s Pat Murphy has referred to as his ‘charge-sheet‘ – the list of incidents from 2014/5, a season which ended with his dismissal from Leicester City:-

Nigel Pearson tells a Leicester fan to ‘fuck off and die’

Pearson calls a journalist ‘an ostrich’, ‘stupid’ and ‘daft’

Pearson grabs James McArthur around the throat on the touchline

People react to pressure in very different ways and it’s impossible to fathom how difficult the pressure of managing in the Premier League must be.  Your every decision scrutinised, filmed, replayed.  We would all make dicks of ourselves, from time to time.

However, at any job interview, Pearson would presumably have to explain these repeated outbursts and misdemeanours – and they are not easily explicable.  They are embarrassing to say the very least and, as a totality, quite alarming.

(Martínez has never transgressed in any of these ways, nor is he likely to – although he was recently filmed dancing like a pillock at a gig.)

It matters how managers talk to journalists.  Nigel Clough lost a lot of fans’ respect through the tone of some of his post-match interviews; Steve McClaren’s failure to publicly commit to Derby properly after reported interest from Newcastle became a festering sore and I, for one, never forgave Wassall for the way he responded to perfectly reasonable questions from Owen Bradley, after the Rotherham debacle.

It also very much matters how managers speak to the fans, of course.  And it matters whether a manager can keep a lid on his emotions on the touchline.

But putting those incidents aside, purely in football terms, there’s no doubt that Pearson did an excellent job for Leicester.  I guess the Pearsonites would say – who cares if he has an edge to him?  Maybe you need that.  Nice guys finish last, football is a man’s game, if you can’t take the heat… and so on.

That said, it can’t be ignored that after Pearson was sacked, Claudio Ranieri arrived and – without verbally or physically attacking anyone – took the team he inherited to the Premier League title.  Maybe nice guys can win, after all.

As I’ve said before, I think Pearson is likely to take over at Aston Villa, a club rotten to the core and in desperate need of a clearout and rebuild.  Their fans, I think, need to feel that there is a sergeant major in there, laying down the law, issuing bollockings and dragging the club back onto its feet again through sheer force of personality.

While Pearson has been criticised for behaving aggressively in the face of criticism, Martínez has been derided for being unrealistically positive in the face of worrying performances and deteriorating form.  Last month, the BBC’s Phil McNulty said: “Martínez’s permanent positivity is his trademark – but to maintain it, even exaggerate it, during this dreadful campaign has led to widespread criticism and mockery from Everton’s fans.”

Unlike Pearson, who seems to have been perceived as a better manager every time Ranieri’s Leicester won another game, Martínez has the disadvantage of having been sacked recently and his stock has fallen a lot since the early days at Everton.  It’s not so long since Michael Cox, of Zonal Marking, was raving about Martínez’s ‘strategic brilliance‘, as his exciting side cut through all-comers in the Premier League.  “[Martínez] is consistently praised for his overall football philosophy, demanding ball retention and positive attacking play, but he’s a methodical tactician too”, said Cox, in December 2014.

On the other hand, plenty has been made of the following extract from Leon Osman’s autobiography (yes, he’s written one):

‘It’s rare for us to work on set-pieces.  You’re given your roles, you’re supposed to understand them and if you don’t, find out, think for yourself.  That was a big changeover for us [from working under David Moyes].

‘We questioned why we weren’t working on set-pieces and Graeme Jones, the assistant manager, said: “How many do you have to defend in a game?  Three?  So why would we spend two hours standing around to defend three set-pieces when we could work on moving the ball.”‘

It’s a purist’s vision and, after a brilliant start, it ultimately failed at Everton, where a team blessed with lavish ability simply could not keep the ball out of their net often enough to succeed.

Yet even this season, amid fan unrest over terrible home form in the league, Everton reached the semi-finals of both domestic cups.  Funnily enough, I watched Wigan’s FA Cup triumph with a Latics fan and he just couldn’t stop laughing and repeating: “Wigan have won the FA Cup!”  Over and over again.  It was the most unlikely of triumphs.  Days later, the trophy winners were relegated from the Premier League.

I think if Martínez was appointed, he would build the team around Hughes.  Perhaps he would import his 4-2-3-1 system, allowing Will to roam free with Thorne and another defensively minded midfielder shoring it up, while the two full backs storm forward. Which is an exciting prospect, on paper.  A tabloid report recently suggested that the players, when canvassed, thought Martínez would be a good choice.  When he left Wigan to take over at Everton, Dave Whelan said he would suit the Toffees because “he plays football from back to front”.  Isn’t that the Derby Way, too?

Style is important to Mel Morris, apparently.  He didn’t like Paul Clement’s approach and part of his sacking, I think, was the way he couldn’t seem to get a bravura performance out of the boys in the big games – defeat at Nottingham Forest, for example, or at home against Leeds and particularly the FA Cup tie against Manchester United (although that would be a harsh judgement, given the strength of the United team that day).  We lost those games without ever showing enough attacking intent to look like winning them.

I don’t think that would be an issue under Martínez, who, in January, said:

“My philosophy and my way of working is not to keep clean sheets, my philosophy is to win games…  As a manager, I want to defend, but would I base the performance on wanting to keep a clean sheet?  No.  I base the performance on getting on the ball, having a big role, dictating and having a positive approach and scoring goals…

“Other managers prefer to be defensive, give you the ball and then there’s always an error.  What I like is an action that’s about winning games and achieving things.”

Pearson is probably perceived as one of those ‘other managers’ – but he is far from being a tactically inflexible 4-4-2 merchant.  According to whoscored.com, he set up his 2014/5 Leicester side in no less than eight starting formations last season – yes, he used 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 much of the time, but he also deployed a back three with success and occasionally used a midfield diamond, 4-3-3, or an ultra-defensive 5-4-1.

An analysis of some of the key metrics for Pearson and Martínez last season shows that they performed pretty much on a par with each other.  Both finished broadly where their club’s wagebills suggested that they might – Leicester just above the bottom three, Everton in mid-table.

The biggest difference is in the two managers’ relative possession and pass success stats. Leicester, famously, were and are a counter-attacking, sit-and-wait side, whereas Everton did their best to dominate the ball.

I’ve found the debate about who would be the right choice really interesting.   On the one hand is a man who can be quite easy to take the piss out of, while on the other is a man you cross at your peril – to the point where Pat Murphy told him, perfectly reasonably, that he was in danger of being seen as a ‘bully’.  “Have you considered taking anger management classes?”  Murphy asked Pearson, after ‘Ostrichgate’.

Perhaps Martínez, with his belief in passing football and his propensity for describing hitherto unheralded players as ‘phenomenal’ and as among the greatest ever, could give the Rams the injection of self-belief they need, letting them off the leash to take the Championship by storm.  Or perhaps, they need a ‘disciplinarian‘ like Pearson to brook no arguments and demand results and performances, ‘sorting out’ those who do not have a strong enough mentality to succeed in the process.

People will continue to be split on that – but my poll, at least, suggests that the majority favour the iron fist over the velvet glove.

 

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