Derby County squad review 2016/7: Goalkeeper and defence

Throughout the season, Derby maintained a decent defensive record, which was unfortunately undermined by their difficulties with defending set plays.  This was in part down to having a relatively small, slight midfield and frontline who struggled to mark bigger opponents.

About one third of league goals Derby conceded were from corners and free kicks, which is beyond annoying, because the amount they conceded from open play – 30 – was among the lowest in the division.

The latter fact was at least in part due to the excellence of the goalkeeper, who swept the board by taking all the available awards this season.  And with only three senior centre backs on the books, three specialist left backs and two right backs with completely different styles, there are plenty of important recruitment decisions for Rowett to make in this department.

Scott Carson (31)

No arguments with his Player of the Year award.  Carson has done a terrific job this season.  Goalies can go on almost forever these days and hopefully, in Carson, we have a dependable long-term number one.

Richard Keogh (30)


A part of the furniture at Derby – and that may not be such a good thing, given the need for a refurbishment.  Still only 30, Keogh will hope to survive any squad cull, but his recent struggles against (for example) Jota, Colin Quaner and Nouha Dicko did not bode well. Not the quickest and not the strongest – Rowett needs to decide whether Keogh is the man to captain his side to promotion, or whether fresh leadership is required at the back instead.

Alex Pearce (28)


Became something of a cult hero on the back of his unusual career trajectory at the club and deserves credit for his determination to work his way back into contention, after spending so long in the wilderness.  However, his limitations began to show after a run of games.  He lacks pace and this is an issue – note how clumsy he was made to look in conceding crucial penalties against Cardiff and Blackburn – plus he never looks at all comfortable on the ball, which is not an added extra in the modern game.

Cyrus Christie (23)


A player who divides opinion like no other at the club.  I’ve also thought he has real potential, whereas others, including some observers whose opinion I absolutely respect, think he is hopeless.

For what it’s worth, my (amateur) reading of the available statistics make him look like one of the best full backs in the Championship, in terms of all-round impact.  To compare, here is the radar for the much-hyped Leeds left back Charlie Taylor, who is roughly the same age as Christie and is currently being linked with a move to West Brom:-


Christie hasn’t featured much under Rowett so far and is down to the final year of his contract, so the manager needs to decide whether to cut him loose, or show faith.  This may ultimately depend on what kind of interest there is from other Championship clubs – if he is available, I expect that this will be considerable.

Chris Baird (35)


A player who won over many Rams fans this season, his ‘Indian summer’ a rare positive from a generally glum year.  Despite the pressing need to make room for his own signings and also for fresh blood – younger, quicker players with more energy – Rowett made positive noises about Baird’s versatility and chose to keep him around.

However, as he reaches the end of a very solid career, Baird isn’t going to provide the ‘athleticism’ that Rowett says he wants and I would expect him to be a back-up option – either Christie or somebody else will probably play the majority of minutes at right back, with Baird acting as cover when required.

Marcus Olsson (28)


Put bluntly, he isn’t a strong defender and isn’t particularly impressive going forward either.  Given the emergence of Max Lowe and the pending return of Craig Forsyth, the unspectacular Swede seems a likely candidate for the exit.

FORSYTH 2014-5

Max Lowe (20)

Long considered the next cab off the Academy rank, Lowe finally featured in the first-team picture in earnest this season. If we are serious about youth development, then bringing through the unicorn of an actual English left back should be our top priority – not only does he has the potential to be our first choice in this most vexed of positions long-term, he could also become a serious asset for the club, if his current trajectory continues.

Jason Shackell (33)

If fit, Shackell is a fine centre back and unquestionably our most talented defender – a “Rolls Royce”, as Shaun Barker memorably described him.

The problem is that Shackell was signed with immediate promotion in mind, but the deal he was given was daft – too long and, if what I was told from the Burnley end is right, too lavish.  Injury destroyed his season and it’s not clear whether Shackell will be a part of Rowett’s plans – but also not easy to see how he could be shifted before the end of his contract in 2018, if he isn’t.

Jamie Hanson (21)


Jamie had plenty of defending practice at Wigan, whose season ended in disaster.  His effort has never been in question, as JJ from Wigan blog The Three Amigos attests:-

In the January window, Wigan’s beleaguered manager Warren Joyce made thirteen new signings, including seven loans…  Sadly Joyce’s signings were unable to steady a sinking ship and he was dismissed in mid-March.  Graham Barrow took over as caretaker manager, but was unable to prevent relegation…  It is only fair to look at Hanson’s loan at Wigan in this context.

It was never going to be easy for a young player coming in on loan to a struggling team.  In fact, some of the loanees hardly featured.  It is to Hanson’s credit that he went on to make more appearances than any of the other loanees – 14 starts, plus 3 as a substitute.

Hanson was used as both a holding midfielder and a full back.  At times, he would distinguish himself with excellent tackles and interceptions.  He frequently took set pieces, for which he often showed good vision and technique.  However, like many young players, he could be good one minute, but making errors the next.  Hanson might well have been playing to orders, but he seemed reluctant to push forward….  One time he did that very effectively was at Brighton, when he put in a superb cross for Nick Powell to head home.

Hanson established himself in the team as much as any of the January signings did.  He could not be faulted for effort.  Whether he will ever graduate to become a top player at Championship level or above remains to be seen.

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Derby County squad review 2016/7: The midfield

This is part two of a three-part series.  Part one covered the attackers.  Here’s an explanatory note on the radar graphs.  

Will Hughes (22)

It hasn’t been a great campaign for young William, by his own high standards. Nevertheless, flashes of his brilliance shone through and the problems he encountered could well have been more to do with the chaos swirling around the club than anything else.  Pearson tried to shoehorn him into a 4-4-2, McClaren picked him regardless of form or fitness – and then Rowett showed a worrying readiness to drop him, or even to introduce Butterfield from the bench before him.

Rowett’s pointed refusal to hype up Hughes is making some supporters – and I include myself in this – wonder whether the Prince of Pride Park has been placed on notice.   Rowett has made it clear that his playing style will be different to McClaren’s, having recently told Radio Derby that he has no interest in “total football” and is more inspired by pragmatic coaches like Atlético Madrid’s Diego Simeone.  In other words, there are no points for looking good – just get me results.

Hughes completed more tackles and key passes per 90 minutes than any of our other midfielders, making him the only viable candidate I can see in the squad for Steve Nicholson’s newly-coined category of “warrior-wizard” (players who can make things happen, but also look after themselves on the pitch, I guess).  He has always been a good tackler and this season, his tackles won per 90 minutes was up there with the highest for midfielders in the Championship.  And we all know about his intelligence on the ball.

He has never been a prolific goalscorer, but is markedly better in terms of providing key passes than any other of our midfielders.  And assists are not wholly within a midfielder’s power.  I think of a sumptuous lofted throughball Hughes played for Matej Vydra at Huddersfield, only for the striker to fluff his shot – a superb ball which didn’t result in an assist – then a few seasons ago, watching Tom Carroll nervously poke a two-yard pass to Gareth Bale 40 yards from goal, whereupon the great man smashed it into the net.  Technically, an assist for Carroll.  So I’d argue a player’s that frequency of key passes + assists is a more reliable measure of their creativity.

Hughes is our best midfielder by far.  With his recent captaincy of England U21s raising his profile, other clubs will be taking plenty of notice of his situation, but Rowett would be foolish to part with him for anything less than a truly blockbusting sum of money – and even then, with the understanding that he is irreplaceable.

Rowett has a mandate for change.  I just hope he doesn’t throw the baby out, while retaining copious amounts of bathwater.

Bradley Johnson (30)

Johnson does my head in, because he is maddeningly sloppy.  However, he has physical qualities sorely lacking elsewhere in the team and Rowett has expressed his desire to see the big man marauding forward more.  While no role can totally mask Johnson’s technical deficiencies, it makes much more sense to use him further up the pitch than it ever did to field him as a holding midfielder, where his lapses of concentration or touch make him something of a liability.

The radar doesn’t include the measure of his undoubted aerial prowess – Johnson is among the best midfielders in the Championship at winning headers.  However, it also omits the damning fact that he played almost ten inaccurate short passes for every 90 minutes he was on the pitch.

If Rowett can find a way to get the best out of Johnson next season, I will tip my hat to him.

Jacob Butterfield (26)

Butterfield’s bitty, seemingly terminal season was rescued at the death by Rowett, who enthused almost boundlessly about the player after using him in the holding role against Wolves.  Could it be that McClaren had simply been using Butterfield and Johnson the wrong way around the whole time?  Surely it couldn’t be that simple…  Could it?

Well, no.  We shouldn’t read too much into a couple of dead rubbers at the end of the season and Butterfield’s relative lack of defensive output does not point to an obvious role for him in front of the back four – certainly not in matches against stronger sides, or away games in general.  However, as Rowett pointed out, his range of passing is pretty good, so playing him in a deeper role in matches we are likely to dominate could be a useful option (and may even limit his unhelpful habit of shooting from long distance).

Craig Bryson (30)

Largely ignored by McClaren, Bryson was instantly restored to the team by Rowett, but unfortunately the evidence suggests that he is no longer the player he was in Mac’s first spell.  When you break it down, he hasn’t contributed as much as we’d all have hoped for this season – certainly not as much as his barnstorming best season, way back when.

Bryson 2013-4
It seems a long time now since Bryson was on the verge of a move to Burnley, only for that big contract to be produced by the club at the last minute.  That deal still has two more seasons to run.

Ikechi Anya (29)


Anya has an attribute which we need – pace – and for this reason, the affable winger may well have a future under Rowett.  His is the radar of a genuine wideman, who contributes little in terms of shots, but does beat men and create chances.  He also does his share of work defensively.

Abdoul Camara (27)

Unfortunately, Camara is not good enough to cut it at this level and it is everyone’s best interests to organise a move for him this summer.  Bonne chance, Razza.

Julien de Sart (22)

Much like Omar Mascarell, de Sart played McClaren’s ‘controlling’ role without the requisite physicality to cope with the rigorous demands of the Championship.  He also lacked the necessary composure on the ball and after being badly found out at Elland Road, the brace of ‘assists’ he provided for Brighton in the 3-0 loss proved to be his final contribution in a Rams shirt.  Bonne chance, Julien.

George Thorne (24)

THORNE 2015-6

“Thorne is the key”, as my dad once said, succinctly and correctly.

Even in 2015/6, at a time when he was inching back to his best until the horrific leg-break he suffered, the radar demonstrates that his impact on games was major.  In fact, his accurate long ball tally of 6.5 per 90 minutes has broken my existing radar scale (a problem I also encountered when trying to make a radar for Jonjo Shelvey).

So, while I go back to the drawing board….  I’ll give the last word to Tommo, who summed Thorne up this way – “he can play any type of pass and is hard.”

Everything crossed.

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Derby County squad review 2016/7: The attack

Tom Ince (25)

Thank God for Ince.  He was head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of attacking contribution and without him, this disappointing season would have been even worse.  He got my vote as Player of the Year ahead of Scott Carson and is the only attacker on the books who could reasonably be expected to flush out a bid from a parachute payment-toting relegated club.  That said, he’s unlikely to want to go back to Hull – and who the hell would want to go to Sunderland? Perhaps one of his dad’s old clubs, Boro, will come calling.  If he does stay, Ince will be an integral part of Rowett’s team.

David Nugent (32)

A player who turned out to be McClaren’s parting gift to Rowett.  That Brighton were interested in signing him (albeit on loan) attested to his enduring qualities and he has been a breath of gobby, cheeky fresh air, with his hat-trick against Fulham through sheer chutzpah, leading the line with spiky directness and acting as a much-needed focal point.  I seriously question the wisdom of giving long contracts to players over 30 – and don’t expect Rowett to do so in future – but there’s no doubt that this pest of a striker has another season in him yet.

Chris Martin (28)


Martin’s loan move to Fulham – for whom he has scored ten league goals, so far – helped to scupper both Pearson and McClaren at Derby.  However, with Nugent around and Vydra as a second striker option, the Rams will no longer be wholly reliant on Martin to function as a team, as they were under McClaren.  I’ve heard it suggested that the Wardrobe may not be in Rowett’s plans – at the time of writing, it seems unlikely that Fulham will trigger their option to buy him, but there’s no doubt that many other Championship clubs would be interested, should he be available.

Darren Bent (33)


Bent will continue to do what has always done, which is poach goals – lurking around in the peripheral vision of defenders, darting left and right, but contributing almost nothing outside of the penalty area – as the radar clearly demonstrates.  He is 33 now and I don’t think there’s the slightest chance that Rowett would have chosen to retain him, had his contract extension not been confirmed during McClaren’s brief return.  Assuming efforts aren’t being made to offload him, Bent is far more likely to be used as an option from the bench than a regular starter next season.

Johnny Russell (27)

By any standards, Russell has had a poor season.  I ask myself what he adds to the team – is it goals?  Pace to penetrate behind?  Guile?  Rowett has professed his enthusiasm for a player he wanted to sign for Birmingham, but surely that’s the point.  Russell would probably be regarded a star player for a mid-table Championship team – and I often notice fans of other clubs suggesting him as a signing – but is he really good enough for a club with the professed aim of promotion?  Sentiment aside, I’m not sure he is.  Russell is a player who may just have been at the club for too long and be in need of a fresh start elsewhere. 

Matej Vydra (24)

McClaren’s inability to use Pearson’s marquee signing was a major problem, which became obvious towards the end of Mac’s ill-fated return.  Rowett on the other hand, gave Vydra a chance in his favoured number ten role and made a point of saying that he had watched back all of the Czech’s action from the Watford days, when he was one of the most feared forwards in the Championship…

VYDRA 2014-5

Remember the partnership he struck up with Troy Deeney for the Hornets?  If he can do something similar with Martin (or another tall striker) next season, the Rams could be a real force – and Popsider might even come back to us.  However, there’s no denying that this was a season for Vydra to forget.

Andreas Weimann 

If there’s the possibility of pocketing a fee for Weimann from Wolves – £1.5m, if you believe reports from the Black Country –  then that would probably be for the best all round.  While there has always been a lot of good will towards the Austrian from Derby supporters, he has failed to make much of an impression under multiple managers now and his output in old gold this year, judging from the radar at least, has been pretty limited.  Nevertheless, Wolves boss Paul Lambert wants to keep Weimann and he will probably get more opportunities to play at Molineux next season than he would at Pride Park.

WEIMANN 2015-6

Nick Blackman (27)

Blackman’s move from Reading has turned out to be a nightmare for everybody except the Royals, who pocketed an outsized cheque for his services after his short-lived goal flood in 2015/6.  


At this stage, it seems unlikely that he will still be with the club in August, as long as somebody is prepared to give him a fresh start, after another disappointing, injury-ravaged season.  What chance a return to Sheffield United?

For an explanation of the ‘radar’ graphs, see here.  Any questions, comments, or to request a radar for a different player, get in touch @derbycountyblog.

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Radar graphs – an explanatory note

Some of you may follow Ted Knutson on Twitter and have noticed his player radars.  These struck me as a brilliant way of visualising a player’s impact in games, so I decided to start working on them for Derby’s players. What I didn’t realise was that Knutson, a professional analyst who has worked for Brentford FC, makes it look a lot easier than it actually is to create the charts.  Nevertheless, I pressed naively on, using only Microsoft Excel and data sourced from

At this early stage, my efforts are very basic and there are things that I already know need improving – but it will take me a while to work that out.  In the meantime, I think they give at least a basic impression of different players’ styles and impact and hopefully, you will find them interesting.

Here is a graph of Tammy Abraham’s season, as an example (compare it to the Rams’ strikers radars and take a look at what we could have won…)

The values shown are the player’s average per 90 minutes he was on the pitch.  I haven’t provided graphs for players who played significantly less than 1,000 minutes this season – this includes Blackman, Shackell, de Sart, Camara and Lowe.  I felt that they had played insufficient minutes for ‘per 90 minutes’ values to be usefully produced.


Non-penalty goals – Penalty goals are excluded – I bow to Knutson on this.  His reasoning is that penalties result in goals about 75-80% of the time, pretty much regardless of who takes them, so he strips them out.

Chances created – The player’s combined total key passes + assists

Key passes
– Classified by Opta as a pass which results in a shot being taken (without scoring)

Dribbles – Refers to successful dribbles, not total attempts

Int + tackles – The player’s combined total interceptions and successful tackles


Long balls – Successful long passes


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Derby County v Queens Park Rangers – preview Q & A for Loft For Words

I’m sure I’m not the only Derby fan who sees this tie as a sort of quasi-derby match these days.  Beating QPR will never erase the memory of what happened, but it doesn’t harm anything either and I’m always looking for a performance when we play them – keeping above them in the table feels symbolic, somehow.

Their promotion didn’t do them any good in the end and now they’re bumping along below us again, finally having got rid of the assorted shithouses who drained the club of its Premier League millions.

Clive Whittingham does sterling work over at Loft for Words and I’m always happy to answer questions for him.

(For what it’s worth, my crude amateur statistical model, The Thing, makes Derby moderately strong favourites to win tomorrow and I am highly optimistic that we will see a strong performance for Rowett’s home debut – and a morale-boosting three points.)


Clive (Loft for Words): Taking your latest weird and wonderful season in order, why didn’t it work for Nigel Pearson?  A much sought after appointment at the time…

Ollie (Yours Truly): I think Pearson’s biggest mistake was not to bring in at least a couple of his own players during the summer.  He did no business before the start of the season and was completely caught out when the squad struggled to implement his methods.  Eventually, hand forced by awful results, he sold Jeff Hendrick to sign Matej Vydra and Ikechi Anya on deadline day, while sending Chris Martin to Fulham on loan – a patently ridiculous decision.  Thus, he left himself short (literally) in midfield and with no effective presence up front as a target for the long balls he insists that his defenders hit.

His hardman, disciplinarian reputation – which many fans believed was just what our squad needed – were never going to make up for the bald fact that he had made a colossal tits of his transfer dealings.  He shouldn’t have been surprised that a team set up to play on the grass with a midfield three couldn’t adapt to a more direct style and 4-4-2 without some new faces, but he was.

I don’t know if it’s true that ‘senior players’ told Mel Morris they couldn’t work for Pearson after we lost pitifully at home to Blackburn, but he is so arrogant, charmless, inflexible and generally psychologically flawed that it wouldn’t surprise me.  I said before he joined that I thought he would have been a better appointment at Villa, whose floundering squad seemed more in need of his brand of nasty-bastard, autocratic discipline.

LFW: Why would you go back to Steve McClaren so soon after sacking him?

DCB: Morris decided that the best way to get back to the style that worked so well (until you mugged us) was to bring back the man who had implemented it in the first place.  Plus he was out of work at the time.

LFW: Having started so well, including a win at QPR, it all fell apart again – why?

DCB: There was an initial bounce when the team were allowed to go back to a midfield three, but this could only temporarily mask the fact that the squad, by now a Frankenstein’s monster of various managers’ additions, is imbalanced. The players ran out of steam badly at Christmas time and the problem then was that McClaren’s main aim for January became a failed bid to get Martin back from Fulham, while he also repeated a previous recruitment mistake by signing a fancy but flimsy youngster to play what he calls the ‘controlling’ role in midfield. Julien de Sart can do many things, but he cannot control a game of football in the Championship.  The only convincing player we’ve ever had for that position is George Thorne and Mac’s 4-3-3 has never been as good without him.

Just like in 2014/5, Mac lost his way after Christmas.  Just like in 2014/5, we started to produce truly bizarre, incompetent performances – drawing 3-3 and losing 3-4 against lesser teams brought painful memories from his last spell back to the surface, for Morris as much as the rest of us, I’m sure.  It got very messy very quickly.

LFW: McClaren’s latest sacking is a sixth change of permanent manager in little more than three years – any thoughts that maybe you should have stuck with him?  Maybe the manager isn’t the problem?

DCB: Morris caused all the instability which followed by sacking Paul Clement, who was doing absolutely fine.  He got it wrong with Pearson and he got it wrong with McClaren, but both were out of work at the time, as was Rowett.  Not paying compensation has been a factor in all of the post-Clement appointments.

For what it’s worth, I think Morris got it right with Rowett.  He was probably worried that Norwich might make a move for him, unless he got a wriggle on, which would also have been a factor in pulling the trigger.

I have to say that based on McClaren’s previous recruitment record, I didn’t have much faith in him to oversee a fairly major clear-out, which is what the club needs this summer.  But yes, it’s also clear that Morris has a gargantuan ego and has made a series of impulsive, or plain bad choices so far.  On the current trend, Rowett has until about Christmas to get it right, so we just have to hope that he hits the ground running.

LFW: Can you put your finger on exactly why Derby’s seasons keep following this pattern of high expectation, strong periods of form early in the season, then complete collapse at the end?

DCB: There are different reasons for each time.  2014/5 basically went wrong when Chris Martin got injured at Bournemouth.  We lost key midfielders to injury as well and McClaren had no idea how to cope without them.  His head had also been turned by Newcastle’s unsubtle advances, which undoubtedly destabilised the club.

2015/6 was torpedoed when Morris sacked Clement for no reason and replaced him with the unqualified Darren Wassall.  This season went wrong because Pearson was the wrong appointment in the first place.  McClaren did well to lift the team from the doldrums, but it would have been some feat to finish in the top six, bearing in mind the headstart we gave to the competition.

Getting the job done is going to take a combination of factors.  Firstly, Morris has to understand that he is not the manager and that whoever is in post probably knows what he is doing, especially if we’re fifth. If the manager is trusted and backed, then it comes down to the players doing the business and it’s clear that we need different ones, especially in midfield.

LFW: To an outsider looking in, yours looks to be a dressing room with more problem children / arseholes than you’d ideally want – Johnson, Ince, Bent.  Do the players cop any grief from the fans when it all goes tits up? Any rumoured dressing room issues?

A: Well, we certainly do need to change the squad around a bit.  Other fans would probably be more forthright than me on this issue.  What I will say is that although Ince has long been perceived as a ‘mardy’ player, his effort this season has been excellent, including an obvious improvement in his willingness to track back and defend for the team.  He will probably get my vote for Player of the Year. Unfortunately for him, his performances have probably earned him a move to Middlesbrough in the summer, poor sod…

On the other hand, Bent made a real tit of himself on Twitter recently, when he sought to defend the manager and team from what he described as ‘these fans’, who ‘make me laugh’, after yet another farcical last-minute cock-up, this time against Preston.  That really was one of those moments when ‘the mask slips’ and the carefully constructed social media image is fractured.  There is some confusion as to whether Bent will be staying at the club next season or not – McClaren’s regrettable penchant for retaining veterans means that Bent’s contract extension may already have triggered – but we’re not sure either way yet.

Bradley Johnson isn’t particularly good at football and so McClaren tried to invent a new image for him as ‘the warrior’.  He is one of several players who the club overpaid for and would be impossible to shift on for more than a fraction of what he was signed for.

So while I honestly can’t comment on whether these players are ‘arseholes’ or not, I can say that there are plenty within the squad who I do not associate with good football or good times and who I would not be sorry to see leave.

LFW: Why will it be different for Gary Rowett – who is clearly a very good manager at this level?

DCB: I think you’ve answered your own question there.  Also, I think there is a huge willingness for him to succeed from the supporters and a sense – to me at least – that he’s the right man at the right time.

He’s got no chance if Morris can’t keep a degree of distance from the club’s operations, but I genuinely believe that, if he’s allowed to, he can do a great job. He knows the division perfectly well and has proved that he can get results on a tight budget, overachieving notably at Birmingham, who looked nailed on for relegation and oblivion when he took the job there.  Given that there is general agreement that the squad needs a major refresh and there won’t be much money to throw around, Rowett’s credentials made him the outstanding candidate for the job at hand – much more so than McClaren.  The factors above *should* also lead Morris to have more patience this time.

LFW: The chairman was seen as something of a great white hope initially, has the chaos that has ensued damaged his rep at all?

DCB: Yes, of course.  He’s made a series of poor recruitment decisions which have set the club back – exactly how far back, we will understand probably by September.

I think we were all a little bit guilty of assuming that he was Messiah when he took over, but he has learned the hard way that football isn’t as simple as we all think it is from the stands.  If he can work with Rowett, there’s no doubting his financial credentials – in a sense, maybe he felt that his money had been squandered, particularly by Clement, who made some questionable signings in January 2016.

LFW: Finally, what exactly is ‘the Derby way’?

DCB: A figment of Morris’ imagination.  A naive attempt at spin, gleefully, predictably seized upon and shredded by the cynical massed ranks of pundits.  A nebulous, malodorous cloud, the whiff of which will probably take a generation to dissipate.

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