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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All you need is love – Derby County v Leeds United play-off preview

Truth be told, I didn’t expect us to get this far.  Certainly not when I realised at the end of March that to reach 73 points – the long-term average tally for sixth place – Derby required two points per game from their remaining fixtures.  A sudden acceleration to automatic promotion form from a side which had never been consistent in 2018/9 felt like too much to hope for.  True, we had a run of mouthwatering home games to come against some of the division’s basketcases, but there were plenty of tough away assignments too.  We had been the definition of ‘there or thereabouts’, without ever stringing together many wins.  So why should it suddenly happen now?

Well, it did.  In the final nine games, Derby collected an impressive 18 points – two per game, the magic number.  They plundered goals ruthlessly against Rotherham and Bolton, before scrambling past QPR in a frenzy of raw emotion.  Yes, they tripped over their feet away from home – throwing three leads away at Brentford, remaining in their trailer for the duration of an awful loss at Blackburn, not quite good enough to hang on at Swansea – but they showed big, hairy balls to withstand the challenge of Bristol City and come away with the win in a genuine six-pointer at Ashton Gate.  In doing so, they left themselves in command of their own destiny on the final day, against a West Brom side whose motivation to win could have gone either way and totally evaporated after Harry Wilson’s penalty made it 3-1.

For Leeds United, third place – which I’ll bet they’d have snapped your hand off for at the start of the season – has turned out to be a bitter disappointment.  They were the early pretenders to the Championship title, starting strongly before really hitting their stride with seven straight league wins from the end of November to Boxing Day.  In January, they eviscerated Derby on a Friday night at Elland Road and although the score was only 2-0, it was one of the most complete  Championship performances I’ve seen.  It seemed that there would be no stopping them – that the legendary Marcelo Bielsa had wrought another squad into a ferociously competitive unit, with boundless energy to press the ball, plus the quality to play silky football once they had it. 

LEEDS UNITED 2 (Roofe 20, Harrison 47) DERBY COUNTY 0

WHITES (4-1-4-1):
Peacock-Farrell; Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Alioski; Forshaw; Clarke (Davis 79), Hernández, Klich, Harrison (Shackleton 63); Roofe

RAMS (4-3-3):
Carson; Wisdom (Nugent 46), Keogh, Tomori, Lowe; Mount, Evans (Jozefzoon 61), Bryson; Lawrence, Marriott (Waghorn 73), Holmes
 
Leeds’ side has not changed hugely since January.  They brought in the experienced Kiko Casilla from Real Madrid to replace academy product Bailey Peacock-Farrell in goal.  Holding midfielder Kalvin Phillips was absent that day, but has been otherwise almost ever-present.  Gjanni Alioski, who played as an attacking left back at Elland Road, is injured and Bielsa has struggled to find somebody to nail down the slot in his absence – another converted winger, Stuart Dallas, played there at Ipswich.  Kemar Roofe, who scored in both league encounters with Derby this season, has recently recovered from injury and returned to the starting line-up, in place of the suspended Patrick Bamford. 

When you look at the Derby side from that January evening, on the other hand, it is significantly different from the one which, injuries allowing, is likely to play tomorrow.  Of the starting XI from Elland Road, only Keogh, Tomori, Mount, Lawrence and possibly Holmes if fit can be expected to turn out again tomorrow.

Jayden Bogle has seen off the cumbersome Andre Wisdom to become Lampard’s chosen right back.  George Evans played the holding role that day, in one of a handful of unimpressive midfield appearances from a player who was threatening to go the way of Julien de Sart, before his redemptive emergency centre back duties during the run-in.  Johnson has taken the slot for the run-in. Max Lowe started at left back, but had a difficult time and was sent back to Aberdeen for a second loan spell within days.  Jack Marriott has been dropped for Martyn Waghorn (who at least put in one satisfyingly meaty challenge during his brief sub appearance – more than anybody else had done up to that point).  Florian Jozefzoon came on as second change at Elland Road, but has dropped entirely out of the picture since, with Mason Bennett now acting as Lampard’s go-to ‘super sub’.

On top of all that, there was no Harry Wilson.  Determining whether Wilson was fit or not was of course a key piece of information that Bielsa wanted to gather by sending a spy to snoop on Derby’s training sessions ahead of the game. 

So, while Derby will play basically the same system as they did in January, the starting XI will be a different animal and should – touch wood – be considerably more able to compete with Leeds, both in and out of possession.  

That is not to make light of Leeds’ threat.  Pablo Hernández is their obvious star, floating wherever he likes and contributing a dozen goals, plus a dozen assists.  Ever-present Polish midfielder Mateusz Klich has ten goals and eight assists to his name.  Liam Cooper, Pompous Jansson, Luke Ayling and Kalvin Phillips have been the defensive bedrock and Bielsa acknowledges that their quality is the main reason that Leeds didn’t fall further off the promotion pace.  They conceded 50 goals in the regular season, a record bettered only by Sheffield United and Middlesbrough (Derby conceded 54).

Leeds dominate the ball to an extreme level (59.7% average possession, by far the highest in the division), create a lot of chances (17.2 shots per game, by far the highest in the division) and create much better quality chances than Derby (ten shots within the penalty area per game, compared to just seven for Derby).  Neither team had a twenty-goal striker this season, although Roofe might have got there had he played more.  Bamford, who will be available for the second leg at Elland Road, chipped in with nine goals in Roofe’s absence. They have done almost everything right, as Bielsa points out when referring to his side’s statistical dominance even in games they have lost.

But with the Premier League beckoning, they choked in the final stretch.  Their defeat at home against ten-man Wigan on Good Friday – they even took the lead, before throwing it away – was unfathomable, before an impish Brentford, who can be brilliant on their day at Griffin Park, gleefully played the part of spoilers by beating them 2-0. 

Then came chaos in the infamous home draw against Villa – in which Bielsa was forced to order his players to atone for their unsportsmanlike behaviour in scoring a goal after feigning to put the ball out, before Bamford was retrospectively banned for deceiving the referee.  Their error-strewn final-day embarrassment at the hands of bottom club Ipswich would have seen them drop into fourth place and a re-run against Villa, had West Brom beaten Derby.  

In the final nine games, while the Rams claimed 18 points, Leeds picked up only ten – ending the season six points shy of Sheffield United in second position. 

https://twitter.com/LUFCDATA/status/1125030762212929536

Bielsa is a deep thinker, an intellectual giant in coaching terms, who creates wonderful football teams.   He has some thirty years of managerial experience to draw on, on top of a lifetime of intense football obsession.  But that intensity clearly leads him to brood on things that go wrong – hence his cross response to an obviously silly question from a journalist about whether he would spy on Derby again, then his announcement that his team will not kick the ball out if a Derby player goes down injured in these matches.  This is his way of ensuring that there is no repeat of the farce against Villa (as it happens, I agree with him that it should be the down to the referee to stop the game or not).  

That intensity and drive to push his players to new heights has been a double-edged sword throughout his career.  Ander Herrera recently gave an interview about to Graham Hunter about the season when Bielsa’s Athletic made it all the way to two cup finals, only to lose them both. As reported at Training Ground Guru, he told Hunter:-

“We had three or four months when we were literally flying, from November to February/ March, we were unbeatable. I talked to Alexis (Sanchez). He faced us when he was at Barcelona and said ‘my god, how much you guys were running’.  No-one was able to run as much as us, it was impossible.

“It is quite a romantic view about football, but I can’t lie to you, in the last months we couldn’t even move.  We had five games to play in the league and were in two cup finals and I think we lost all of them.  Our legs said ‘stop’.  We used to play always with the same players and were not at our best in the finals.  We were a completely different team than we had been before because, to be honest, we were physically fucked.

“We couldn’t run any more….And if you see the stats, Bielsa used to play with the same players… so you can imagine how we finished the season.

“I am not blaming the manager, because he did amazing for us and we should be very thankful because of the beautiful football, but the last month we couldn’t even move and that is the reality.”

In our dugout, Lampard may still be in the early stages of his coaching career, but he spent his playing career in winning environments, surrounded by serial winners.  He is more than used to being a key figure in the dressing room before the biggest of all cup finals.  And he has learned a lot in a short space of time – not least how to adapt his plans to build a team which may not perfectly suit his personal preferences, but which gets the best out of the resources available to him.

Derby’s most obviously lethal striker has been left out for balance reasons, with the sturdy Waghorn preferred (and repaying Lampard’s faith with nine league goals, in a run of increasingly confident performances).  David Nugent clambered off the bench when Waghorn suffered an achilles injury against West Brom – and so would seem to be in Lampard’s thoughts as the deputy of choice, should Waggy not recover in time.  That would be a big decision, if it comes to it – but Lampard has not shied away from those and has got more right than wrong over the course of the season. 

He discarded Tom Huddlestone, Derby’s gifted midfield technician, in favour of Johnson, an inferior ball player with better physical qualities.  Scott Carson, the club’s undisputed number one for a long time, has been dropped for the rookie Kelle Roos, who grabbed the chance and blossomed.  Perhaps his biggest decision had a disastrous short-term effect – fielding a dramatically weakened team at Villa Park to rest players ahead of a home triple-header against Wigan, Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke.   That didn’t quite work out, but was part of a policy of squad rotation, presumably designed to prevent the kind of burnout which Bielsa risks through his strict dependence on a small core group who play as often as possible.

Lampard has now identified an increasingly coherent team from a squad of players with obvious flaws and only partly of Lampard’s own design.  I don’t think that Johnson, for example, is a player Lampard would have signed, but the manager has nevertheless got something resembling a tune out of him and it’s hard to see him being left out of the side on Saturday.  He will be there, causing me to have kittens whenever he receives the ball, but also sitting behind the attack-minded five, hopefully winning his headers and disrupting Leeds’ attacking patterns – and, again hopefully, not getting sent off for biting anyone.

Interceptions per game

Jansson 2.3
Cooper 2.3
Johnson 1.7
Tomori 1.6
Malone 1.5
Phillips 1.4
Ayling 1.2
Keogh 0.9
(Huddlestone 0.9)

Lampard first hit upon the template for his best team in that brilliant week back in October, against Sheffield United, West Brom and Middlesbrough. Injuries and fixture congestion have not always allowed him to field that team, or at times anything like it – and he struggled to identify an effective “Plan B”, particularly after losing Mason Mount.  But all being well, he can execute near enough his ‘Plan A’ on Leeds this weekend and see whether Bielsa’s players can deal with it. 

Leeds will be briefed to the eyeballs – they will have had Bielsa’s dossier drummed into them back to front.  Other than the fact of which players are fit and training for the game on this occasion, there is nothing they won’t know about Derby.  But knowing and doing are two separate things.

Nobody has ever questioned Bielsa’s status as a coach, but his puritanical intensity has burned out bigger clubs than Leeds before and for Derby, the hope is that what happened to Athletic under his management will happen again. 

After Leeds’ defeat to Wigan, Bielsa told the press:

“Remember what I say now because you’ll be able to verify it. You won’t find a single player in our team who would be able to reproduce the same level of performance in another season because we’ve been very demanding with them.

“They’ve given everything and they have figures I’m checking all the time which show what I’m saying is true. The players won’t be able to reproduce the levels they have shown in another season.”

As the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Leeds scribe Phil Hay has pointed out, there was a similarly downbeat message from Bielsa after the Brentford defeat, when he talked about how his squad had masked their ‘hidden limits’ to overachieve through sheer physical effort. 

In his pre-match press conference, Leeds captain Pompous Jansson chose to talk to the press about hate.  What has been notable this season is how often Lampard, on the other hand talks above love.  One of his earliest headline-capturing comments as Rams manager was his gushing declaration of love for Bennett – it is a word he uses all the time.  Even in his conversation with Rams TV before this game, he talked to Colin Gibson about his love for the game in general, in the context of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur’s dramatic Champions League comebacks.  He came out at Derby’s lowest points in the season to rail against what he saw as the ‘negativity’ surrounding the club, without ever naming names, but swiping at dark shadows lurking in the corners, trying to clear the air and get everyone together and pulling in the same direction.

Of course, Derby v Leeds is not as simple as love v hate, good v evil, light v shade, guilelessness v cynicism.  Our lot forever sing about f***ing hating Leeds, after all (lord knows, we’re not alone in that).  But this does feel like a contest between one club which is in a positive place and another whose outlook is currently much more negative. 

Speaking for myself, I am enjoying – no, let’s just say, it, loving following Derby at the moment.  I love watching Mount, with his smart movement and skill and energy and blatant Premier League quality.  I love Wilson’s magnificent striking of the ball and how nervous he makes defences – he is the fourth most heavily-fouled player in the Championship, behind fellow dangermen Jack Grealish, Daniel James and John McGinn.  I love the emergence of Bogle as a thoroughbred modern full back, at the age of 18.  I love the fact that Roos, who was plucked from Nuneaton Borough long ago, has risen to the challenge of replacing an ex-England goalkeeper. I love Fikayo Tomori’s uninhibited passion for football.  I love the way Lawrence scythed through the West Brom defence in a way that makes me dare to dream that he is ready to step up and become a big player for the club.  I love Bennett’s absolute drive to do well and the way that Lampard has constantly encouraged him and shown belief in him.  I could go on and on. 

For Derby, if we don’t go up, well, were we ever seriously expecting it to happen this season?  For Leeds, given how they started the season, even having to play in these game clearly feels like a failure. 

As recently as mid-April, my Twitter poll found that 79% of 242 fans would rather have faced Sheffield United than Leeds at this stage.  But that fear factor has since absolutely evaporated. The psychological balance could shift very quickly, depending on how things go tomorrow.  But the way things have been going lately, right now, I would much rather be bouncing along in Lampard’s shoes than squatting pensively on Bielsa’s bucket.

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