Derby County 1 Queens Park Rangers 1

It is hard to try to point out Nigel Clough’s positive legacy – Clough signings are still playing for Derby to this day and completely dominated Ryan Conway’s recent suggested Rams team of the decade – without having it thrown back at you that he was always mid-table Nige. Yes, he was, but had he ever been given £25m to spend, then we would not have ended up signing Camara, Butterfield, Blackman and Johnson. Each manager we’ve tried in recent years have had their different strengths and weaknesses. They were only human, after all.

Craig Bryson was recently interviewed by Steve Bloomer’s Washing and said that his ideal Derby manager would have been a mixture of Clough’s man-management, Steve McClaren’s coaching skills and Frank Lampard, for how much he enjoyed the experience. That makes sense to me. Clough to identify and develop players, McClaren to set a style of play, then Lampard to get everybody revved up and bouncing.

However, finding one person who combines all of those elements, would be little short of miraculous – and Phillip Cocu definitely isn’t that mythical creature.

He doesn’t have Lampard’s charm (doubtless picked up from his Uncle ‘Arry) and he is yet to hit on a playing style which lights the blue touchpaper, as McClaren did so quickly. But Cocu certainly has a sincere commitment to the club’s youngsters and, bit by bit, is promoting them into his set-up above more senior players. Morgan Whittaker, to give the most notable current example, has jumped above Florian Jozefzoon, Jamie Paterson and Kieran Dowell in the pecking order. If they have the talent, Cocu will be give them the opportunities. To throw a 19 year-old into a game in which the Rams needed to find a way through, as first change, was a brave decision from a manager who could hardly have been blamed for turning to a more experienced forward in his moment of need.

That is undoubtedly a positive. And here’s some mitigation for what was overall a very disappointing performance against QPR. The starting XI featured the back-up goalkeeper – brought in after a chicken / egg situation in which the first-choice ‘keeper became subject to fan derision and lost form – one defender making his first start of the season, two more who were third and fourth-choice centre backs (if that) at the start of the season and a midfield shorn of three players Cocu would have selected if they were available.

Cocu was criticised for making a lot of changes for this game, which I can’t really understand, because we were awful at Fulham and it would have made no sense to send the same team out. Then Krystian Bielik then pulled out in the warm-up, to be replaced by a much less commanding player in George Evans, left Cocu’s gameplan seriously disrupted. Without him, Graeme Shinnie or Tom Huddlestone available, Duane Holmes and George Evans were left to struggle, particularly during the first half, to provide an effective screen for the defence – none of whom were particularly suited to playing the passing game which Cocu favours.

Within ten minutes, Cocu had pulled Waghorn to the touchline and ordered a change of shape. Suddenly, Bogle was playing as a right winger, with Waggy on the left and fulfilling considerable extra defensive duties – with unfortunate consequences.

In short, this felt like a truly makeshift team. Cocu is struggling to get a tune out of the squad and the lack of consistency in performance levels and team selection is frustrating, but – at the risk of sounding like a broken record – this random mob was signed by many different managers for very different reasons. It is hard to expect cohesion in these circumstances, particularly given the loss of key players through injury.

This was far from the worst performance of the season, but it was yet another game in which the Rams were not dominant against opposition who were not very good. And in the 80th minute, Cocu made a decision which I will not defend him for, because I felt it was a misjudgement.

Derby had actually improved in the second half and managed to work the ball through the lines neatly on several occasions, Holmes becoming ever-more influential in carrying the ball towards the QPR area. Jayden Bogle could easily have reinstated the lead from Jack Marriott’s cross and his replacement, Whittaker, showed glimmers of his obvious potential. A league start is probably not far away for him now.

With the game grinding into its final stages, QPR’s threat became more sporadic as they hunkered down. Momentum threatened to build for the home side. Marriott seemed to have the bit between his teeth and was fizzing around the penalty area with menace – so when Chris Martin was introduced, I thought that would be perfect – a CM9 flick-on could provide Jack with the sight of goal he needed to turn the game in our favour.

So I was horrified when it turned out Martin was coming on for Marriott, while Waghorn was also withdrawn for a midfielder in Jason Knight. Given Tom Lawrence’s severe allergy to the penalty area, it was a decision which left Martin with nobody to run past him and which, in my opinion, let the Hoops off the hook. Two points dropped.

But let’s focus on the positives, because it’s easy to forget amid the doom and gloom that there are some. Derby have still only lost one home game all season and, despite the daft penalty – clumsily conceded by Waghorn in his eagerness to help the defence – the Rams have only let in seven goals at Pride Park, which is among the best defensive home records in the division. There were more minutes for Whittaker, who still looks physically slight for a Championship player, but demonstrated an excellent first touch, vision and passing range, which will make him an asset this season. Whittaker’s emergence could yet allow at least one loanee to be sent back to his parent club – hopefully facilitating another signing for one of the other areas of the squad which needs reinforcement.

And we have been told that the much-mooted investment deal, which will bring extra funds into the club while leaving Mel Morris in control, has moved a stage closer and could be finalised this month. That could be good news – depending on who it is and what this consortium’s intentions are.

Morris may have been the ‘local boy made good’, who simply wanted to plough money into his club for the love of it, but much like ideal managers, such unicorns are in scant supply. Major investments of the type needed to turn around loss-making football clubs will not come without strings attached. Certainly, there have been positive examples of people coming into clubs and doing great work, but there are plenty of horror stories to tell, too. If Mel has managed to find a genuinely respectable partner who can finally help to propel this club out of its twenty-year second division stagnation, then that will be a sensational development. I can’t help wonder, though – while remaining in the dark about the new investors’ motivations – whether Cocu’s long-term schemes and a prospective external partner’s Premier League dreams might leave Derby with yet another circle to square.

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Derby County v QPR preview, for Loft for Words

One of my annual blogging tasks is to face a proper grilling from QPR stalwart Clive Whittingham – I felt the Q & A was worthy of a re-post here, as the questions are always wide-ranging and encourage an in-depth response.

Loft for Words: How would you assess Derby’s start to the season?

Derby County Blog: I don’t really need to assess it, beyond reciting the results to you. Won 6 Drawn 6 Lost 6. It is the number not only of the beast, but also of sheer mediocrity.

We don’t have enough creativity in the squad to score a lot of goals and we aren’t solid enough defensively to grind out a run of results either. We are mid-table and we don’t deserve anything better than that, unless things change dramatically at both ends of the pitch.

Injuries are biting, while notorious and lamentable off-field shenanigans have ended Richard Keogh’s Derby career. I usually consider talk of ‘transition’ to be bullshit, but in this case, after the short-term high of the Frank Lampard Effect, following on from the rollercoaster of spending and sackings since Mel Morris bought the club in 2014, we are being left to stare at the tab, cut our cloth and nurse a metaphorical hangover while we’re at it. 

The hope is that Phillip Cocu is able to string together enough results to keep the wolves at bay while he implements a long-term project to bring through our best academy players, while shipping out the remaining holdovers from various past regimes who are still hanging around and not really doing it.

LFW: You’re on a pretty stark run of form at the moment – you win your home games to nil and you lose your away games without scoring. Why?

DCB: In truth, there has been an element of luck to the (excellent) home run. Birmingham outshot us 17-7, yet we won 3-2: Luton were beaten by two fluke goals; Wigan succumbed to a goal we scarcely deserved in injury time. On the other hand, there have been few positives in the away performances. We deserved a point at Forest and were unlucky to get done late on at Hull, but the other defeats in the sequence have been embarrassing.

So, despite significantly better performances in recent wins against Middlesbrough (2-0) and Preston (1-0), the indications I can see only point to the home run stuttering a little before the away run gets significantly better. I can’t help but feel a little pessimistic at the moment – for the short-term, at least.

LFW: Cocu a slightly left-field appointment in the summer – how did you feel about it then and how’s he done so far?

DCB: The vast majority of fans welcomed the appointment and I looked at it positively, given his impressive record at PSV. He has won a lot more titles as a manager than Lampard, put it that way. Amazingly, Cocu is the first foreign manager in the club’s history and his stature in the game, as a Barcelona stalwart and Netherlands centurion, is high.

Our owner Mel Morris said that he was hiring Cocu to try to establish continuity in approach after Lampard left, but as it turns out, the two men are polar opposites. Lampard was the Flash ‘Arry, media-friendly, bounce-starting extrovert who chased glory in the cups and brought in stellar loan signings on mates rates to try to get promoted, whereas Cocu is a serious, brooding presence, who recently gave the club’s RamsTV channel a 20-minute interview to discuss the club’s ‘philosophy’, the long-term plan for the youth products and cognitive training exercises. The ‘P’ word was not mentioned once. 

Personally, I think that if he’s granted time, Cocu could have a positive effect on a squad which needs rebuilding from the ground up. However, a stumbling block for him in this day and age is that he simply does not have the charisma of a Lampard, which unfortunately makes him much more difficult to warm to.

LFW: What business was done over the summer and how did the club do in the transfer market? The team was always going to change with the three high profile Prem loans going back in the summer, but how has the style, shape and pattern of play changed under the new manager?

DCB: It was impossible to hope to recruit players as good as Mount, Tomori and Wilson again, so an element of backsliding was inevitable, whether fans liked it or not. The only player who joined for a fee was Krystian Bielik, who is a potential monster of a midfielder.

You may also be aware that we agreed to sign Wayne Rooney at the end of his MLS contract, but this created a problem, in that it used up the club’s resources and budget for the season on a player who wouldn’t be able to join until January. We have been ‘waiting for Wazza’ ever since and with the team struggling, the club are now wheeling Rooney out for his grand unveiling as a Ram on Saturday. Lucky old you lot get to spend the afternoon in his presence (but you will not be permitted to touch the hem of his 32Red-emblazoned garment). You also get a chance to ruin the party, which, let’s face it, has happened before…

In pre-season, Cocu spoke about using a 4-3-3 formation, but 4-2-3-1 is currently his default setting, with Tom Lawrence playing as a number ten in recent weeks. Cocu has pursued a possession-based approach, as you would expect of a Dutch coach, but his side have struggled to turn passes into chances on a regular basis. That lack of creativity was flagged up early on by the stattos and has, inevitably, begun to seriously bite us – Derby have now scored only four goals in their last seven matches and we can’t really say that we deserved a lot more than that – perhaps one at Forest and another one against Preston, but that’s about it.

The xG crowd hated Lampard’s Derby and kept predicting that we would ‘revert to the mean’ and slip down the table, but the difference then was, we had Wilson. Without his goals, we have looked very, very plain and almost laughably easy to play against when we leave the safety of Pride Park.

LFW: Stand-out players and weak links in the side?

DCB: I don’t think there are any genuine stand-out players in this team. Put it this way – in a recent episode of my podcast, I asked the panel (which included BBC Radio Derby’s Chris Coles) to pick the first name on the team sheet – we all struggled to nominate one.

We depend on Lawrence quite a lot, but my criticism of him is that he shoots from distance far too often. He has a lethal shot, but he doesn’t get close enough to goal to make it count regularly. Harry Wilson really could score from anywhere, but Lawrence isn’t as good as his compatriot, which is reflected in his consistently middling goals tally.

Bielik is an important presence in midfield, Chris Martin is a clever striker who annoys opponents, while 19 year-old full back Jayden Bogle is one of our best players and one who might well attract Premier League bidders next summer. The veteran Curtis Davies has stepped up to lead the defence in the absence of Keogh. All of the above are good Championship players, but there is nobody there you would back to consistently turn a game in your favour.

The weakest link at Fulham was goalkeeper Kelle Roos, who was at least partially to blame for all three goals. Unfortunately, Roos has become a figure of derision and has been jeered at Pride Park for his lack of ability to catch a cross. There were murmurings about him pretty much as soon as he replaced the popular Scott Carson last season and that only intensified after his dreadful howler at Wembley. With many fans writing him off in that moment, Roos has been vulnerable to the boo boys ever since. I think there has been an air of self-fulfilling prophecy about this situation for the past few months – mock a player, stand there waiting for him to make a mistake, jeer him some more when he inevitably does – but at this stage, it seems inevitable that Roos will be dropped for Ben Hamer, an experienced journeyman who joined as cover this summer, on loan from (checks notes) Huddersfield.

LFW: Let’s crack into this one then… the Tom Lawrence/Mason Bennett incident, to an outsider, reflected horrendously on Derby. Firstly, the incident itself. Secondly the way the pair of them were just put straight back into the team within a week or so. And thirdly the cynical sacking of Keogh, who wasn’t driving but got injured for 18 months, while the two lads who were driving but remain sellable assets keep their jobs. Is there any case for the defence? Are you comfortable with them continuing to play for Derby? Has the initial crowd reaction to Lawrence died away because he’s scored a couple of goals?

DCB: Derby fans were as horrified about the incident as anyone and in the immediate aftermath, plenty of supporters called for Lawrence and Bennett to be sacked on the spot.

Lawrence is a player who had, for some time prior to his offence, cut a frustrated and petulant figure on the field and was not popular with supporters as a result. Something which had not been publicised prior to the incident was that his mother died earlier this year and part of the mitigation offered by his legal team in court was that he had become ‘dependent’ on alcohol following his bereavement. Having recently read a moving account of the effect that losing a parent at a young age can have on a person’s mental health, I am more inclined to give Lawrence a second chance.

What they did was inexcusable, but I don’t believe sacking them would have been proportionate – certainly, many other high-profile players have been caught drink-driving in recent times (including Rooney, of course) and none of them were dismissed by their clubs, to my knowledge. 

My personal opinion is that Lawrence and Bennett should not have been considered for selection in the period between the incident and the court case – this would have been effectively a three-match suspension, to go on top of the punishments which were issued by the club and the courts.

Both players were fined six weeks’ wages, issued statements of apology and admitted their guilt. As unacceptable as the whole fiasco was, it would have blown over more quickly – had Keogh not subsequently been dismissed.

I entirely agree with you that this was a cynical decision motivated chiefly by money, but I also don’t believe that Keogh deserves any sympathy whatsoever. The question which Keogh has not yet been able to answer is what the hell he was doing in that car. That was an appalling decision from a player who was, as club captain, in a position of seniority. It might be hopelessly naive of me, but I would have expected him to do much better in that situation, even to try to dissuade his younger teammates from endangering themselves and others in such a reckless manner – instead of involving himself in the whole sorry mess with disastrous consequences.

There is no doubt in my mind that Keogh deserved to be punished just as heavily as Lawrence and Bennett for his part in the incident. However, Morris has obviously asked himself why he should be on the hook for Keogh’s wages for 18 months, when the player won’t be available due to his own stupidity. The trouble with that of course is that Keogh has been treated entirely differently to the other two players, whose punishments were softened with promises of rehabilitation and support – he has, in my view, blatantly been discriminated against because of the injury.

It’s such a hideous mess. My guess is that it will end in some form of financial settlement, which will have the effect of maybe saving the club a few quid, providing Keogh with some measure of compensation and hopefully drawing a line under the whole sorry episode.

LFW: Currently kicking around in thirteenth, what are the realistic expectations for the rest of the season?

DCB: The only way this squad does any better than mid-table is if Rooney comes in and absolutely galvanises us. Cocu has already indicated that there won’t be many more other additions in January, so it’s all on Wayne, basically.

LFW: If promotion isn’t achieved, which doesn’t look that likely this season, how long before FFP becomes an issue again? Can only sell the ground once…

DCB: For the record, I think the stadium sale was out of order and none of the clubs involved should have been allowed to do it. It bothers me that Derby are now renting their own stadium, even if it is from Mel. What happens after Morris is gone? Will he gift it back to the club? Or will his estate sell it to the highest bidder? Nobody else seems to worry about this, however – there is a very strong ‘in Mel we Trust’ vibe these days, particularly helped by the fact that he has finally stopped sacking a manager every season.

It’s hard to know for sure whether FFP will become a problem in the near future, as the available financial figures are always a year behind and it’s difficult to second-guess what Morris will do next. The wagebill ballooned to £40.5m in 2018, which is wholly unsustainable, but a lot of senior players have left since then and even if Rooney is on a huge packet, the overall wage bill will have come down somewhat, while another group of well-paid veterans are at the end of their contracts next summer.

I think we will be OK for the next couple of seasons, so long as wages are controlled tightly from now on and the EFL don’t suddenly decide that the stadium sale – which they blithely waved through at the time, along with all the other clubs who used the same trick – is no longer kosher. That would presumably cause an immediate and hefty points deduction and transfer embargo and as such, I’m sure that Morris would fight it tooth and nail, in the same way that QPR contested their FFP punishment from way back when.

If FFP does bite, that’s when Cocu’s “long-term plan” will really be tested. We’re already seeing England under-19 attacking midfielder Morgan Whittaker preferred to loanee Jamie Paterson, who is reportedly returning to Bristol City in January, while a number of other promising youngsters are representing their countries at age group level and have been on the edge of the team this season.

It could be that we are laying the groundwork for dealing with a future embargo, or simply planning to avoid one – whatever, it is good sense for the club to actually start promoting the products of an academy which has been lavishly funded by Morris and whose Under-18s were champions of England last season (and have powered through the early stages of this season’s Europa Youth League with ease).

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Waiting for Wazza – Can Wayne Rooney kickstart Derby County’s stalled season?

It’s not a great place to be when you still feel like you’re waiting for your season to get going in November.  But not much has gone right for Phillip Cocu since he touched down in Florida to take over the reins from Frank Lampard in July.  From the extreme weather which disrupted Derby’s pre-season friendly against Bristol City onwards, it feels like the fates have been conspiring to make life as difficult as possible for the Rams’ first-ever foreign manager. 

Nevertheless, even with extenuating circumstances and shameful off-the-field issues for which the manager cannot be blamed factored in, results and, in the main, performances have been undeniably underwhelming. 

The positive take on the results to date is that Derby have clocked up four consecutive home wins and three consecutive home clean sheets.  It could also be argued that draws against West Brom, Swansea and Leeds, all of whom are in the current top four, count as respectable results. 

On the negative side, there has been no away win since the opening day, with four of the last five away games having been lost to nil.  Two of those losses – Brentford and Charlton – were among the worst Derby County performances we’ve endured in a long time. 

And in truth, the home wins have been pretty sketchy, on the whole. Luton were beaten thanks to two outrageous fluke goals, while the Wigan performance was pretty ordinary, before Graeme Shinnie wrenched us out of jail at the death.  Even the 3-2 win against Birmingham, in the first game after the drink-driving scandal, was a game in which Derby mustered a mere seven shots on goal.  Factor in a meek cup exit at Forest – for which Cocu disregarded local rivalry and made eleven changes, in stark contrast to Frank Lampard’s prioritisation of the cup of last season – and there has been very little to savour all season. 

As it stands at the time of writing, Derby haven’t recorded a win against anybody in the top half of the table. They have, however, picked up 18 points from five wins and three draws in games against teams in the current bottom half.  

Credit: Soccerstats

This quirky breakdown of results points to a side which has enough about it not to worry about going down, but which is certainly not good enough to harbour any realistic ambitions of going up.

Derby have had problems at the back, where there is now no Richard Keogh, with goals and chances have been leaked too readily.  The latest expected goals table produced by the Press Association’s Head of Data Analysis, Ben Mayhew, shows Derby as having the fifth worst defensive xG record in the division:-

Meanwhile, the attacking players have struggled to create enough chances.  Derby are ranked 20th in the Championship for shots per game and 20th for shots inside the penalty area, 17th for key passes per game and bottom of the whole division for the amount of game-time spent in the opposition’s third of the pitch (25%).  The problem is clear – a worrying lack of penetration and creativity.

This bluntness has been apparent despite Derby having plenty of the ball in almost every game, being ranked fourth in the division for pass success, sixth for total passes per game and sixth for average possession.  The Charlton game – 61 per cent of the possession for a dismal tally of four shots – was the nadir so far, as Derby were completely dominated by Lee Bowyer’s Addicks, despite constantly having the ball.  Only Leeds have had significantly more possession than Derby across 90 minutes this season, but the majority of the Rams’ opponents have nevertheless managed more total shots on goal and, crucially, more shots in the 18-yard box. 

So the issue Cocu must urgently address is how to get the team creating significantly more and significantly better quality chances.  Kieran Dowell was signed to replace some of the guile Derby lost when Mason Mount and Harry Wilson left, but the Everton loanee has hardly featured since the loss at Brentford.  Statistically, however, he remains the player in the squad most likely to set up a shot – the delightful lobbed pass he played to set up Tom Lawrence at Hull was a particularly eye-catching example of this creativity and something I’m not sure any other member of the squad could have conjured.

Key passes per 90 minutes
(total minutes)

Dowell 1.9 (568)
Shinnie 1.5 (523)
Martin 1.5 (614)
Lawrence 1.3 (1,242)
Bogle 1.2 (792)
Marriott 1.1 (595)
Paterson 1.1 (493)
Waghorn 0.9 (1,077)
Holmes 0.9 (774)
Lowe 0.7 (952)
Malone 0.7 (886)
Jozefzoon 0.6 (574)
Huddlestone 0.4 (856)
Bielik 0.2 (1,118)

For division-wide context, the top players in the division for key passes per 90 are Izzy Brown (4.0), Niclas Eliasson (3.9), John Swift (3.8), Fran Villalba (2.9), Pablo Hernandez, Stewart Downing, Matheus Pereira and Said Benrahma (2.8 each).  It’s painfully clear that Derby currently have nothing special on the books, compared to those creative midfielders.

A positive to take though is that three of the players in the top five of Derby’s key pass list – Shinnie, Martin and Bogle – are recent additions to the team, having been out of favour or injured earlier in the season.  Martin’s clever play in and around the opposition box needs no introduction, while Bogle is a genuine attacking threat from right back.  Shinnie, who is more readily associated with hard graft and the defensive side of the game, has also added some creativity as part of his all-action role.  Cocu may have favoured Tom Huddlestone until injury struck, but Shinnie grabbed his chance when it finally came and must now be considered one of the first names on the team sheet – if not the first.

Shots inside penalty area per 90 mins

Waghorn 2.3
Marriott 1.8
Martin 1.3
Shinnie 0.9
Lawrence 0.8
Dowell / Jozefzoon 0.6
Paterson 0.5
(Holmes 0.2)

Shots on target per 90 mins

Waghorn 1.3
Marriott / Lawrence / Shinnie 0.9
Martin 0.7
Dowell 0.5
Huddlestone / Paterson 0.4
(Holmes 0)

The players most likely to score are Waghorn, Marriott, Martin and Lawrence, while the three most likely to create an opportunity are Dowell, Martin and Shinnie.  It would be very difficult to put together a team which fitted all six of them in – but we need as many of them starting as possible.  These are the players we rely on in an attacking sense, with Bristol City loanee Jamie Paterson and Frank Lampard’s worst signing, Jozefzoon, having underwhelming seasons and perennial ‘supersub’ Mason Bennett out of favour, particularly since the crash.

Running through the data, one name consistently fails to turn up where I was hoping it would do and that is Duane Holmes.  He is ranked fourth equal for dribbles completed per 90 minutes, behind Paterson, Bogle and Lawrence, but other than that, he is yet to have a shot on target this season and averages less than one key pass per 90.  For all of his eye-catching flashes of speed and technique, there has been almost no end product – the moment when he killed a long pass stone dead and then shot wide from 20 yards instead of releasing a clean-through Marriott against Middlesbrough feels like a summary of his season to date.  If Cocu is basing his selection on statistical analysis, which to some extent, all coaches do in the data era, then Holmes might be feeling a little anxious at the moment, because he is not producing the goods.

Into all of this, in a few weeks’ time, steps Wayne Rooney. 

Rooney was undoubtedly the best player in DC United’s MLS team this year, leading them for goals, assists, shots per game and key passes.  His rate of 2.9 key passes per 90 minutes for DCU is particularly encouraging for a Derby side in dire need of creativity. 

The question remains of course over how the 34 year-old’s MLS form will translate into Championship form. Johnny Russell, for example, produced similar numbers of goals and assists to Rooney for Sporting Kansas City last season.  However, Rooney’s dead ball quality alone will certainly make him a significant asset for a team which currently can’t score from set pieces and whose most regular penalty taker has missed two out of four. 

If Cocu carries on with a two-striker system, either with a diamond or traditional flat 4-4-2, then my guess is that Rooney will probably play as one of the front two, alongside either Waghorn or Marriott, with Lawrence continuing as a number ten in the diamond.  Rooney would fill a similar niche to Martin, dropping deeper to pick up the ball and make things happen, rather than popping up in the box to take advantage of throughballs and crosses, as Marriott and Waghorn look to do.

While the mediocre results and performances haven’t given us much to shout about, it does feel like a core of players that Cocu can rely on is gradually emerging, while certain other players fall by the wayside.  The Dutchman can count upon experienced pros like Shinnie, Davies, Martin and Waghorn, while Bogle, despite his inexplicable howler at Forest, is established as a quality attacking right back at this level.  Cocu has Malone and Lowe to choose from at left back and retains a firm belief in Lawrence, which has translated of late into more focused performances (hopefully, the penny has dropped).  Kelle Roos may not have been forgiven for Wembley by some fans, but he retains Cocu’s confidence for now.  Marriott will score goals.  Krystian Bielik’s qualities as a midfielder are becoming clear – strength to hold onto the ball, ability to surge past an opponent and open up space, solid passing, aerial ability – his all-round game will make Derby better in the engine room (unless of course, it turns out that Matt Clarke has sustained a bad knee injury, which would be a major blow and force the club into the transfer market in January).      

Those players represent the basis of Cocu’s best team this season and they have enough ability to do well at this level.  If Rooney can emerge as the leader we badly need on the field, then we can look to the future with cautious optimism, despite the mediocrity which has reigned so far in the Dutchman’s era.

Another plus is the gradual progress of several academy products towards the first team.  Lee Buchanan and Jason Knight may have receded from the first-team reckoning in recent weeks, with Cocu wisely opting for more experience to help the team through a rough patch, but they have at least made their league debuts, as has the promising Morgan Whittaker, with Louie Sibley also rated as a star in the making. As I write this, Sibley has just netted a hat-trick for the under 23s in an 7-1 romp against Leeds United.  All four of these 18-year olds have been called up to represent their countries at age-group level this season. 

The under 23s sit joint top of the Premier League 2 Division 1 table with Chelsea, while the under 19s (last season’s under 18s English champions) are making short work of the early rounds of the UEFA Youth League. They have the chance of a ’round of 32′ play-off game, potentially against one of Europe’s big guns, so long as they can finish the job against Icelandic champions ÍA Akranes at home later this month. 

However, it would be unfair to heap expectation onto the young players, who must be carefully nurtured. With the odd exception, such as Bogle, they will emerge slowly and get minutes here or there at first, with the hope that they can eventually replace older players as they leave. A group of senior pros including Curtis Davies, Huddlestone, Craig Forsyth, Ikechi Anya, Bennett and Martin are currently due to leave Derby at the end of the season, along with the loanees Clarke, Paterson and Dowell. That outflux could create opportunities for the youngsters in the longer term, if they can prove their worth and take their chances as they arise.

The gap to sixth place in the Championship has now edged up to seven points, which may not seem unbridgeable with 30 games to go, but the 74-point mark – the long-term average for sixth – is a long, long way off at this stage for a side who are yet to win back-to-back games. Unless Rooney, plus other new additions in January, can give the current squad the infusion of quality they need, the likelihood of Derby making the play-offs for the fourth time in six seasons is already receding fast.

And the trouble with waiting for Wazza is that there are still nine more matches to go before he can be registered.  After each defeat, the club issues another message about Rooney’s impending arrival and by all accounts, he is itching to get started – he is even enthusiastic enough to be recommending players the club could sign, if chatter this week is to be believed – however, Derby’s form needs to improve before Christmas, or this season could be more or less over by the time Rooney pulls on the Rams’ shirt for the first time.  

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The Richard Keogh years are over at Derby County

The Richard Keogh era at Derby County is over.  And now that the shock has abated over the manner of the serious injury which has ended his season and possibly his playing career, I’m surprised to find that I feel strangely relieved that he will no longer serve as one of the most high-profile emblems for our team and club.

Keogh made it to #19 on the list of the Rams’ all-time appearances list and had he not clambered into the back of Tom Lawrence’s car that night – a lapse of judgement so chronic that it is mind-boggling – he could have gone on to breach the top ten, by surpassing Steve Powell’s tally of 420 games.   Anybody who climbs past Powell gets into the company of men from bygone eras – Sammy Crooks.  Jack Parry.  Steve Bloomer.  Then it’s a top three from Brian Clough’s day – Roy McFarland.  Ron Webster.  Kevin Hector.  Keogh could have taken his place among those names.  But he was not able to do it and in truth, he would have been an incongruous, ill-fitting addition to that hallowed list.

He might play again, of course, for Derby or elsewhere.  His contract runs until the summer of 2021 and a provisional return date of January 2021 was set in the aftermath of the crash.  But that is a long, long way off for a player who is 33 already.  Phillip Cocu cannot count on Keogh as an option for the start of next season and Derby will have to recruit around his absence, possibly even as early as the next transfer window.  The club will simply move on while Keogh embarks upon a long and gruelling rehabilitation process and his time as a key figure – almost “Mr Derby County”, as Chris Smith phrased it in our post-court case BlogCast – has been curtailed, in the most disappointing manner imaginable.

Keogh has made more than 350 appearances for Derby County since Nigel Clough signed him from Coventry City for £1m in 2012, which breaks down to less than £3,000 per game.  Compare that in terms of value for money to some of the other, far more expensive signings made in more recent years and you’ll find that…  No, in fact.  Just try not to even think about it.

When we consider the rollercoaster of madness which unfolded throughout Mel Morris’ ‘roaring tens’ at the helm and Keogh’s integral part in it all, it feels fitting that his debut was one of the most bizarre games in the club’s recent history – a league cup exit against Scunthorpe, which the Rams led 4-1, only to draw 5-5 after extra time and lose on penalties – and that his final game before the ‘alcohol-related incident’ was just as preposterous – the grand larceny of a 1-1 draw at Elland Road, for which Derby didn’t turn up until the 92nd minute, then hilariously turned into prime Brazil for 30 seconds.  From the ridiculous to the ridiculous – with the occasional moment of the sublime – the Keogh years at Derby were certainly never dull.

You always knew that he had a mistake in him, even when he went for runs of games without making one.  He was not particularly quick, or commanding in the air and barely ever scored goals, but he worked hard on his game, particularly to adapt to the short-passing style that most of his Derby managers favoured.  His ‘loose racehorse’ runs from the back became the stuff of cult legend – fun to watch, without any end product, until, of course, at Elland Road in the 2018/9 play-off semi-final second leg, he galloped through a vacated midfield and executed a perfect first-time pass to set up Jack Marriott, sending the Rams to a Wembley final for the second time in his seventh season with the club.  

He was almost never injured, almost never dropped.  His temporary consignment to the bench by Gary Rowett – after an horrific 4-1 home defeat by a Sunderland side who went on to be relegated – lasted only three matches before he was brought back into the fold – after another horrorshow defeat in his absence, this time at Nigel Clough’s Burton.  

Barring a miraculous return, 2014’s Wembley play-off final will probably now remain the defining game of his time at the club.  For the record, Keogh never deserved sole blame for the Zamora goal.  Craig Forsyth and Jake Buxton should never have allowed the cross that came across the box, which Keogh could do little more than effectively ‘set’ perfectly for the journeyman striker.  But the shock of the loss was undoubtedly pinned on Keogh by many devastated supporters and negativity followed him around for seasons to come.  

Not this season, though.  By this year, I genuinely felt that the tide had turned for Keogh and his presence was valued by the vast majority.  There was no contest when I polled Twitter to find out who the fans thought our best defender was – Keogh won by a mile.  The delight we all felt when he thrashed home that penalty at Old Trafford last season, or when he set up Marriott for the best goal in Derby’s 21st century at Elland Road, these were magical moments. 

But other than great memories for the supporters, ultimately, those moments did not lead to any tangible, meaningful reward for the club – and that has very much been the story of our decade. 

I’m not saying that the ‘close, but no cigar’ years were Keogh’s fault – managers came and went every season from 2013/4 onwards, good money was thrown after bad, poor decisions made by those at the top.  But all the way through, Keogh was there.  Wagging his head as he strode forward, or chased back after faster, younger opponents, like-I-saying his way through the occasional interview – for a captain, he was not a regular presence on media duty, as BBC Radio Derby’s Chris Coles confirmed for us in the BlogCast.

As Chris told us:-

“He wore his heart on his sleeve and the interviews he did were often… when Derby weren’t doing so well. Curtis Davies in the team now is a Derby County dream, because they know that they can wheel him out whatever the weather and he’ll brilliant… Whereas when Derby were hammered by Brentford [this season], Richard came out and he was still absolutely furious and because of that, there’s not much value in interviewing him, because he’s just angry… So I think they needed to be a bit cuter with Richard and just take him out of the firing line.”

We are about to enter a new decade and the 2010s will go down as a time of disappointment, bad judgement, even calamity at times and all of those things are encapsulated in the incident which has effectively ended Derby’s Keogh years.  The Wembley goal wasn’t his fault and he never deserved the blame for it.  In this case, he has only himself to blame.

When you’ve been a part of the furniture for so long, despite a semi-permanent atmosphere of chaos reigning, perhaps after a while, you start to feel too comfortable.  Like you have a certain licence and can take a few liberties.  What happened that night was wholly unacceptable and for the club captain to have been so complicit in the wrong-doing was shocking.  Keogh will know how badly he let himself, the club, the fans, his family down.  And even in his disgrace, he must know how lucky he is, because things could have turned out considerably worse for him than they did. 

The idea of him not being around anymore was something that had honestly never occurred to me.  He wasn’t far away from a testimonial, which is rare indeed in these days of journeymen who pack their bags and move on every two or three seasons.  But while thanking Richard for the memories – some of which will make me shake my head and bring a rueful smile to my face for years to come – right now, I can only focus on the future for Derby County and the people who are in a position to help us.

The 2020s are about to start – and who knows what this new era in the history of Derby County will bring.

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New – Derby County BlogCast, with special guest Chris Coles (BBC Radio Derby)

A new episode of the Derby County BlogCast is now live. This month’s podcast understandably leads with the shameful drink-driving incident which resulted in criminal convictions for Mason Bennett and Tom Lawrence and potentially the end of Richard Keogh’s playing career.

We discuss the fall-out from the crash, how the club handled (or arguably mishandled) the situation and what happens next at Pride Park.

Chris Coles, the man behind the mic at Radio Derby, was kind enough to embark on a ‘busman’s holiday’ and give up an hour of his time to talk through all of that, as well as his general feelings about how the Rams are getting on under Phillip Cocu, plus the on and off-field implications of the pending arrival of Wayne Rooney.

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