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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