Championship season preview, 2016/7

2016/7 will be Derby County’s ninth successive season in the Championship.  Of the 24 clubs in this year’s second division, only Ipswich Town have been stuck at this level for longer.

Consecutive seasons

Hanging around in the Championship for almost a decade is the exception, rather than the rule.  So, is it finally time for the Rams to break the cycle of underachievement to experience the thrill of featuring last on Match of the Day – and of having less games moved for Sky Sports, as we become a smaller fish in the bigger pond?

Here is how my predictions for last season squared with reality:

2015/6 Championship Ollie predicted Actual finish
BURNLEY TOP 7 1
BORO TOP 7 2
BRIGHTON MID-TABLE 3
HULL TOP 7 4
DERBY TOP 7 5
SHEFF W BOTTOM 8 6
IPSWICH TOP 7 7
CARDIFF MID-TABLE 8
BRENTFORD TOP 7 9
BRUM MID-TABLE 10
PNE BOTTOM 8 11
QPR MID-TABLE 12
LEEDS MID-TABLE 13
WOLVES TOP 7 14
BLACKBURN BOTTOM 8 15
FOREST BOTTOM 8 16
READING MID-TABLE 17
BRISTOL C MID-TABLE 18
HUDDS BOTTOM 8 19
FULHAM MID-TABLE 20
ROTHERHAM BOTTOM 8 21
CHARLTON BOTTOM 8 22
MILTON KEYNES MID-TABLE 23
BOLTON BOTTOM 8 24

*********************

Notes  – the top ratings below include players who made at least 30 appearances in 2015/6 only.  Players who have left a club since the end of last season are not included and their rating is transferred to their new club, where appropriate…

The Promotion Contenders

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION
Consecutive Championship seasons – 5
Average points per season (last three) – 69.33
Last season finish – 3rd

Established as one of the strongest Championship clubs, Brighton continue to challenge for their turn in the Premier League, having quickly shaken off the nightmare Sami Hyypiä season.  Managed by the sensible Chris Hughton, they will be in the mix again and will expect to at least finish in the play-offs – the addition of Oliver Norwood and an attempted £8m move for Alex Pritchard (scuppered at the last minute by Norwich) point to their ambition to do even better.

Top-rated players*: 1) Dunk 7.30, 2) Stephens 7.26, 3) Kayal 7.16
(+ Norwood 7.45)

DERBY COUNTY
Consecutive Championship seasons – 8
Average points per season (last three) – 80

Last season finish – 5th

Everyone knows the expectation, everyone knows the challenge at hand – and there is a general feeling that Nigel Pearson was the right man to take it on.  The McClaren 4-3-3 is no longer considered the default and only viable starting shape, which has implications for all of the players – some will get more chances to shine as a result, others, including some fan favourites, may find themselves out of the starting eleven.  Pearson won’t care a jot who he upsets, or whether we produce stylish football every week – and as long as the results continue to flow, even if the football doesn’t, then nobody will have any grounds to complain.

Top-rated players: 1) Thorne 7.29, 2) Christie 7.21, 3) Ince 7.20

NEWCASTLE UNITED
Relegated, 18th

They come down with problems, of course, but they also come down with vast amounts of money.  That Rafa Benítez chose to stay says it all – anything other than automatic promotion would be a genuine surprise.  The summer recruitment drive was uncompromising, with Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle and Isaac Hayden quickly joined by Grant Hanley.  In all likelihood, automatic promotion this season is the Toon plus one.

Top-rated players: 1) Sissoko 7.04, 2) Mbemba 6.98, 3) Colback 6.90
(+ Hanley 7.31, Diamé 6.95)

NORWICH CITY
Relegated, 19th

Already promoted to and relegated from the top flight twice this decade, Norwich are now a club who yo-yo tediously, their artificially-enhanced revenues making them too rich to slum it for long in the tragically rebranded ‘EFL’.  Yet they are seemingly unable to consolidate their status among the elite.  You know what they’ll be like – competent, hard to beat and in contention for automatic promotion.  Finish above them, you’re probably reaching the Promised Land.

Top-rated players: 1) Brady 7.15, 2) Howson 6.77, 3) Bassong 6.75

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY
Consecutive Championship seasons – 4
Average points per season (last three) – 62.33

Last season finish – 6th

An incredible turnaround was wrought at Hillsborough last season, as Carlos Carvalhal and co made Wednesday a force at this level for the first time in many years.  And the Owls are not messing around – Scotland striker Steven Fletcher adds to their firepower up-front, Almen Abdi and Daniel Pudil have arrived from Watford and the Sheffield Star reported that Wednesday were ready to bid as much as £11.5m for Ross McCormack.  The chummy ‘see you at Wembley’ song that rang around the iPro last spring will be superseded by the knowledge that Derby are facing off against genuine rivals this season.

Top-rated players: 1) Forestieri 7.26, 2) Lees 7.24, 3) Lee / Loovens 7.06


The best of the rest

BRENTFORD
Consecutive Championship seasons – 2
Average points per season – 71.5

Last season finish – 9th

They stumbled after the heady play-off campaign under Mark Warburton, but rallied to finish ninth last season under Dean Smith.  Brentford’s recruitment nous is now legendary, so one imagines the players they’ve signed from the lower leagues this summer will be decent.  Plus, they have Alan Judge – and look out for an impact from highly-fancied striker Scott Hogan, who could be their next Andre Gray (or the new Jamie Vardy, based on his career trajectory).  Established at Championship level and ambitious to go further, they are no longer an unknown quantity and could contend for a play-off place again.  That said, I still think that the Warburton factor was what propelled them on that bit further in 2014/5.

Top-rated players: 1) Judge 7.46, 2) Dean 6.97, 3) Yennaris 6.83

IPSWICH TOWN
Consecutive Championship seasons – 12
Average points per season (last three) – 71.67
Last season finish – 7th

Ipswich are so entrenched in the second division that they have been there ever since it was rebranded as the Championship in 2004 – in fact, they were in the ‘English Division One’ for two seasons prior to that, having dropped out of the Premier League in 2002.  But they have pushed for the play-offs in the past three seasons under ‘Big’ Mick McCarthy, who is now nearing his fourth anniversary at the Tractor Boys – some achievement, in a world where a manager’s average tenure in a job is shortening all the time.

Top-rated players: 1) Berra 7.28, 2) Skuse 6.96, 3) Chambers 6.95

WOLVES
Consecutive Championship seasons – 2
Average points per season – 68

Last season finish – 14th

The takeover by a Chinese consortium will make things interesting in Wolverhampton this season, especially as the infamous ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes is now involved in the club. The immediate upshot of this was the eyebrow-raising installation of the great Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga as head coach, plus an influx of Portuguese players.  This could go either way and they are playing catch-up in terms of their planning for the season, but if the new players are of sufficient quality, Wolves could make a serious nuisance of themselves this season.

Top-rated players: 1) Doherty 7.30, 2) Batth 7.16, 3) Henry 6.93


Mid-table mediocrity

ASTON VILLA
Relegated, 20th

An opinion you hear floating around a lot is that Villa are in all sorts of trouble and could drop straight through to the third tier. That is the outcome which the Premier League’s parachute payment system was invented to prevent.  Nevertheless, Steve Clarke and Roberto di Matteo have a huge job on their hands and need to hit the ground running (which was why I assumed Villa would go all guns blazing to get Nigel Pearson).

What they must do is avoid blundering into the Fulham trap of signing the ‘fur coat’ of a top goalscorer, while neglecting to purchase the sturdy ‘undercrackers’ of a viable back four….  Oh.  Hang on a minute!

The capture of Tommy Elphick from Bournemouth was a good start – nevertheless, the scale of the task is there for all to see.

Top-rated players: Gueye 7.25, Ayew 6.88, Gestede 6.83
(+ McCormack 7.21)

BIRMINGHAM CITY
Consecutive Championship seasons – 5
Average points per season (last three) – 59.67

Last season finish – 10th

Gary Rowett earned many plaudits for his work last season – and has this summer earned my gratitude by signing Ryan Shotton on a permanent basis.  Cheers, Gazza!

Top-rated players: 1) Grounds 7.18, 2) Morrison 7.08, 3) Kuszczak 6.90

BRISTOL CITY
Consecutive Championship seasons – 1
Points gained – 52
Last season finish – 18th

Fans were pleased by the signing of the stocky playmaker Lee Tomlin, with Bristolian media even suggesting that the move heralded the dawn of ‘sexy football’ at Ashton Gate – but they will need to bolster their squad further before the Robins can improve significantly on last season.  Have retained their top scorer Jonathan Kodija, at the time of writing.

Top-rated players: 1) Pack 7.13, 2) Flint 7.05, 3) Bryan 6.92

CARDIFF CITY
Consecutive Championship seasons – 2
Average points per season – 65
Last season finish – 8th

Ex-Ram Paul Trollope is now the man in charge at Cardiff, after the unpopular Russell Slade initially moved ‘upstairs’, then decamped to Charlton.  Their first three signings of the window were all foreign strikers – Kenneth Zohore, Lex Immers (who sounds like a super-villain) and Frédéric Gounongbe.  I can’t wait for ‘Rammer’ to have a crack at the latter name.

Top-rated players: 1) Morrison 7.28, 2) Ralls 6.99, 3) Whittingham 6.90

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN
Consecutive Championship seasons – 4
Average points per season (last three) – 53

Last season finish – 19th

The Terriers’ bright and breezy showing against Wassall’s Derby was impressive, but they go into the new season unfancied, for all of ex-Dortmund coach David Wagner’s attempts to get them gegenpressing.   That said, they have mounted a real recruitment drive this summer – and I’m not surprised that Wagner has signed several foreign defenders, as the British ones he had last season were uncomfortable trying to pass out from the back.  Wagner may be one to watch, but unless the new recruits gel exceptionally quickly, a play-off challenge is well beyond them.

Top-rated players: 1) Lolley 7.11, 2) Hudson 6.86, 3) Wells 6.79

LEEDS UNITED
Consecutive Championship seasons – 6
Average points per season (last three) – 57.33

Last season finish – 13th

Massimo Cellino has actually managed to make a decent decision by appointing Garry Monk as Leeds’ latest interim head coach, in what feels like a last chance for Leeds to actually sort themselves out.  The capture of Kemar Roofe from Oxford United was another sign that things might be on the up for them – but the move coincided with the loss of one of their brightest youth prospects, Lewis Cook, to Bournemouth (with fellow academy prospect Charlie Taylor also requesting a transfer this week).  If Derby had sold the 19 year-old Will Hughes for £6m plus add-ons, there would have been uproar.  That’s where Leeds are at.  A top-half finish would represent decent progress for them, but I’m not sure whether their fans would see it that way, or more importantly, whether Cellino would.

Top-rated players: 1) Bamba 7.35, 2) Taylor 7.26, 3) Cooper 7.01

PRESTON NORTH END
Consecutive Championship seasons – 1
Points gained – 62

Last season finish – 11th

Did much better than I expected last season, getting over the 60-point mark (and frustrated the life out of Derby, in the last knockings of Paul Clement’s tenure).  That solid showing gives Simon Grayson a good platform to build on and they have attracted Tommy Spurr from Blackburn, ex-Manchester United ‘keeper Anders Lindegaard, plus the tall striker Simon Makienok (although Charlton fans I spoke to last season said he was absolutely hopeless).  Realistically, they are probably hoping to replicate last season’s showing.

Top-rated players: 1) Gallagher 7.30, 2) Cunningham 7.11, 3) Wright 7.09

QUEENS PARK RANGERS
Consecutive Championship seasons – 1
Points gained – 60
Last season finish – 12th

QPR continue their ‘consolidation’, or to put it another way, sorting out the mess left after their crazy days of splurging millions on rubbish players.  Armand Traoré, Yun Suk-young, Matt Phillips and Rob Green are among the departures, while in come the less exotic but probably more suitable likes of Joel Lynch from Huddersfield, Jordan Cousins from Charlton and Jake Bidwell, from Brentford.  Mid-table.

Top-rated players: 1) Onuoha 7.19, 2) Luongo 7.09, 3) Hall 6.98 

WIGAN ATHLETIC
Promoted, Champions

Won League One comfortably under former player Gary Caldwell and the rookie manager now has a chance to take on the Championship.  The sturdy Stephen Warnock was a canny signing and reportedly said in an interview that Caldwell is aiming to model the Latics on Italy this season, with an emphasis on defensive solidity.  Perhaps Jake Buxton is earmarked to become their new Paolo Maldini?  Consolidation is doubtless the aim.

Player stats unavailable
(1. Burn 7.08)

The strugglers

BARNSLEY
Promoted, play-offs

Another trip to Oakwell, in all its corrugated iron splendour, beckons.  Woot!  We will get an early opportunity to determine whether the Tykes are strong enough to compete at this level, following last season’s magical, Roy of the Rovers surge from the relegation zone to Wembley glory.

Player stats unavailable 

BLACKBURN ROVERS
Consecutive Championship seasons – 4
Average points per season (last three) – 64
Last season finish – 15th

Venky’s made the strange decision to appoint the former Burnley and Bolton manager Owen Coyle, who was sacked from his last job in England, at Wigan, after a 3-1 home defeat to Derby in December 2013.  Star defender Grant Hanley was soon pinched by Newcastle, but an exodus of dross over the summer provided room for much-needed new blood for a stagnant club which limped to 15th last year.  But fear not, Rovers fans. Perhaps this is the season when Danny Graham finally goes nap?  Or maybe Anthony Stokes will be a more reliable source of goals.  If not, there may be trouble in store.

Top-rated players: 1) Duffy 7.40, 2) Conway 6.96, 3) Marshall 6.80

BURTON ALBION
Promoted, runners-up

The story that began back in 1998 has reached the unlikeliest and most amazing of chapters.  Realistically, bare survival will be the Brewers’ aspiration, but in Nigel Clough, they have a stubborn, determined manager, whose bloody-minded “don’t lose” philosophy jarred at Derby and Sheffield United, but could be more suited to a club playing the role of underdog every single week.  Clough would seriously enjoy putting a few noses out of joint along the way and I wish them every success – starting at the City Ground…

Player stats unavailable 

FULHAM
Consecutive Championship seasons – 2
Average points per season – 51.5

Last season finish – 20th

Fulham had a wretched 2015/6, to follow on from a wretched 2014/5.  Without Ross McCormack, it’s safe to say they would be gone by now and they remain at some risk of dropping into the third tier.  Moussa Dembélé and Emerson Hyndman have departed and you wonder whether McCormack, flogged to Villa this week, rues the day he moved to Craven Cottage.  That said, there’s every chance that he has moved to the ‘new Fulham’. Slaviša Jokanović has it all to do, but can at least sign players now, as the transfer embargo imposed on the Cottagers in January has been lifted.

Top-rated players: 1) Cairney 7.04 (McDonald 6.98)
No other current squad member made 30 starts last season

NOTTINGHAM FOREST 
Consecutive Championship seasons – 8
Average points per season (last three) – 59.67 

Last season finish – 16th

I think it’s fair to say that Philippe Montanier had no profile in this country prior to his unveiling at the City Ground.  The Nottingham Post felt compelled to run a piece entitled “Who is Forest’s new head coach?” and Fawaz misspelled his name on Twitter, while making the announcement.

Optimistically-minded Red Dogs can point to Montanier’s achievement of leading Real Sociedad to the Champions League qualification play-offs in 2013.  Nobody had ever heard of Carlos Carvalhal, but look how well he did last season, goes the PR line.  Carvalhal was well backed in the transfer market, though.

Speaking of backing, it’s reported that Fawaz is to be bought out by the Greek businessman Evangelos Marinakis – a man currently banned from football activity in his home country and recently mentioned in Private Eye.  The Eye notes that Marinakis is currently on bail, facing charges of ‘directing a criminal organisation’, blackmail, fraud and even ‘arranging an explosion’!

Top-rated players: 1) Vaughan 7.09, 2) Mancienne 7.06, 3) Mills 6.94

READING
Consecutive Championship seasons – 3
Average points per season – 57.66
Last season finish – 17th

Their Premier League dalliance long behind them, Reading are now in the unfortunate position of having their brightest players, like Oliver Norwood and Aaron Tshibola (and Nick Blackman), picked off by bigger clubs.  Their performances over the last two seasons have been poor and they will be looking over their shoulders nervously. New manager Jaap Stam is as big a name and frame as they come, but this is his first managerial experience of any kind, let alone of the Championship.

Top-rated players: 1) , 2) McShane 7.17, 3) Williams 6.97, 3) Gunter 6.50

ROTHERHAM UNITED
Consecutive Championship seasons – 2
Average points per season – 47.5
Last season finish – 21st

Neil Warnock kept them up comfortably in the end last season.  But what happens next? Back-to-back 21st place finishes with sub-50 point tallies tell you all you need to know about the target for new manager Alan Stubbs, who joins having won the Scottish Cup with Hibs last season.  No less than a dozen players left early in the summer, giving Stubbs a big job to do in rebuilding his team and squad.

Top-rated players: 1) Broadfoot 7.22, 2) Newell 6.94, 3) Mattock 6.93

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Thinking the unthinkable – Derby County players who could be set for life on the bench under Pearson

Over the past couple of seasons, it’s fair to say that certain players have come to be considered as automatic picks.  That’s fine – every squad has its star players – until it becomes a matter of near panic when particular players are unavailable, or struggling for form.

The obvious two to mention are Chris Martin and George Thorne.

Derby became so dependent upon Martin that the idea of ever resting, dropping, or even subbing him became unthinkable, even when he was enduring a barren spell.

Likewise with Thorne.  He has never had a reliable deputy for his specialised holding role, yet the Rams have never seemed able to adapt their shape to cope when he wasn’t fit.  In the final home games of the past two seasons, we’ve ended up with Stephen Warnock and Will Hughes picked in the holding role – and lost 3-0 both times.  Those selections, performances and results are symbolic of the inflexibility that has held the club back in its bid to gain promotion.

So, with Thorne during pre-season, it’s good that Nigel Pearson has not simply shoved someone else into ‘the Thorne role’, but changed to a 4-4-1-1 formation instead.  That affects Martin – while opening the door for Darren Bent.

Whereas Martin likes to be involved in the build-up play, Bent lives to be released, to get on the end of passes and score.  His best work is always done off the ball, confusing and eluding defenders with quick, anticipatory movements in and around the box.  If he does receive the ball with his back to goal, he wants to lay it off quickly and move again.

Because of these strengths, he needs supporting players closer to him – he doesn’t revel in holding off defenders and waiting for runners, or performing ‘the wardrobe’ trick.

Tom Ince, meanwhile, can cut a peripheral, sometimes visibly frustrated figure on the wing, but look at Derby’s ‘key pass’ figures from last season:-

Key passes

More than any other Rams player (with the arguable exception of Hughes, who only returned to fitness in the final few games last year), Ince unlocks defences.  He can also beat a man and has a decent shot.  The ‘number ten’ role, playing behind a centre forward, therefore suits him perfectly – and he will wear that number this season.

Martin’s habit of dropping off the front rather than stretching defences out is why, I guess, he and Ince haven’t been tried in tandem too often.  So, the new 4-4-1-1 gives Ince and Bent an opportunity to shine – but at Martin’s expense.

It may be that when Thorne returns, Pearson will think about reverting to 4-3-3 – but that is by no means assured.

****

Six central midfielders cannot fit into any formation, but the selection headache becomes even more pronounced if you want to play a variant of 4-4-2.

And the virtues you’re looking for in a midfielder change a little when you aren’t seeking to dominate the ball through having an extra man in midfield.

So the choice of who to pick in midfield becomes the most difficult and potentially controversial of all.  The big question, as far as I’m concerned at least, is – does he start Will Hughes?

Pearson has said repeatedly that he will be shifting the emphasis at Derby, which has been – a little snootily, you could argue – on style of play since 2013/4.  Now, it’s just about winning, however we can.  Pearson has also said he wants to see more pace and athleticism in the team.

In terms of physical presence and/or dynamism, the obvious three midfielders to look at are Bryson, Hendrick and Johnson, whereas Hughes and Butterfield are the more creative ball-players (let’s leave the injured Thorne to one side, for now).

However, appearances can be deceptive.  I took a look at the players’ defensive contributions last season (as measured by whoscored.com) and came up with a very crude Defence Rating for each of them (this Defence Rating is each players average tackles, interceptions and blocks per game added together and then their average fouls per game deducted from that total):-

Defence Rating

Thorne is king here, of course, but Hughes comes second.  Granted, he only played half a dozen or so games, so I calculated his Defence Rating for 2014/5 and it was 2.4 – still pretty good.

Despite his awkward gait, Hughes is actually far more defensively active than you might think, while the taller, quicker, more obviously athletic Hendrick makes fewer tackles, interceptions and blocks.  I was surprised to see Hendrick rate worst by this metric, but the facts whoscored.com presents are that Jeff averaged only one tackle per match in 2015/6 – and 0.8 fouls per game, to boot.

And that of course doesn’t take into account the most important bit, which is use of the football in possession.  Maybe Hendrick covers more grass than Hughes – I don’t have the data to prove it either way – but as I’m constantly reminded by my betters when it comes to possession, it’s what you do with it, not how much of it you have.  And I’d argue that the same applies to running around.  If you see the pass before you make it, nobody can run fast enough to cut it out, if you play it right.

The same goes for defending – I’m sure a lot of people reading this will have seen Paul McGrath playing sweeper for Derby, at a time when he could barely run.  It didn’t matter, because he knew where to be – sheer anticipation gave him a head-start on the other players.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I sincerely hope Hughes isn’t sacrificed for the sake of a new tactical shape, because I believe that he is good enough to adapt his game to play in any system.

I polled the Derby fans on Twitter and 81 per cent of 600 voters believed that Hughes would play on Saturday.  I certainly hope they’re right.

But whoever is named in the eleven, there will be plenty of players left out who will feel unlucky and unhappy not be starting.  Having so many options is a far better problem than not having enough – but it still requires very careful management.

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Nigel Pearson will do it his way – not ‘the Derby Way’

Nigel Pearson has signalled a major change in emphasis at Derby County by rejecting Mel Morris’ claim that performances are more important that results.

Speaking to Steve Nicholson this week, Pearson was clear that winning is the only thing that matters – directly contradicting the chairman’s previous stance and heralding a fundamental change to the nebulous and much-mocked ‘Derby Way’.

Pearson said: “We have to find different ways of winning football matches. And I didn’t say good performances, I said winning performances, because you have to find ways of winning games when you are not playing well.

“The sides that do well, historically in the Championship, are those sides.”

Pearson’s common-sense comments wouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy at most clubs – but they call time on a phrase the club has distanced itself from since shortly after Morris invoked it when called on to explain Paul Clement’s sacking.

In February, Morris claimed that short-term results can be misleading and that he instead measured the Rams’ coaching staff on whether or not he could detect a sustained improvement in performance and on the team’s style of play.  Morris added that promotion was not his sole aim.

He told the BBC: “You can talk about results and points and promotion, but to me, it’s more important that we see the team performing, on this rising tide of performance.”

But Morris’ statements and criteria clearly no longer apply.

The appointment of the arch-pragmatist Pearson was warmly welcomed by the vast majority of Derby fans, with few concerns raised about the outbursts of strange behaviour which marred his 2014/5 season at Leicester City and culminated in his departure, despite the fact that he’d helped to save the Foxes from a widely-predicted relegation.

Speaking during the first Derby County Podcast of the season, Ramspace blogger Chris Smith hailed Pearson’s toughness and welcomed him as a character ready to ‘crack heads’ and instil discipline into a squad whose performances and results became alarmingly inconsistent under the mismanagement of the unqualified Darren Wassall last season.

Pearson’s determination to stamp his authority on the football club seems set to lead to a far less visible and audible role for money man Morris, whose strong financial support has provided Derby with one of the best squads in the second tier and impressive, Premier League-ready facilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Derby County, Player Profiles | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Bye bye, Bucko – Jake Buxton leaves Derby County for Wigan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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