The Derby County BlogCast, episode #6 – Mid-January update

I pencilled this in for the next podcast weeks ago and it turns out to have been the perfect time for a new episode, with the Championship fully in the grips of January madness.  With Leeds sending spies ferreting around in the bushes, Forest finally removing Aitor Karanka (this was recorded before the announcement of Martin O’Neill as his replacement), plus the sacking of Gary Rowett, which feels like it happened a long time ago now!

Chris and I are joined by Derby’s Mememeister General, Ryan O’Meara, for a look at whether this graphic is likely to apply yet again this season, or whether Frank Lampard is ready and able to rip up the script.

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Derby County 0 Nottingham Forest 0

It’s entirely possible.  It also made me started idly thinking about the maximum total number of East Midlands Derbies that could theoretically happen in a single season. Home and away league fixtures, a two-legged League Cup semi-final, an FA Cup tie and replay, then promotion play-off semi-final to top it off would add up to eight.

In reality, 2008/9 where we played them four times and didn’t lose any of them is probably as good as it will ever get.  I wrote a story about the home FA Cup tie, which I watched in a pub in London…

Anyway.  Thankfully, this instalment of the ongoing psychodrama is over and the Brian Clough Trophy remains in Derby where it belongs until at least the end of February.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, it is now more than three years since the Rams lost to Nottingham Forest (seven games ago)…

In that time, Forest have only scored two goals, both of which came in the annoying 2-2 draw at the City Ground in 2017.

However, as pleasing as those records are, in reality the two sides are very evenly matched now.   Last night, Aitor Karanka’s double defensive midfield shield cancelled out Derby’s bright young attacking things very well and at the other end, a counter-attacking guerrilla cell led by Lewis Grabban kept the Rams’ rearguard occupied in sporadic, but occasionally deeply worrying bursts.

For the first half an hour, Forest pretty much just hung in there and I felt confident that Derby would go on to score the opening goal.  From there on in though, the balance of the game changed considerably and there was never really a comfortable moment.

I felt instinctively that a long 45 minutes was ahead when the second half kicked off and so it proved, with the Red Dogs a lick of paint away from executing the perfect away performance.  Stifle, frustrate, break – but luckily, not quite score.  The much-hyped Joe Lolley was kept quiet for long spells, but still eventually wriggled away from Tom Huddlestone too easily and almost nearly nicked it.

But in the end, possession was 51%/49% and Forest shaded the shot count (12-13 in total, 3-4 on target).  The numbers tell the tale – a game of only occasional chances between two teams who eventually boxed each other to a standstill and withdrew, happy with a point each.  Either side could have edged it and if they had, the other couldn’t have complained.  Both sides had players with the quality to turn a game, but nobody could quite manage it.

Derby were wrongly denied a penalty for the clumsy Tendayi Darikwa’s bizarre chest-kick on Tom Lawrence, but on the other hand, another referee might have seen fit to dismiss either Jayden Bogle, who should not have charged into an aerial challenge he was unlikely to win without catching his man, or Fikayo Tomori, whose two-footed sliding tackle was actually as clean as a whistle and, in the context of a tense derby game, a thing of ugly beauty, or beautiful ugliness – but is also the kind of thing I thought they were trying to do away with.  That high-risk, flying tackle was emblematic of what had become a heated, frantic scramble of a game, with nobody able to bring it under control and the referee doing his best to keep his cards in his pocket.

Derby under Frank Lampard are undoubtedly more of a passing side than they were under Gary Rowett, but my perception was that they went considerably more direct than usual for this game.  Their pass success dropped to 69 per cent, well below their usual average.  There were a lot of long clearances from Scott Carson, who even waved Richard Keogh away to take a long free kick from outside of his box on one occasion, something he doesn’t usually do.  The idea was to allow Jack Marriott to charge around and worry Michael Hefele and the German felt it necessary to rugby tackle Jack to the ground at one stage, earning a caution.

But the relentlessness of the forward balls meant that possession was often squandered unnecessarily.  Annoyingly, there were plenty of presentable opportunities for the defenders or central midfielders to pick out a pass, only for them to sling it straight out of play, or into the clutches of the beartrap midfield of Claudio Yacob and Jack Colback, who acted as a robust barrier in front of a makeshift-looking visiting back four – which creaked under pressure, but didn’t get pushed enough to cave.

Mason Mount, who hasn’t scored since September and has been subbed three times in the last five games, couldn’t find any room to operate and was worryingly quiet, other than smashing a decent chance well over the bar on the volley.  Tom Huddlestone’s passing started to fail him and, unable to calm down and control the game, Derby played into Forest’s hands.  They became bogged down in a second half which was more like trench warfare than a game.  There was no flow or momentum, not least because Derby conceded a free kick pretty much every time they conceded possession – 21, in total, with every outfield player fouling at least once.

Nevertheless, for all that the game became bitty and formless, there were moments which could have swung it decisively towards the home side, with a bit more luck or a better decision.  Firstly, Tom Lawrence burst through a challenge and reached the D, where he went for glory, smashing the ball wide when he could have released Marriott clean through on goal.  It looked an awful decision, but one entirely typical of a player whose first and only thought is for how he can score himself and never to check whether a teammate is in a better position.

Next came a beautifully struck volley from Harry Wilson – perhaps he hit it too purely when a slight scuff might have sent it trickling past the keeper.  Jayden Bogle had earlier caught a rasper absolutely wonderfully, only for it to land directly in Costel Pantilimon’s midriff.  And of course, also in the first half, Tom Huddlestone had been just an inch away from converting a nod-down from a corner; having cleverly stayed onside, he wasn’t quite athletic enough to make the connection he needed.

At the other end, Grabban, apparently played onside by Bogle, went clean through and forced a save from Carson when the goal looked very much to be gaping.  The fine margins which could easily have tipped the balance in either direction ultimately conspired to keep both sides in a grim deadlock.

Taking the local hoo-ha out of it, this was a clash between two serious play-off candidates and was therefore predictably tough, tight and gruelling.  I half-wondered beforehand if it might be akin to October’s difficult Sheffield United game – the return leg of that is coming soon, by the way – which ultimately swung our way and it was certainly nearer to that match in terms of being evenly poised throughout.  In this case, however, there was to be no breakthrough.

In a way, it’s good that Forest are good again and that the next City Ground game is likely to be one freighted with plenty more meaning than just the destiny of the Brian Clough Trophy.  We need these matches, even if they always have the potential to turn into sour, grim slugfests – particularly when they stay goalless for a long time.

Saturday 23 February – or whatever date Sky Sports decide it needs to be moved to for the sake of their ratings – will be not be a day for the faint-hearted.

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Derby County’s season in numbers

I was really pleased to be asked to contribute to this year’s Ramspace festival ‘advent calendar’ of DCFC posts. Chris asked me to produce ‘stats Valhalla’, so I did my best!

Here’s my long read looking at the bigger picture, ahead of the big one tomorrow…

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The Derby County BlogCast, #5 – November recap, plus East Midlands Derby preview and transfer talk

The latest monthly Derby County BlogCast has landed, with my regular amigo Chris Smith on board, plus a special cameo appearance from Joel Clyne, the man who set up the original Derby County Podcast, before moving on to pastures new.

I’m really pleased with how this month’s episode came out – there was a lot to talk about, with two losses and two defeats in the period, one of which was at Gary Rowett’s Stoke.  Also, there was richly deserved praise for Harry Wilson, the opposite of that Bradley Johnson, a look ahead to what could be a very closely fought East Midlands Derby and the first glance forward to the January transfer window. 

Enjoy and let us know your thoughts.

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Stoke City v Derby County preview

Like his spiritual father Tony Pulis, Gary Rowett sees himself as a pragmatist.  His reactive brand of football may not be very popular, but Pulis and Rowett argue that it’s necessary to play less-than-scintillating football sometimes to get results.  The trouble for this type of manager comes when the promised results don’t materialise, because then, there’s very little there for fans to get behind. 

Just like José Mourinho, another key influence, Rowett is very fond of statistics – at least, his own personal reading of them, which he uses in press conferences to influence reporters and defend himself against criticism, either of his overall record or of his playing style.  He couldn’t help, for example, telling reporters in the press conference before this game that “The reality is, we had more goals and points (with Derby) at this stage last season than [this season’s] side has currently got.”

This serves only to remind Rams fans a) how badly the arse fell out of Derby’s season under Rowett once 2017 ended and b) how petty he is, that he obviously can’t stand to see the infinitely more popular Frank Lampard getting the plaudits and affection that he never did.

For Rowett, the top line at the moment will be that Stoke City have only lost one of their last nine league games.  Superficially, that sounds decent, but the run has included five draws, resulting in a tally of 14 points from a possible 27.  Not awful, but not play-off form – and this is Stoke, freshly relegated, swimming in Bet365’s money and parachute payments, carrying an England goalkeeper and internationals wherever you care to look.  The expectation was for much, much more than this.

Rowett had big money to spend – signing Ryan Woods, Tom Ince, Peter Etebo, James McClean (who feels like the ultimate Rowett signing, somehow) and Benik Afobe, plus Ashley Williams on loan, with the idea of building an experienced force which would be too strong for this league.  A better chance of Premier League football was, after all, what Rowett left Derby in the lurch for last summer.

Stoke’s wage bill last season was in excess of £90m and while relegation means an inevitable financial haircut, their parachute payment for this season is £42m – far higher on its own than any normal Championship club’s total turnover (Derby, who are obviously one of the division’s bigger clubs, turned over £29m in 2017).

So, surely pretty much every Derby fan has felt huge schadenfreude at Rowett’s struggles – particularly the Potters’ damaging home losses to Wigan, Blackburn and Birmingham – and the current gap of eight points between the two clubs is, even at this stage of the season, quite a chasm.  

Their problems haven’t come because they’re being thrashed every week, however – it’s because they can’t stop drawing.  They’ve been held by Brentford, Middlesbrough and QPR at home, while away, they picked up what Rowett probably perceives as valuable points at Sheffield United, Forest, Preston, Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham (Rowett’s Derby drew 15 times last season – the high for the division was 16).

Too many draws, not enough points at home, not enough goals (21, with a goal difference of -1).  For shots per game, they rank 17th in the division, for shots on target per game, 20th.  Nobody is scoring heavily, although the big names Afobe (four goals), Ince (three), Joe Allen (three) and Saido Berahino (two) have at least chipped in.  37 year-old Peter Crouch is still on the wage bill and acting as Rowett’s “Plan B” from the bench (while he’s not busy producing podcasts for the BBC).

The godlike Jack Marriott has outscored all of those big name high-earners, despite only having started seven league games – less than half as many as Afobe.

In short, Stoke are not performing to expectation, or anywhere near it.  As the Stoke Sentinel’s Martin Spinks put it after the 2-2 draw with Steve McClaren’s QPR: 

“The sad truth is – and much as some of us are desperately trying to convince ourselves otherwise – there is a mid-table look about a Stoke team that just can’t hit the floor with the throttle.  We have rarely seen the ruthlessness required of a team able to sustain a top-six challenge, or even kickstart one, and it seems an awfully long time since anyone in and around Stoke City was heard uttering the phrase top two, at least without an expletive either side.”

Supporters, meanwhile, lined up to criticise Rowett for his “slow negative football with strange tactics and substitutes, no creativity in attack, very few shots on target and the inevitable draw at the final whistle.”

Stoke fan and football writer James Whittaker summed up the local dissatisfaction with Rowett in a series of agonised tweets after the QPR draw:

“Reflecting on our season so far, I’ve got to admit I’m starting to lose faith in Rowett.  Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s walked into a club riddled with disease on and off the pitch and nothing was going to change overnight or even in a few months.  My main issue is the fact that when I watch us, there is no apparent plan on the pitch whatsoever…

“I was expecting there to be some kind of identity shining through or at least a style or approach to recognise, but alas we are sitting here in 13th place with 5 wins from 18 games with no idea what to expect week to week.  There’s no way of predicting a game or forecasting what might happen logically other than you know it will be disjointed.  We’re getting results by luck rather than design at times and that’s not scalable over a season or, God forbid, the entire length of his contract.

“No, we had no right to remain in the Premier League indefinitely but the manner of our demise and the complete and utter ineptitude of managing it puts my blood pressure through the roof.  We won’t go up this year and I’ve seen nothing to suggest there’s even any hope beyond that.”

The sense of utter despair engendered by watching a Rowett team regularly is one which rings bells….   At least last season, I was only in a position to pronounce Derby’s season as dead in the water in March.

Regardless of the result of this particular game, you can’t help but wonder if Rowett has been rumbled.  Granted, he probably felt that he was leaving Derby before he was inevitably pushed out, but in gambling on a jump to Stoke, he looks to have bitten off more than he could chew.  As it stands, a dismissal and brief furlough, followed by a newly circumscribed career firefighting for smaller Championship clubs battling to stave off relegation and not too fussy about how that looks seems to beckon. 

As for Derby, they come into this game on the back of a win at Sheffield Wednesday which in truth came from a fairly uninspiring performance. Mason Mount, missing from the Villa defeat, was back, but only managed an hour of the game, in which he was far from his influential best. 

 Lining up alongside Mount in midfield was the tiny, lightweight Duane Holmes, a player capable of wriggling away from a tackle like an eel, but not of winning the ball.  He is learning at the deep end, having played well in the second half against Birmingham, struggled to impact the game against Villa and revealing moments of exciting quality and serious naivety in equal measure at Hillsborough.

Immediately before the opening goal, look at the way Holmes loses the ball and then compounds the error by leaving his man to press the defender:

Yes, pressing is a key part of Lampard’s game, but decision-making is also key at this level and Holmes went for a ball he was never going to win, probably goaded by his own sloppiness in conceding possession and looking to make amends.  He might have got away with it while playing League One football for Scunthorpe, but the player he was leaving unmarked was Barry Bannan, who had the quality to take advantage with an accurate long pass.  The goal was an extremely poor one to concede and the defenders certainly could have done better in dealing with the ball in, but the original situation came from Holmes’ rash decision.

Another example was the sitter which Fernando Forestieri missed in the second half.  With Derby 2-1 up, Holmes won a throw-in on the right, which Andre Wisdom trundled up to take – only to be befuddled to suddenly find that Holmes had sprinted to collect the ball and thrown it neatly to his feet.  Wisdom, who is frankly not a player you would want to be put in that position, manifestly wasn’t ready, miscontrolled it and was robbed.  Seconds later, Forestieri was clean through and really should have scored.

The point of this is not to rag on Holmes, who, at 24, has his best years ahead of him and will hopefully learn from his early mistakes at Championship level.  I just wonder whether Lampard will be keen to reinstate Craig Bryson to the side, following his return from the bench on Saturday.  Bryson was a key figure until sustaining an injury against Sheffield United and when it comes to “doing it on a cold Wednesday night in Stoke”, perhaps it’s time to go for the more experienced option in midfield.

The goals against column for Derby remains low, but a bothersome stat is the Rams’ ongoing lack of clean sheets.  Adam Reach’s goal meant that they have now only kept one clean sheet in their last 13 games – thanks to an exasperating habit of conceding once every time (Villa aside) – and in those circumstances, I imagine Curtis Davies must feel extremely frustrated not to be named in the side.  This was an issue I first wrote about a while ago, when Fikayo Tomori emerged as a popular, speedy option in defence – the Chelsea loanee is clearly a player Lampard believes in.  But he had a bit of a nightmare at Wednesday and forced the manager into subbing him at half-time.

Tomori’s virtues are his pace and relative composure on the ball – these attributes mean he is naturally suited to the game Lampard ideally wants to play – but he also has a fiery temperament and a young man’s impetuous desire to ‘nick’ the ball, meaning that he can get himself into trouble against canny centre forwards.  He never did enough to merit being sent off at Hillsborough, despite the howls of the home players and fans, but having got himself booked, he then got involved in a tangle of legs while on the attack in the Wednesday half and from that point on, his (yellow) card was marked.  The slightest indiscretion after that would have forced the referee’s hand and there was little option for Lampard but to make the change.

With a powerful, experienced unit to face in Stoke and with that failure to keep clean sheets in mind, surely Lampard must at least be considering making a change and bringing the club captain back into the team.  In Bryson and Davies, Lampard can call upon two seasoned campaigners who will not be fazed by the atmosphere in the Potteries and for this game, I’d be tempted to give them the nod over the promising but green Holmes and Tomori.  

That said, Lampard has consistently shown that he is not afraid to trust young players and if he decides to stick to his guns and show faith in youth, then so be it.  Derby have gained enough results and points to justify the manager’s approach and with what was threatening to become something of an injury crisis now abating, hopefully he has enough depth in his squad to cope with the exacting Championship winter.


Rowett would love it, love it, if his team beat Derby, while Rams fans would be howling with laughter if they condemned him to another defeat and the boos of the disaffected supporters.  But whatever happens in this game, one stat I did notice, which Rowett really wouldn’t like, sums up the difference in approach between the two managers and why Derby are in better hands now than they were under the Villa-supporting Brummie. 

At Sheffield Wednesday, Derby recorded nine shots in the game.  This was interesting because it was the first time all season Lampard’s Rams had failed to hit double figures for their shot tally.  Rowett’s Derby mustered less than ten shots in a match 13 times last season – getting on for once every three games.  

I was so appalled by Brentford away (three shots) that I was moved to write a two-part blog on what the hell was going on, but it got even worse when the team, spooked by their hideous humbling at the hands of Sunderland, had two shots in the entire game at Preston.  Two!  OK, they won the game 1-0 thanks to Tom Lawrence’s drive (the less said about his celebration, the better), but the beautiful game, it was not.  

And it wasn’t exactly a one-off – it was a regular tactical choice of Rowett’s to sit back, let the opposition have the ball and negate them.  Whereas Lampard demands something very different, which is that his side attacks the opposition and actually tries to win – not just not to lose.

Lampard does not spin the facts and snipe about trivial stats to prove a point, he’s not insecure enough to need to do that.  His understanding of football is infinitely richer, he has more personality, more stature and much, much more of a future as a manager than Rowett.   We will lose Lampard one day – but it will not be to Stoke.

Whatever happens in this game, it’s clear that Rowett did Derby County a massive favour by walking out on the club.  And should a legion of inflatable snakes be launched into the Potteries sky as the home fans jeer in their droves and Lampard starts the bounce, then if I’m being really honest, the reality is that I would absolutely love it.  

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