Burton Albion recap, plus Middlesbrough preview

Not so long ago – although it doesn’t feel that way – Derby County were second in the league and the fans were singing “We’ve got (boom boom) Gary Rowett” to the tune of “Glad All Over”.  Simpler, happier times.

But they’re forgotten about now, because since an excellent run of victories propelled them through October, November and December, Derby have played like a drain in 2018 and plummeted quite deservedly out of the top six.  At the moment, it’s so hard to feel positive, really about anything connected to the club, whether on the pitch or behind the scenes.

Yet as dismal as Derby have been in 2018, they are seventh, which was exactly where I predicted they would finish when asked by FourFourTwo, back in August.  OK, they may have a bit further to fall yet, but mathematically, they can’t drop further than 11th.  A top ten finish outside the play-offs would be in line with my expectations before a ball was kicked – but of course, with the way the season has turned out, that outcome would now feel like a crushing disappointment.

The Middlesbrough Gazette produced a handy graphic showing what the table would look like had the season started on 30 January 2018, when Tony Pulis took the reins:-

Graphic credit – https://www.gazettelive.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/championship-table-pulis-took-charge-14550720

If Derby were ninth or tenth in the league but gradually rising up the table on the back of a good run of form, instead of slumping down from a highpoint which proved unsustainable, we would probably all feel a lot more positive and hopeful.  But instead, it looks as though, just like in every season since 2014 (except for the Nigel Pearson one), we peaked too soon.

It’s weird, isn’t it?  If Derby beat Boro, they go fifth.  The season is far from over.  But instincitvely, it feels to most of us like it already is and that its defining moments are already past.

If my poll was representative, most Derby fans now believe there’s no chance of us going up (and might even fear what came next, if we did).  With Middlesbrough and Cardiff next up at Pride Park, you have to worry that things could be about to get worse before the end of the season.  The sour taste could become even less bearable and things could get even more difficult for Rowett ahead of 2018/9.

After what can only be described as a shameful defeat at Burton Albion, the BBC’s veteran reporter Pat Murphy tweeted that Rowett was gearing up for a major clear-out of players in the summer.  That would be a lot easier had a load of them not recently been given contract extensions.  George Thorne and Craig Forsyth both got new deals to 2020, but have been banished since Sunderland.  Richard Keogh, likewise, was extended to 2021.  I wonder if Rowett wishes those deals hadn’t been handed out now.  Even Jamie Hanson got a new deal this week, a 22 year-old who has outgrown reserve team football, but has never made the breakthrough and seemed to be totally out of the picture.  With only Jason Shackell, Darren Bent and Chris Baird out of contract (alongside reserve keeper Kelle Roos), there isn’t much ‘chaff’ that can simply be let go.

But that’s for the summer.  For now, the question is – how can we get the win we need against Middlesbrough (stop sniggering at the back, please)?

The most pressing problem is the speed demon Adama Traoré and the worst news is, he plays on the right wing, which brings Rowett’s left back problem into stark focus.

Baird is not a left back, of course – he’s simply been dragooned into the job out of desperation.  I’ve never been a fan of Marcus Olsson, but he is at least a bit quicker than Baird and naturally left-sided.  If he is fit, then surely, Olsson will have to come back into the team today.

Traoré’s goals and assists record – five and eight respectively – is decent, but not all that impressive, on the face of it.  He has scored less than either Andreas Weimann or Tom Lawrence.  However, unlike our guys, he has started only 23 games and has peaked at the right time, bagging all of his goals since 20 January after being given a new lease of life under Tony Pulis.

Yeah, that sounds weird, doesn’t it?  But the winger described by the Middlesbrough Gazette last month as “a phenomenon, a freak of a talent, arguably the most electrifying right-wing weapon in the entire division” struggled under Garry Monk, who apparently didn’t trust him, didn’t always select him and, according to the Northern Echo, told him he needed to do more to fit into the ‘team shape‘ – to ‘shelve some of his individual instincts… track back and carry out the defensive duties he has been instructed to enact.”

Pulis may not be renowned as a champion of jogo bonito, but he’s been able to get the young Frenchman producing the goods, where Monk failed.  The secret?  Balance, according to the Gazette’s Anthony Vickers: “I think the key is having a solid defensive full back behind him.  It means he is not asked to cover back so much and his weaknesses are not exposed so often.”  Rather than asking Traoré to change his game, Pulis has made allowances for him and is reaping the rewards.

One former Derby man, Ryan Shotton, has replaced another, Cyrus Christie, at right back for Boro.  About the only thing those two have in common as players is that they weren’t exactly popular figures with a lot of fans by the time they left Pride Park (I found this out whenever I tried to defend Christie on Twitter – the level of trolling he experienced was appalling, in my opinion).  Rams fans may not recognise the description of Shotton as ‘solid’, but will understand the difference in style between the two full backs.

Patrick Bamford won’t play today, but another ex-Forest striker, Britt Assombalonga, is also in Boro’s squad and has 13 league goals to his name this term.  And Daniel Ayala, who has played for Derby and Forest, has proved he’s a threat at set plays, chalking up an impressive seven goals.

But it’s been a tough season for Boro too and on the whole, they’ve underwhelmed.  Monk failed to deliver and now they’re scrambling for fifth or sixth, when their pre-season expectation must have been higher than that.

Derby’s abdication from the concept of ‘form’ has helped Boro massively, so it would be ironic (and quite funny) if the Rams suddenly sparked back into life now, of all weekends.  But how can that happen and what team does Rowett pick?

He’s been let down consistently now for months and without transferring players, there are only so many ways you can rejig the side.  Five changes were made after Sunderland, but Burton was so dismal that some of those players – Keogh, at the very least –  may now have to be considered for selection again.

The kickoff.co.uk form guide shows a clean sweep for Boro

Monday’s experimental U23s line-up, with three at the back and Keogh as a holding midfielder, got tongues wagging – if you want to make friends on Twitter, start talking about a back three – and according to the Derby Telegraph, many of the first-team squad were watching the match.

Meanwhile, the club have made a big fuss over Luke Thomas, releasing a video interview with him, while a suspiciously-timed article in the Gloucestershire Echo (Thomas’ local paper) claiming that he is being monitored by West Ham and other Premier League clubs, despite still not having made his Championship breakthrough.

After the pitifully inadequate way they performed against Wolves and Burton, surely Rowett can’t pick the same team again – it would be madness to do that and expect anything different.  The players showed that they currently can’t win matches, or even really compete at Championship level, with that line-up and in that formation.  So it will have to be a case of going back to the drawing board, forgetting any previous assumptions about what would work and what wouldn’t work and trying something new, building on whatever strengths Rowett can identify and trying to protect any glaring weaknesses.

However, short of recruiting a new team, there is no magic bullet.  There are too many problems for that.  Left back has become a massive headache and Andre Wisdom hasn’t had a great season at right back either.   Central midfield is a live issue, with the pairing of Joe Ledley and Tom Huddlestone currently looking much too slow and ponderous.  With those two struggling for form and pretty obviously fitness too, there is precious little energy and even less bite in midfield.  If Rowett is to persist with them, then they need some help in there.  If Bradley Johnson is still injured,  the most likely candidate to do that job is Jamie Hanson.  But a midfield three would necessarily mean dropping an attacker from a team which is already failing to produce enough in the final third.

Yet again, Derby did not create much at Burton.  This is a clear pattern now, not a blip.  They are not scoring enough goals, not out-shooting teams, not even getting into the box with any regularity.

Rowett has put Kasey Palmer on as a midfielder when chasing a goal, but it seems clear that to get the best out of him, he needs to be playing further forward.  David Nugent doesn’t look fit and is struggling to get through games, let alone score.  Matej Vydra’s half-arsed free kick from the edge of the box at Burton, followed up by his absolutely brainless penalty, speak to me of a man who is struggling to cope with what is happening around him.  And who can blame him?

The above sums up why my mood is currently so terrible.  But the crazy thing is, it’s theoretically still salvageable.  I’m not sure how it can be done, but it can be done.  Two wins from the next four games and Derby might just squeak into the play-offs and then who knows what happens next.

Just look how much is riding on this game….

Graphic credit – Ben Mayhew (https://twitter.com/experimental361)

A win could change everything, absolutely everything.

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Wolves recap plus Burton Albion preview

As I mentioned in my match preview  – which irritated Wolves fans in a way that Derby County utterly failed to do on the pitch – Wolves are on a different level to everyone else on the Championship.  In next to no time, Fosun’s money and more importantly their tight connection to Jorge Mendes has utterly transformed the club from pottering underachiever to sophisticated, Premier League-ready European middleweight.  It’s hard to see any reason why they will struggle in the Premier League next season.

That however is no excuse for Derby County not to give them a game.  In a different way, this was just as humiliating a defeat as the one against Sunderland.  While that loss was a case of gross incompetence, this was one of sheer inferiority – not just in technique, but, less forgivably, in attitude.

Derby looked beaten as soon as Chris Baird’s inexplicable malfunction led to that stupid early goal.  OK, it was important not to let the floodgates open after that howler, but you can’t just sit off for the rest of the match.  They looked so timid in possession, so scared to give the ball away that they ended up playing “safe” little passes – sideways and backwards – only to run into the trap of Wolves’ alert, well-organised press every time they tried to force a pass to Vydra centrally.  For all that Rowett has spoken about making us more direct, Derby’s pass success rate in this game was 86 per cent – miles higher than usual since Rowett took over – because they rarely tried anything high-risk.  I’ve always preferred teams who can control the game through short passing, but in this game, I finally felt like the “it’s what you do with it” brigade had a point after all and even found myself yearning for the fabled “Plan B” – Cameron Jerome, channel balls.  Anything to put Wolves under any sort of pressure.  Tom Huddlestone was irrelevant as a playmaker, the front players were starved of meaningful service and Derby created absolutely nothing.

They mustered six shots, but none of them were from inside the box – the only time this season that has happened so far (though they managed only one in the box at Preston). The gulf in quality on view was something we had to brace ourselves for, but it was still sobering to view.  There was a feeling throughout that this was a game that was happening to Derby, or more accurately, being inflicted on them.

Huddlestone’s immobility was shown up horribly as Wolves simply passed the ball the midfield around at will.  Rúben Neves sprayed the ball to his wing backs with heavenly accuracy – the kind of ball Huddlestone is capable of, given the time – because he was given the time to do it.

Wisdom received the ball, looked forward, saw an immaculately organised orange wall, turned round and apologetically gave it square.  Baird had either been instructed not to enter Wolves’ final third, or refused to do so.  Vydra was tightly marked and kicked to the ground when necessary.  Lawrence flickered and fizzled, Weimann – who Paul Lambert would have signed for Wolves last season, remember – ran around a lot.  Wolves shut them out with contemptuous ease.

Rowett could see all of this unfolding in front of him, but didn’t make any changes until 70 minutes.  After that, it wasn’t until a clearly shattered team starting falling over on the pitch that he bothered to make any further substitutions.  David Nugent was isolated and ineffectual against the Wolves back three, but not relieved of his duties until 82 minutes had elapsed.  Jamie Hanson arrived for a pointless late cameo – with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps should have started this match and been told to man-mark Neves.  It might not have worked, but giving a Portugal international and former captain of FC Porto the freedom of Molineux was never going to end well either.

After Neves’ goal, Rowett effectively decided that it wasn’t worth chasing the game and potentially taking a hiding, instead settling for 0-2.  Luckily enough, Wolves sensed how milky their opponents were and didn’t exert themselves trying to hand us the whupping we deserved, as the three points were effectively in the bag anyway.

Enough said.  As galling as it to lose in such a passive manner, it was only ever three points on offer.  The best that could’ve happened was to stay fifth with a slightly better goal difference, the worst was a battering and stay fifth with a badly damaged goal difference (and further damage to morale among the fans).  It’s perfectly possible that GD could separate sixth from seventh this year and at present, Derby’s +20 is clearly better than the other contenders.

So to that extent, no disaster.  What Rowett now has to do is redeem the awful display at Wolves by putting out a side which beats Burton Albion.

On paper, it’s the dream tie – Nigel’s Brewers are as good as down and haven’t won at home since Christ was a lad – but that looked the case when Sunderland came to town, as well.

Derby have managed just 11 shots from within the box in the past four games, which averages out at less than one every half-hour.  You might get away with that for a while – Lawrence’s fine strike from distance glossed the Bolton win and his free kick got us the win at Preston – but over the longer term, such a lack of creativity could wreck a season.  So, objective #1 has to be – be much more productive going forward at the Pirelli, against the worst defence in the division.

Burton have a distinctly 2012 DCFC vibe at the back and you would like to think – given the amount of money at Pride Park spent since then – that Derby would have progressed enough to comfortably see off their (very) old boys, if they’re selected.

And they’re just as bad up-front.  Darren Bent’s loan move (one goal so far) has been as successful as you’d have expected.  35-year old Lloyd Dyer has contributed seven goals from wide – a better return than Tom Lawrence or Andreas Weimann – but he is out with a hamstring injury and no other Brewer has scored more than three league goals.

Worst attack, worst defence, bottom of the league.  Top scorer (with seven) out injured.

If Derby can’t put these away, then finishing in the play-offs starts to look really difficult.  Three points would move the Rams onto 71 – still not enough, but enough to give some margin for error in the three extremely tough matches which follow.  Curiously, the four teams immediately below Derby play each other on Saturday, so the good news is, they can’t all win and a victory for the Rams would pull them further ahead of at least two of their rivals.

The nightmare outcome is a Nigel Clough-inspired up-yours to his old club and while there are no logical reasons to predict it happening, it did happen to Nigel Pearson last season (last season – Jesus, that feels like a long time ago).  You’d like to think that a Gary Rowett-managed side would be much better schooled on what to expect at Burton.  And you’d like to think that they would be professional enough to take advantage of such weak opposition.  They did it against Bolton, after all.

But pressure can do funny things to people and in a way, there’s no pressure on Burton here, because they’re as good as down anyway.  Besides, failing to beat the worst team in the league at a time when their only goalscorer is injured would be exactly the kind of ‘Peak Derby’ outcome that Rowett described as ‘bollocks’ not so long ago.

Supporting Derby feels tough at the moment, because the results have been poor for a while now, the team have struggled for form and the football has generally been less than inspiring.  It’s just the way it has unfolded – again – to be seemingly in contention for automatic promotion at the turn of the year, only to fade away so sharply and familiarly.  It has been painful.  They don’t look like a particularly good side, which is tough to take in itself when Wolves and Fulham look so fluent and some folk were claiming it was all that football which was the problem.

And that’s before you get into the off-the-field issues – but that is an entirely different story, for another time.

But take a step back – if offered it at the start of the season, would you have taken fifth in the league and 22 points clear of Forest in mid-April?  Personally, I’d have snapped hands off for that.  Hopefully the team will give us all a huge morale boost tomorrow at Burton and then we can look forward to four more absolutely massive games in the weeks to come.

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“FC Mendes” v Derby County preview

In the build-up to this game, Gary Rowett has repeatedly spoken about “controlling games without the ball”, something which José Mourinho also talks about.  When Manchester United beat Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford despite having been outshot 14-5 and commanded only 32 per cent possession, Mourinho said: “You can be in control without having the ball, you can be in trouble when you have the ball.”

It’s a counter-attacking philosophy – counter-intuitive, you could say – but it is the Mourinho mindset as summed up by Diego Torres, which I mentioned pre-Fulham (a game Derby deservedly lost, with 42 per cent of the ball):-

1. The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors

2. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition

3. Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes

4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake

5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake

6. Whoever has the ball has fear

7. Whoever does not have it is therefore stronger

Graphic courtesy of KickOff.co.uk

Wolves’ players are operating at a higher level than the Championship and point six, if it is correct at all, is certainly irrelevant here, as the home side should have no fear whatsoever ahead of this one.   It’s clear that ‘trying to be superior’ to Wolves at Molineux would be to invite disaster, so we will just have to hope that Derby can defend well enough to dig out a result on the night.

There’s always hope of course and while there’s no logical reason to suggest that the Rams will win, they are probably in with as good a chance of sneaking something from this match as anyone in the division.  Derby have 19 clean sheets this season – more than anybody except Wolves – and have a better away record than anybody except Wolves or Fulham.  Only Wolves and Cardiff have conceded less goals on than the road than Derby, who I reckon have three players who would be in with a chance of getting a game at Wolves (Scott Carson, Curtis Davies, Matej Vydra).

Wolves have only lost once at home since August – but that was to Forest, which shows that even the best team can have an inexplicable off-day.  Bristol City, Sunderland (0-0!), Norwich and Hull have all held Wolves at Molineux, so they are far from perfect, for all their clear superiority to the rest of the division.

Wolves have a remarkably settled team.  Nuno Espirito Santo has fielded a 3-4-3 all year, with Conor Coady, Matt Doherty, Diogo Jota and Rúben Neves more-or-less ever-present and Willy Boly, Barry Douglas, Romain Saiss, Ivan Cavaleiro and Léo Bonatini all regular starters.  Benik Afobe and Hélder Costa are more-than handy options to play in the front three as well, so the sheer amount of goal threats they possess is enough to give any opposition manager a massive headache:-

Wolves goals plus assists, 2017/8

Cavaleiro – 21 (9 goals)
D. Jota – 19 (14 gls)
Douglas – 18 (4 gls)
Bonatini – 17 (12 gls)
Costa – 10 (5 gls)

Derby goals plus assists, 2017/8

Vydra – 22 (19 goals)
Lawrence – 11 (5 gls)
Weimann – 10 (5 gls)
Nugent – 9 (6 gls)
Johnson – 8 (4 gls)

With an average possession of 52.8 per cent, they are not massive ballhogs, but their pass completion rate – 81.1 per cent – is second highest in the Championship.  It seems that they are doing what Rowett talks about wanting Derby to do, which is not keeping the ball for the sake of it, but getting it forward quickly and accurately, creating opportunities to score and taking them with ruthlessness.

Short pass accuracy
Wolves 85.7% (14,891 / 17,356)
Derby 80% (10,821 / 13,510)

Long pass accuracy
Wolves 51.4% (1,431 / 2,782)
Derby 42.4% (1,166 / 2,749)

Wolves’ success, deserved as it is in footballing terms, has always been tainted by criticism of the methods they have adopted.  According to the Telegraph‘s John Percy, Derby are among several Championship clubs who have raised concerns about the involvement of Jorge Mendes at Molineux.

It is frankly bizarre that players of the calibre of Neves and Diogo Jota are strutting their stuff in an unglamorous adjunct to Birmingham and there is absolutely zero chance that they would be, were it not for the close partnership between Mendes and Fosun, the Chinese conglomerate which controls Wolves.  Fosun have a minority stake in Mendes’ Gestifute agency and the flourishing relationship between the two parties has clearly benefited Wolves to an immense degree on the pitch.

A bunch of Portuguese players joined last season, including Cavaleiro for £7m and Costa for £13m – but most of the rest weren’t particularly successful.  Fosun and Mendes simply doubled down by getting rid of Paul Lambert, replacing him with one of Mendes’ clients and upping the quality of the recruits.

Wolves’ position is that Mendes is acting in an advisory capacity, that he is not in control of their recruitment and they are not breaking any rules.  But it is a cosy situation indeed and one which has unarguably distorted this season’s Championship as a competition. Parachuting in players of such a high calibre in has given Wolves a gigantic advantage over the rest of us.  They lost more than £23m in 2016/7 and have reportedly gone on to spend £35m on players this season, but their promotion will render any Financial Fair Play problems irrelevant, as the Premier League aren’t interested in the EFL’s rules.

So whether it’s rubber-stamped tonight or not, congratulations to “FC Mendes” on going up.  I’m sure that they will continue to benefit from the Mendes / Fosun relationship as they stabilise in the Premier League, but in honesty, the way in which it has been achieved doesn’t sit right when it ends up with fans chanting the name of an agent, instead of their own manager or players.

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Derby County v Bolton Wanderers preview

If you read my post-Sunderland article, you’ll know that how shocked I was at the performance and entirely deserved 4-1 defeat.  It wasn’t a nice thing to write and I made the point after publishing it that I took no pleasure from giving the club both barrels for its failings.  But given the feedback the piece received, I think its fair to say that what I wrote struck a chord with many other Derby fans.

Gary Rowett bracketed Sunderland with the early-season away performances at Sheffield United and Bristol City and his tactical response at Preston was exactly the same.  Just as they did at Brentford and Cardiff, Derby sat in a rigid 4-4-1-1 shape and asked the Lilywhites whether they could break it down.  Alex Neil said that Derby “came not to lose” and it’s impossible to argue with that.  Certainly after a first half in which the Rams, despite a few promising breakaway positions, failed to muster a single shot, it was impossible to see how they could win.

But apart from a few nervy scrambles following set pieces, they looked largely comfortable in the second half and much credit for that goes to player of the season contender Curtis Davies and his new defensive partner, Alex Pearce.

The headline change was the omission of Richard Keogh and Rowett deserves credit for grabbing the bull by the horns and doing it.  And while his decision to persist with the struggling Tom Lawrence seemed like stubbornness to me at the time, hopefully scoring the winning goal will give the Welshman a new lease of life.  His manic cupped-ear “celebration” in front of the Derby faithful said a lot about the pressure he has been feeling and just how much the criticism can sting.

At Deepdale, Derby went negative and went direct – a wince-inducing 54% pass ‘success’ rate proves they weren’t remotely bothered whether they kept the ball or not.  And I’m struggling to think of a game in recent Rams history in which they only shot twice – a 1-0 defeat at Swansea in which Nigel Clough’s team mustered only one shot is the only occasion that comes to mind.

They rode their luck for a win which came as a huge relief and Rowett was right to say that nothing other than the result mattered, given his team’s awful form.  But they can’t play the same way against Bolton Wanderers, mostly because they’re at home and the atmosphere will be completely different, but also because the Trotters, with their desperately poor away record – the worst of any team in the Championship – will not come to Derby and try to play us off the park.

Graphic courtesy of KickOff.co.uk

The home form has dropped off considerably since Christmas, with only seven points collected from the 21 on offer since Derby beat Millwall 3-0 on 23 December, so the home fans are craving victory first and foremost – if that means another “ugly” win, then so be it.

But I think the Sunderland fiasco hurt so much because on top of missing out on the three much-needed three points, in honesty it felt like a huge chance to bang a few goals past floundering opposition and enjoy a bit of entertainment for a change.  Bored of lumpy Championship gruel, I was hoping for some red meat – I wanted the players to smell blood and rip into the vulnerable, limping animal in front of them.

Rowett talks about the “resilience” the team have showed by not losing many away games, but resilience is also shown through handling the pressure that comes with the demands of 25,000+ and not hiding – showing your talent on a big stage, whether you’re a tough defender, a technical midfielder, or a flying winger.  That hasn’t happened for this team for too long now and it’s time to put it right.

The desire for entertainment is of course behind the hope that Rowett will at some stage see fit to unleash Kasey Palmer, who is a cut above anyone around him in terms of sheer ability.  The starting XI will not be radically different from the one which won at Deepdale – more than likely, it will be exactly the same – but this time, they need to create a hell of a lot more than the two shots they managed on Easter Monday.  And that’s where Palmer could come in handy.  When you look at Derby’s season overall, it doesn’t take long to realise that turning just a handful of those 14 Ds into Ws is all it would have taken for us to be up their with Wolves.  To do that, we needed just a few more goals – defensively, we’ve been as good as the four clubs above us, but offensively, they have all pulled away and scored more than the Rams.

 

So, does Rowett pick the team that ground out the 1-0 at Preston and hope that they can show a hell of a lot more threat going forward, or does he make a change, in the hope of giving us more attacking impetus?  Probably not, based on his pre-match comments to BBC Radio Derby:-

“I’m not suggesting we’ve got to perform in a way that makes everyone feel good… we’ve got to go and win the game.   We’re at the stage of the season where, yes, we’re in an entertainment industry, but I’ll choose the three points before the entertainment… that’s bells and whistles.”

Which is fine, as long as you get the three points.  If the football is bad, but the results are good, the manager keeps his job.  If the football is good, but the results are bad, eventually, the manager loses his job.   Since February, the football has been mostly bad and the results have been mostly bad – a fatal combo, if it goes on for too long.  But the margins are usually so fine.  Mel Morris has quite rightly refrained from exercising his trigger finger and it’s still too soon for the season overall to be judged a success or a failure.

I said after Sunderland that any realistic prospect of this team being promoted to the Premier League was gone and I stand by that prediction – on paper, you can’t really look past the top four for the three who are going up.  But even if I’m right, it doesn’t change the fact that it should be a point of pride for the club to finish the season as strongly as possible – to fight off the teams below, finish in the top six and give the best possible account of themselves in the play-offs (almost certainly against Fulham or Villa).  If that takes us to a Wembley final, then what an amazing achievement that would be after yet another season which has not exactly been the smoothest of rides.

A play-off finish and a competitive post-season performance would be enough for all of us to look forward to next season with renewed optimism.  In time, we could even come to see the Sunderland game as a watershed moment, after which the club was able to face some hard realities, make some tough decisions and finally move on from an era overshadowed by Wembley 2014.  The home fans have endured some crap lately and deserve better – but without a doubt, all but the very youngest among us have seen a lot worse in the past.

Rowett grasped the nettle and made changes on Monday.  Whatever happens next, many more changes are coming in the summer.  Whoever plays between now and May needs to earn the right to remain a part of it come August.

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Derby County 1 Sunderland 4

This was a performance to end careers and although Gary Rowett isn’t responsible for all of the terrible decisions which have led us to this mess, he is responsible for enough of them to know that he has to take the blame. “The buck stops with me”, he told BBC Radio Derby. “I know my neck’s on the block.”

 

Having stubbornly continued his bizarre policy of benching Kasey Palmer, Rowett could only watch in horror as two players he has furnished with lengthy contract extensions – Craig Forsyth and Richard Keogh – let him down with errors so shocking that they would have made a Sunday league player blush.

A Sunderland side widely considered to be doomed and so obviously vulnerable to a bit of skill instead dealt with the pathetically ineffectual wide play of the willing but limited Andreas Weimann and the wretchedly poor Tom Lawrence, without batting an eyelid. Matej Vydra was swamped with midfield markers, while Cameron Jerome continued to flounder horribly up front.

 

It wasn’t a surprise to see George Thorne substituted, but replacing him with David Nugent instead of Joe Ledley was a decision which helped to turn an embarrassing situation into a humiliation. Suddenly, Derby had no midfield whatsoever and Rowett had turned it into a basketball game. It was a panic call, a decision which made no logical sense and was more about being seen to do something to attack. With half an hour to go against the worst team in the league, pulling two goals back and rescuing a point actually wasn’t inconceivable – but it was once the “formation”, if you can even dignify it with that description, changed to something like 4-0-1-3-2.

 

Sunderland could barely believe their luck. They will never get an easier three points than that at any level and frankly, they will probably still go down.

 

Rowett’s January signing Jerome simply has not settled, not helped by the fact that he has no ball control or passing ability whatsoever. In the first half, he was presented with a simple chance to play in Vydra for a sitter, but duffed a straightforward square pass which you’d expect a trainee to make. You could look the other way if, as a striker, he looked remotely likely to score, but he doesn’t. All he looks capable of doing is chasing down aimless hoofs. Play the ball to his feet and you may as well forget it. And we’re stuck with him for another season.

 

Jerome is the second player Derby have taken from Norwich for a ridiculous amount of money. I would give Bradley Johnson a free transfer in May, or cancel his contract, anything, just to get him out of Pride Park. It isn’t Johnson’s fault that Derby paid so much over the odds for him, but his complete lack of technical ability is embarrassing. Of course Johnson got booked in injury time – he always does that when a game has gone, ranting and kicking people like a petulant child. He is very, very lucky that his front-post miskick didn’t fly into the net for what would have been an even worse own goal than Forsyth’s. Derby were very, very lucky that the in any case jaw-dropping scale of this shambolic defeat wasn’t significantly worse. They were an absolute disgrace.

 

I defended Forsyth a few weeks ago and said that despite his limitations, he remained the best option until the end of the season. That’s no longer a valid position for anyone to take and after his execrable errors last night, he simply can’t be considered for selection at Preston. If Marcus Olsson isn’t fit, then Chris Baird, one of few players to emerge from this rancid turd of a display with relatively little blame, will have to fill in there. His lack of pace and ability to get forward was a predictable factor in allowing Sunderland to sit smugly in their compact shape – one which Rowett bizarrely seems not to consider relevant for home games such as this – but Baird is at least relatively competent in defence.

 

Then we come to Thorne, who has long been one of my favourite players. I was delighted when he got an extension, because I assumed it meant that Rowett had seen enough in training to show that he was going to get back to the kind of standards we saw back in 2013/4. That now feels like nothing but a naive dream. A player who used to dominate matches, who could play any kind of pass and and who scored at least two of my favourite ever Derby goals now looks touch-and-go about finding a white shirt five yards away. With sadness, I can’t defend him anymore, because I just can’t see how things are going to turn round for him anymore – not after that performance.

 

Speaking of the class of Wembley 2014, we also have to talk about Keogh. He has taken his share of the plaudits this season for Derby’s defensive improvements and I will never criticise a player who tries to play out from the back instead of hoofing it. But there is something telling about the fact that it was Curtis Davies and not Keogh who was sent out to front up after last night’s humiliation.After a result and performance as pitiful as that, you expect the captain to take responsibility – Keogh was apparently not considered a suitable candidate to do so and therefore cannot be considered a viable leader for the future. He has tried his hardest for Derby County for years now, but it hasn’t happened. Rowett discarded Will Hughes on those grounds – there is no logical reason why the club should not now thank Keogh for his efforts and let him go too. There comes a time.

 

After a result and performance as pitiful as that, you expect the captain to take responsibility – Keogh was apparently not considered a suitable candidate to do so and therefore cannot be considered a viable leader for the future. He has tried his hardest for Derby County for years now, but it hasn’t happened. Rowett discarded Will Hughes on those grounds – there is no logical reason why the club should not now thank Keogh for his efforts and let him go too. There comes a time.

So, where on earth does this benighted, gaffe-addicted, farcical clown-show club go next? Well, in the immediate future, Preston North End, unfortunately. For that game, Rowett has no option but to drop as many of the eleven who shat themselves in public last night. If at all possible, Keogh, Forsyth, Johnson, Thorne, Lawrence, Weimann and Jerome should all be dropped. Palmer should have started against Sunderland and now, Rowett will have to decide whether to take the alleged “gamble” of starting him in a very difficult away game.

 

But let’s zoom out and look at the bigger picture. This week, the club’s accounts for 2016/7 were released to media outlets, who reported a wagebill of £34m+, around 120% of turnover. Not the worst ratio in the Championship (hello, Forest) and in fact, unsustainable wagebills are all too common these days at this level, but still – it is clearly not financially sensible and it is also very clear that the club simply have not got value for the funds that have been invested.

 

Recruitment since 2013/4 has been almost uniformly atrocious and even the slight improvement managed by Rowett – bringing in Tom Huddlestone and Davies, for example – has to be weighed against the negatives of Lawrence, who has failed to live up to his billing and Jerome, who simply makes no sense whatsoever. There’s also the point that Rowett readily sacrificed Hughes for a poxy £4.5m – or “a Butterfield”, as it’s colloquially known – and seemed to think it would be a good idea to replace the England U21 international with Mike Kieftenbeld (the dependable Ledley was apparently never considered during the window, while Rowett instead fussed over surplus players from his old club Birmingham.)

If you really want cheering up, remember that the aforementioned Butterfield is still a Derby player and will be reporting back next season. It’s possible that he could be shifted out, but you have to ask who would take him – Paul Clement at Reading, perhaps? – and even then, it would be for an embarrassing loss. While we’re on the subject of Clement, perhaps he could also be persuaded to take Nick Blackman back to the Madejski – another misfit who will be back on the books come the summer and one who could quite conceivably have to be paid to leave.

We can now safely rule out any possibility of promotion – it simply isn’t happening. So what we need to do is work out what should happen instead next season.

 

Morris is now preaching financial discipline and seeking to distance himself from the profligacy of the past by highlighting Rush’s role in the decisions which were made. The High Court will have its say on that grisly sideshow, so lets say no more about it until a judgement is reached.

 

Rowett’s recruitment so far has been very much for the short-term – bringing in players he thought could be trusted to help him this season, to protect his position. That can’t be allowed to continue. The veterans have got to be largely managed out and we have to build a new team, one with more energy, pace and potential.

I’ve no idea if the youngsters on the books will be good enough to cut it at Derby – we won’t know until they are tried in the Championship. Young men will make mistakes, of course they will, but what we have seen all too painfully in recent weeks is that old farts are just as capable of messing up and when they do, you don’t even have the comfort of hoping that they will learn from it.

 

I think about what we have lost in recent seasons – Hughes and Jeff Hendrick spring straight to mind, Nigel Clough’s legacy, utterly squandered for no obvious benefit. Chris Martin, Derby’s number nine, rejected by Nigel Pearson and Rowett, but replaced by players never likely to emulate his feat of scoring 20 goals in a season (and who were older than him, to boot). He is still a Derby player, but why would he want to stay on after the chaos of the last few seasons?

Craig Bryson, now 31 and apparently seen as over the hill by Derby, now playing regularly for Premier League-bound Cardiff – having been replaced by players of the same age at PP. Also still a Derby player and who knows, he may be back in the squad for next season, unless Warnock wants to keep him. Tom Ince, who was too good for this level. Derby at least profited from his sale (even taking into account the vast “scouting fee” reportedly paid to his mother), but the bulk of that money was spent on the hapless Lawrence.

 

And I think we can safely wave goodbye to Vydra. His goal last night was a moment of high quality embarrassingly at odds with the incompetent fumblings of his useless teammates. There is no reason why a player of his calibre should be expected to hang around with losers like those who shamed Derby County last night and I would be flabbergasted if he is still at Pride Park come August. The only positive there is that the club should command a big fee for him – though whether we will get value in the transfer market when it is spent is another matter….

 

Enough.

There is a massive job to do at Derby and the final question is whether anyone at the club is up to it or not. For this season, Rowett tried to patch together a squad that could compete at the top of the table, but the plan has failed. So now he will have to manage through a major squad rebuild – while convincing supporters that it’s worth sticking with it. Can he identify players who will improve Derby for the long term and get enough results out of them to keep the club on an even keel as they develop?

With Wolves, Villa, Boro and worst of all, that smug troll Warnock on the horizon, the reality is that things could be about to get much, much worse for Gary before this season finally comes to a merciful end.

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