Rome wasn’t built in a day – Phillip Cocu’s tough August at Derby County assessed

Back in January, Derby County travelled to Accrington Stanley for a fourth round FA Cup tie.  The Rams had beaten Southampton on penalties after a replay to get there and then defeated Reading in the league three days later to sit sixth in the table.  Apart from the pain of a defeat at Leeds sandwiched between the two Saints ties, everything was going pretty well. 

Frank Lampard looked at the cup tie against the Lancashire minnows and decided to go strong.  With no midweek fixture to follow, he made only two changes from the side that had won the previous fixture against Reading at Pride Park.

Lampard’s prize assets – his three loanees – all started at Stanley, alongside other key players like the emerging star Jayden Bogle and Martyn Waghorn.  The bench included some academy products – Jayden Mitchell-Lawson, Max Bird, Calum Macdonald – but only Bird made an appearance, as despite the strength of the line-up, the Rams had to struggle for the win, eventually progressing after Waghorn scrambled the ball home in front of a delighted band of Rams fans. 

But there would be a serious cost to this victory.  Late in the first half, Lampard’s talisman, Mason Mount, suffered a hamstring injury which would sideline him for the next ten games.  Mount’s absence was not the only factor, but in the nine league games which followed, Derby won two, drew three and lost four, slipping from sixth to eighth in the league and entering the run-in looking like outsiders for a play-off place. 

Mount returned and the Rams pulled themselves together in the end, but that poor run of form included a shock home defeat to Millwall, a limp defeat at Nottingham Forest and total humiliation at Aston Villa, where the home side scored four goals in the first half against what was effectively a reserve team. 

Lampard was strongly criticised for his eccentric selection at Villa Park, but had made the choice with the bigger picture in mind.  Derby had three consecutive home games in a week after Villa and Lampard decided that he would effectively sacrifice the Villa game in the hope of nailing a big haul of points at Pride Park in the following days.  It was a strange choice, certainly unfair on the supporters who were left to endure the fiasco that followed – and it wasn’t very effective either, as Derby collected only five points from the three home games.

Fast forward to August and Phillip Cocu was faced with an early test of his managerial nous when his Derby side drew the “auld enemy” away in the second round of the Carabao Cup.  His first East Midlands Derby would be the Rams’ seventh fixture in just 22 days.  Prior to Forest, the fixture list had been relentless. Monday – Saturday – Tuesday – Saturday – Tuesday – Saturday.  

In an episode of the Derby County BlogCast released just before the Forest game, Chris’ assessment, which I agreed with, was that Forest away was the nastiest tie Cocu could possibly have been handed. 


In the first round, at Scunthorpe, Cocu had selected academy products Max Bird, Jason Knight and Lee Buchanan in a line-up which blended youth and experience.  Bird was subbed at half-time for George Evans, but Buchanan and Knight played so well that they were included in the matchday 18 for the next game and soon went on to make their first league starts.  There was also a debut for Krystian Bielik and a first start of the season for Jack Marriott, both of whom needed the game time. 

Before the draw was made, Cocu’s plan for the second round of the league cup would undoubtedly have been to do exactly the same thing again – to rest key men for the league and try young players, which after all is supposed to be part of his remit. But once Forest came out of the hat, would he be forced to change his plans? 

I spent time brooding on what selection he might go for prior to the game, seeing it as a fiendishly tricky puzzle. My suggested line-up contained multiple changes:

Six out of eleven isn’t bad, I suppose.

But I was wrong to predict that Cocu would deviate an inch from his plans purely to accommodate a fierce local rivalry.  He stuck to his guns, making ten changes from the side which had drawn with West Bromwich Albion at Pride Park.  Even young Knight was rested for the next league game.  Emerging teenager Buchanan was the only player to have faced the Baggies to start at the City Ground – and two more academy products, Louie Sibley and Morgan Whittaker, were handed their first senior starts. 

I think most supporters understood that, despite the fact that it was Forest, there would have to be changes.  Surely, nobody expected Marriott – being nursed back to fitness after a thigh injury – to start, for example.  But given the fact that this was an East Midlands Derby, it was a big call for Cocu to make quite as many changes as he did.  So determined was the Dutchman to avoid any injuries to key players that he even diluted his bench, calling up Mitchell-Lawson and Bird to sit alongside Marriott and Tom Lawrence.  Waghorn, Bielik, Lowe, Kieran Dowell and Tom Huddlestone were all omitted from the squad entirely.

Having assessed the situation, Cocu felt obliged to field a team against Forest which was weaker than the one that faced Scunthorpe.  Evans started in place of Bird and Matt Clarke played in central defence instead of Bielik – those changes could not be seen as dilutions, but elsewhere, Duane Holmes was drafted in for his first start of the season as an emergency right back and Mason Bennett started up-front.  Young Whittaker, starting on the right, has talent, but to me, doesn’t look ready for a Championship first team at this stage, while Sibley, who has only just turned 18, could be future captain material and could get more chances before the end of the season, but still has a long way to go in his development. 

For Cocu, the league cup offers the only chance to give these young men an opportunity in an almost risk-free, but still competitive environment and he was very quick to point out after the 3-0 defeat that Forest had made a lot of changes, too.  But there was a difference in approach.  Whereas Cocu picked a team to fulfil the fixture, Sabri Lamouchi risked his star turn, Joe Lolley, plus Albert Adomah and other regular first-teamers including Matty Cash and Joe Worrall.

It should be pointed out that Forest’s squad is farcically vast and if there is a Championship club armed for a league cup run this season, then it is Forest. 
But Cocu’s caution led to a mismatch on the team sheets and inevitable defeat. 

The result upset a lot of fans quite badly.  Other supporters were pragmatic about it and encouraged fellow fans to brush it off – it was just the league cup, it doesn’t really matter – but it irritated me, because I couldn’t see why Cocu had to pick such a depleted bench.  Yes, the players had been through a tough August schedule, but I found it hard to understand why Waghorn, for example, couldn’t at least have been named as a sub for a game which we knew wouldn’t have to go to extra time.  

And when Mitchell-Lawson was introduced instead of Lawrence at 0-2, it felt to me like Cocu didn’t get the fact that the supporters actually give a toss about losing to Forest, even if it was just the league cup.  

This depressing evening put immediate pressure on Cocu and his planned team for the weekend league game, at Brentford. 

***

A lack of goals in the first few games may not have suggested it, but with skilful players like skilful players like Saïd Benrahma, Ollie Watkins, and Sergi Canós, the Bees have one of the most dangerous frontlines in the Championship.  And you don’t need me to tell you that they ripped Derby a new one at Griffin Park.
 
But the goals that took the game away from the Rams in embarrassingly swift succession were almost entirely of Derby’s making.  Lawrence’s poor touch coughed up possession before Bielik’s impetuous attempt to win the ball from the slick Benrahma allowed the Algerian to slip the fatal ball behind the Rams’ backline.  Seconds later, Huddlestone’s attempt to lob the ball over Canós was underhit – but Buchanan had sold himself by flying forward to within about ten yards of Lawrence, who should have been the target of the pass.  A sickeningly naff third goal was shipped on the brink of half-time to end the game as a contest and put a shitty seal on what had been a wholly embarrassing performance. 

And it sent knees jerking all over the place.  The whole point of the Forest loss was that we grin and bear that because it would give us a better chance of three points in the league, right?

Well, no, not entirely.  It comes back to what happened to Mount at Accrington.

It’s starting to become painfully clear now that there’s no Wilson any more to smash in a piledriver and save the day, no Mount to provide killer passes or arrive in the box to score.  So who is going to grab the goals? 

The obvious answers, at least until January, when Wayne Rooney lands, are Marriott and Waghorn.  This is why I felt before the start of the season (and still believe now) that a two striker system could suit this squad better than a 4-3-3 which Cocu has already repeatedly been forced to abandon mid-game. 

Lawrence, while capable of occasional moments of quality, as we saw at Huddersfield, has never been a prolific scorer.  Dowell has created more chances than any other Rams player, but hasn’t looked much of a goalscoring threat so far.  Bennett, Florian Jozefzoon and Jamie Paterson are the other senior attacking options and none of that trio, in all honesty, are going to strike fear into the hearts of Championship opponents.

And that shortage of genuine attacking threats is why Cocu didn’t dare risk Waggy, or even Lawrence or Dowell, in the Carabao Cup – even against Forest, even for half an hour from the bench. 

In his defence, the manager could point to the fact that Buchanan – the only player to start all three games against West Brom, Forest and Brentford – suffered what has been described as a minor hamstring injury at Griffin Park and has subsequently been withdrawn from England duty.

Nevertheless, what happened at Griffin Park was a total nightmare for the coach.  With his reserves looking short on quality and unlikely to score at the City Ground, his first team were toothless and made to look second-rate only a few days later.  3-0 may have flattered Forest, but it didn’t flatter Brentford.  The underlying statistics of that game were so lop-sided that Cocu will have to go back to the beginning and reconsider everything. 

He has already shown a readiness to take action when things aren’t working, including half-time substitutions and formation changes in games which were swinging away from him.  At Brentford, he moved Waghorn to centre forward in a 4-4-2, in an effort to get him into the game.  It worked, slightly and Waggy was more of a presence, picking up passes from defenders as Derby improved a bit from their wretched first half to at least muster occasional spells of possession, if not meaningful pressure, in the opposition’s third of the pitch. 

Cocu will undoubtedly spend the break reconsidering what his best team is.  He has started Lawrence, Dowell and Huddlestone in every league game so far, but their positions will have to be reviewed ahead of Cardiff, along with everyone else’s.  He’ll need to think about whether to continue starting Knight at this stage, or whether the situation demands a different option, like Evans or Graeme Shinnie, who has been totally out of favour so far. He desperately needs Bogle back, but has to weigh that against the risk of drafting the 19 year-old into the line-up too early.

***

Six league games is not long enough to draw any firm conclusions on how good Derby’s season will be.  We are still at such an early stage that two kicks of the ball are the difference between sitting 19th in the table and 9th.  Yes, there have been unimpressive performances in certain games, but that is the case in any season.  And yes, there are questions about whether Cocu has yet found his best line-up, but he is new to English football, has been unable to call on key players at times and had little time to work with a squad which cannot reasonably be described as his squad before being thrust into an extremely harsh August schedule.  Especially at home, the relative strength of opposition should be taken into account, with Swansea top of the table having won every game except for the 0-0 draw at Pride Park, West Brom still unbeaten in fourth and Bristol City sitting fifth. 

With a trip to Elland Road looming large, a win against Neil Warnock’s Cardiff would be a massive help for Cocu. But we should also accept that things could get worse before they start to get better and either way, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of overreacting to every single result.  If the mission for the Dutchman is truly a long-term one – to rebuild the squad, to instil a new philosophy from top to bottom, while giving young players from the academy the chance to develop into first-teamers, well, that tells us that a) things weren’t exactly 100% right before he was introduced to the team in Florida two months ago, b) that he’s not going to be able to buy his way to success and c) it’s unreasonable to expect him him to wave a magic wand and work miracles overnight. 

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that particular job”, quipped Brian Clough. A classic gem from the great man, but it did of course cheekily overlook the fact that in his first season at Derby, Clough finished 18th out of 22 in Division Two.  It should go without saying, but I probably have to say it anyway –  I am not comparing Clough to Cocu in any way – and yes, as one of my elders and betters reminded me on Twitter, Sir Brian’s side did also get to the semi-finals of the League Cup that season (losing to Leeds on aggregate).  I only mention it to make the point that it took Clough time – and, of course, the signing of Dave Mackay – before the blue touchpaper was finally lit.  More recently, after an unspectacular start to the season in 1995, Jim Smith’s Rams took off only after Igor Štimac arrived (and explained to the Bald Eagle how the team should be set up around him). 

While it seems that Rooney is less of a Cocu signing and more of a Mel signing, it’s entirely possible that he could have as transformative an impact on our team as Igor did. However, he will not be a Ram until 2020 – which will hopefully be the beginning of a better new decade for Derby than we have experienced so far this century. 

Patience is needed in the meantime. The serious-minded Cocu doesn’t have the same charisma and profile in the English game as the media-friendly Lampard and maybe that has made it more difficult for him to win over the supporters – but he has much more experience and unlike the Chelsea man, has actually won things in his managerial career. And given the lack of time he had to work with the players before the start of the season, it’s frankly unsurprising that he hasn’t immediately hit the ground running.

If he’s given the time which is needed to complete the work which Lampard started before he, like our best players from last season, was summoned back from his season-long loan, then Cocu may just be able to pilot the club to a better future.


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New Derby County BlogCast – with Ryan Conway (The Athletic)

Ahead of the latest instalment of the East Midlands Derby psychodrama, it felt like a good time to look at how Phillip Cocu has done so far and how we see things panning out in the coming weeks, ahead of the arrival of a certain Wayne Rooney.

This month, we were joined by Ryan Conway, the new Derby County reporter for The Athletic, an American website which has this season launched a new football news service, with a journalist covering each Premier League club and selected high profile Championship clubs.

We’re very grateful to Ryan for taking time out to talk all things Derby on his day off (having been up late the night before filing stories!). This was a wide-ranging chat, with sections on probably most of the current first-teamers, but a particular focus on Jack Marriott, Rooney’s potential impact, plus we get to know Ryan a little better, as a new face on the Rams media scene.

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We’re not worthy? Yet more hoo-ha as Derby County tune into Wayne’s World

“Barnsley at home might not be moved for Sky TV coverage.”
“And monkeys might fly out of my butt…”

On a balmy August evening, I set off from my West Yorkshire gaff to make the short trip to the John Smith’s Stadium. Just as I was leaving, I saw a text from Tommo, which read: “Have you seen the Rooney link, got to be bollocks”. I thought nothing more of it, given that yes, it was obviously bollocks and got on with making my way to Huddersfield.

When I arrived at the ground, a few lads were chanting “Rooney, Rooney” in the bar area of the concourse, much to my amusement. It was all good fun, but surely nothing serious, I thought, as I wandered to my ‘seat’ to watch the Rams play the Terriers.

The 2-1 victory was probably deserved, thanks to five minutes of magic from Tom Lawrence and a second half which was all about discipline, team shape and concentration. However, within hours, the trifling matter of a three points from a strong away performance was basically forgotten, thanks to the rapid escalation of the club’s biggest transfer story in decades, if not ever.

I was quite looking forward to us being a normal football team again. The “Frank Lampard’s Derby” thing was annoying by the end and there was definitely a downside to being more of a target for the media to latch onto. Under the undemonstrative Phillip Cocu – a great player, but one who never played in England and hence was not a household name on these shores – I kind of hoped we could just get on with our season without being subjected to the unwelcome extra national press and TV commentary which arises whenever a ‘newsworthy’ big name is involved.

But listen, Mel’s gonna Mel.

He initially did what he does every summer, which was make extremely convincing noises about restraint and developing the kids and shopping in the loan market and reining it in, only to then suddenly drop everyone’s jaws by signing one of the biggest names in English football, in a move which he admitted had only became a possibility in the past few days. Whatever the plan was for the rest of the window, the plan changed overnight and a man who was until recently hailed as one of the best players in the world was hopping on a transatlantic flight to sign on the dotted line for the Rams.

The last time England’s record goalscorer played for Derby, the journalist Richard Jolly tweeted, was Steve Bloomer in 1911. In my lifetime, the only signing I can think of with remotely the same level of starpower was that of Igor Štimac, but I’m sure even the supremely self-confident Croat himself would admit that Rooney is a far bigger name. Last summer’s appointment of Frank Lampard felt like the biggest coup we were likely to experience, at least until the club could finally haul itself out of the Championship. And Mel has gone and topped it within twelve months.

It has taken me this long to get an article together on the subject partly because I simply couldn’t begin to get my head around it for a couple of days. It is so far beyond the spectrum of what I had thought possible that it is mind-bending.

So, let’s take a step back, take all the hoo-ha out of it for a moment and try to look with clear eyes at what we’ve actually acquired.

The first point to make is that Rooney’s best days are well behind him. However, in his best days, he was one of the best players in the world. He will be 34 by the time he joins Derby, not an exceptionally ripe age for a player in this day and age, but Rooney peaked earlier than most, partly because of the prodigious development which made him an Everton first-teamer by the age of 16 and a Manchester United superstar before his 20th birthday. José Mourinho described him as a ‘model professional’ when he left United, which is slightly at odds with some of the tabloid tales about his life off the field, but should be taken as a highly encouraging sign about how he will approach his time at Pride Park. He has made it very clear that he is joining in order to help us get promoted and it’s to be hoped that his signing will galvanise the squad, in the same way that it has clearly electrified most of the supporters.

I don’t watch MLS, so can’t claim to have kept an eye on him at all since he left these shores, but Whoscored.com data rates him in the top ten of players currently appearing at that level (Zlatan Ibrahimović is rated #2). Playing as a centre forward, he has scored 11 goals and contributed six assists in 23 appearances this season – about 0.8 goals + assists for every 90 minutes on the field. By all accounts, he has been tremendously influential on and off the pitch at DC United and will be a huge loss to the club. The Washington Post’s ‘soccer’ correspondent Steven Goff describes his impact at DCU as ‘immeasurable‘.

The excellent Ram Srinivas has of course created a graphic, which demonstrates that he has been one of the most effective creative forces in MLS this season. On the flip side, he is no longer carrying the ball regularly, not actually popping up in the box that often and his defensive contribution has been below average for an MLS striker. So it seems he has effectively been afforded a free role, with license to drop deeper as he likes and focus on making things happen around him – DCU have been rewarded with plenty of goals and assists as a result.

It’s also worth considering that his quality from set pieces (and penalty-taking) will be a major asset, especially with Harry Wilson no longer around.


Another important factor is his ability to pass the ball accurately into the danger area (‘deep completions’ are successful passes aimed close to the goal). A big criticism of Lampard’s Derby from the stattos was that they did not create enough high-quality opportunities to shoot on goal (from close range)- on the evidence of his MLS performances at least, Rooney should help to solve that problem.

The question for Phillip Cocu is how to fit Rooney into his line-up. It’s hard to see him starting up-front in place of Martyn Waghorn, who is so important for the team, but playing Rooney as a number ten seems to be a likely answer. In a free attacking midfield role, he could drift into spaces, pick the ball up in dangerous areas and release the younger runners around him. If there is enough energy and pace in other areas of the pitch – for example Waghorn or Marriott up front, Lawrence on the left, new signing Jamie Paterson on the right, Krystian Bielik and George Evans in midfield, Bogle and Malone at full back – then maybe we can afford to carry a creative force with less mobility.

However, like Lampard’s appointment, Rooney’s arrival undoubtedly comes with its darker side. Once again, Derby are a target for the boo-boys – most particularly of course the supporters of two other Championship clubs who I don’t want or need to name. A particular mountain has been made of the issue of Rooney’s squad number, which, it quickly dawned on everyone, had been chosen to marry with the brand of Derby’s shirt sponsor. This was seized upon by those with an axe to grind as an absolute moral outrage.

My personal opinion is that the morality of gambling companies sponsoring football clubs and leagues is dubious. As far as I’m concerned, there is definitely a case for banning them from doing so and I would happily see this implemented tomorrow. Gambling can ruin lives and the way it has gradually insinuated itself into football has to date met with little apparent resistance from the game’s authorities.

As things stand, there is simply no way of children and young people being engaged with the game they love and not being exposed to the big betting brands. If your concern is that advertising betting through football is helping to normalise a potentially harmful product for the next generation, then you should be in favour of an outright ban.

But until the powers that be are brave enough to decide that they do not want bookmakers part-funding professional clubs through sponsorship arrangements, they will just be another potential commercial partner for those clubs to court. And if it is morally acceptable for ’32’ to be emblazoned on the front of Wazza’s shirt, which is where most of the cameras will focus after all, then why isn’t it also OK for it to be printed on his back? What’s the difference?

Supporters of other clubs and some newspapers have been trumpeting a supposed salary of up to £100,000 per week for Rooney at Derby. Nobody knows the real figure, but what we can say, because in the MLS, these figures are not kept secret, is that in 2018, Rooney’s ‘base salary’ at DC United was $3.5m per year – about $67,000 per week, or £55,000 per week, at the time of writing. A fun fact is that MLS players taking home a higher base salary than Rooney include not just Ibrahimović and Bastian Schweinsteiger, but also Giovanni dos Santos and the notorious Sunderland flop Jozy Altidore.

No doubt, Rooney will be on a relative fortune for a Championship player, but as he only joins Derby in January, we will only be paying him for half of this season. He will be under contract for the whole of 2020/21, but a look at our current depth chart, sorting the players by their age, shows that this may not be quite as problematic as some observers would like to make it look.

Current DCFC squad, sorted by position and age – those in red are aged 30 or over.

With the obvious exception of Rooney, the top line of players aged 30+, in red – Davies, Forsyth, Huddlestone, Anya and Martin, plus the loanee goalkeeper Ben Hamer – are all out of contract next summer and will presumably leave the club at that point. Only Hamer, Davies and Huddlestone are important members of the squad at the time of writing (with Forsyth injured), so it’s fair to say that at least some of those veterans can be released without any need for a direct replacement. Letting them go will get a fair chunk of wages off the club’s books and should allow Derby to absorb an extra six months of Rooney’s salary. All of that, of course, is assuming that the Rams don’t get promoted this season – if we do go up, clearly the financial landscape changes beyond all recognition anyway.

The bottom line is, the Mel Morris era is going to make for a cracking book one day. He is going to continue throwing curveball after curveball, all with the aim of getting us promoted in the end (and if it happens, he won’t want a repeat of last time, either). Like it or not, it seems that we will never be far from the headlines while Mel is in charge. Folks used to find the GSE era of financial sustainability under Nigel Clough tedious – well, nobody can complain about it being dull any more.

For now though, it would be great if we could just park the Rooney story for the moment and focus on the first half of the season to come. All the gossip and click-baiting and moral panic should be totally batted away, because Cocu (remember him?) has a lot of games to try to win before he can call upon the former England captain. By the time Rooney steps onto the Pride Park grass for the first time, much of the story of 2019/20 will already have been written.

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The Derby County Blog 2019/20 season preview

The season preview returns, after a break last season. As usual, I have split the various runners and riders into four categories, rather than putting my neck on the block and going for a thorough ‘1 – 24’ – although several pundits have done this and for what it’s worth, the guys I follow with interest all had Derby finishing outside of the top six, but in the top half of the table (I might go for a 1 – 24 on Twitter… TBC)

I also crowdsourced a #dcfcfans league table, with polling conducting after the Burton Albion friendly. At that point in time, most of those who responded were very optimistic about how the season might pan out:

#dcfcfans Twitter poll, taken after the Burton friendly. Arguably, I should have put Cardiff above Derby here, but nevertheless, it was clear that a majority of fans were predicting a strong season at that stage.

Interestingly, a poll conducted by Owen Bradley with similar categories saw the fans return a much less confident result – this poll came after the Rams had lost to Girona and at Glasgow Rangers, scorelines which led to a much gloomier outlook from the faithful:-

That much less bullish result would have plunged Derby to about 10th or 11th in my predicted table. But I’ll bet a repeat poll taken after news of the Rams’ interest in signing Krystian Bielik from Arsenal broke would have been more optimistic again.

This preview piece should ideally be read in the context of our recent preview BlogCast, in which myself, Chris and the excellent analyst Ram Srinivas took a look at where we felt Derby needed to strengthen this season:

Here goes nothing.

THE CONTENDERS

Brentford

The Bees will be preparing to punch above their weight as one of the division’s financial minnows yet again.  Quality recruitment the Moneyball way has got them so far, but hasn’t pushed them through the glass ceiling yet – however, bigger fish are always ready to help them turn a profit by pushing through moves for Brentford’s best players.  Romaine Sawyers was sold to West Brom for a mere £3m, but the bumper £12m sale of Ezri Konsa to Villa could really help them kick on.  David Raya, a £3m buy from Blackburn, is a highly rated goalkeeper, while Pompous Jansson’s move from Leeds was arguably the most sensational Championship development of the off-season and their Danish recruits, Mathias Jensen and Christian Nørgaard, are reportedly very promising.  At the time of writing, Neal Maupay, Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins are still on the books. The Bees’ statistical performance last season was much better than their actual performance, so they will feel that they deserved success (where Derby didn’t).  If they live up to their billing – or even just get the rub of the green in a few games – this could well be a big season for them.

Bristol City

The stattos swooned over the Robins’ summer recruitment, which included Jay Dasilva and Tomas Kalaš from Chelsea, plus a coveted attacking midfielder from League 2 Colchester, Sammie Szmodics.  Defender Adam Webster became a wanted man, but with no pressure to sell, the club rebuffed interest until Brighton forced the issue with a walloping offer.  They are having a go – and have a stable ship under the stewardship of Lee Johnson.  They could crack the play-offs, just as long as they can score more goals this time.

Cardiff City

Neil Warnock refuses to retire, Cardiff stuck with him despite relegation and so here we are again.  A promotion specialist who smirks in the face of pretentions about ‘playing the right way’, Warnock will have no fears as he looks to keep Cardiff yo-yoing.  This time, getting them up will presumably turn out to be a final, pyrrhic victory, but he won’t care about that so long as he wins.  Aden Flint from Middlesbrough is a signing to make him purr, while striker Robert Glatzel arrives from Heidenheim with strong references.

“Aden Flint has agreed to sign for us, Mr Warnock.”

Fulham

Dumped back in the Championship despite relatively huge investment in their playing squad last season, the Cottagers have doubled down, pushing the boat out to try to bounce straight back.  We know what to expect from them – lots of goals ,hopefully at both ends of the pitch.  They still have Tom Cairney, plus Ivan Cavaleiro on loan from Wolves, while Aleksandar Mitrović signed a new contract and ominously, Anthony Knockaert has joined on an initial season loan from Brighton.  That front four could batter anybody at this level.  They need to shift out some players and carry out a wider rebuild, which may take them more than one window, but they will be ferociously dangerous opponents in the meantime.

Leeds United

Convincing Marcelo Bielsa to stay for a second season was the first order of business for Leeds and keeping him on board should, in theory, give them a great chance of going at least one step further than last time.  But Pompous Jansson’s move to Brentford was an eyebrow-raiser, with the club reportedly forced to consider at sales to help keep them above the financial fair play threshold.  The sale (and immediate loan-back) of Jack Clarke to Tottenham helped to free funds to strengthen a team which Bielsa felt had hit its performance celling last season.  Hélder Costa was an eye-catching loan addition from Wolves and they still have to be considered as promotion favourites – but the delicious prospect of another meltdown is never far away. 

West Bromwich Albion

The Baggies have gone for a relatively high-profile appointment in Slaven Bilić and will expect the Ígor-era Croat to guide them back to the promised land.  But they managed to miss out last season under Darren Moore and Jimmy Shan, despite having two 20-goal strikers – neither of whom will be returning.  Dwight Gayle was only on loan from Newcastle and Jay Rodriguez has been sold to Burnley.  Cardiff’s Kenneth Zohore, who Curtis Davies once dismissively described as a ‘big lump’, has joined as a first replacement and I’m placing them in the Contenders pile solely in the expectation that they will bring in more players before the deadline. Bilić has demanded signings publicly and it wouldn’t seem to make sense to bring in a coach with his reputation and then not back him… Would it?

THE HOPEFULS

Derby County

Frank Lampard’s departure left a void, but just as significant was the loss of the three loanees who helped propel the Rams to Wembley. With a group of senior players also (rightly) released on free transfers, it will be difficult for the Dutch legend Phillip Cocu to replicate that play-off run, but having arguably overachieved last season, we live in hope of repeating the trick (and of signing more players before the deadline).  Graeme Shinnie was signed by Lampard to add energy to the midfield, while Kieran Dowell, on loan from Everton, will be tasked with replacing some of Mason Mount’s guile and Harry Wilson’s goals. Centre back Matt Clarke comes with rave reviews from Brighton and will hopefully be a fine replacement for Fikayo Tomori, while defender / holding midfielder Krystian Bielik, who has cost a packet from Arsenal, is a signing which just makes sense. Other players in the squad, such as mighty mouse Duane Holmes and Tom Lawrence (who had a difficult 2018/9 season), will need to step up and much still depends on what happens before the window closes.

Ram’s graphic for Matt Clarke, star defender at Pompey last season. By this analysis, he was one of the best headers of the ball in League 1 last season. And he can pass….

Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield’s improbable promotion and even-more improbable survival in the Premier League couldn’t last, so now they go again under David Wagner’s much less noteworthy replacement, Jan Siewert.  Their largely foreign squad was miles short of Premier League quality – Aaron Mooy and Phillip Billing aside – and the embarrassing stunt they allowed a certain bookmaker to inflict on their supporters in pre-season made them look like a small club, despite the largesse of Premier League parachute payments.  Billing promptly left for Bournemouth and while they have some cash to spend and a hotly-tipped striker in Karlan Grant, it would surprise me if they cracked the top six again.

Middlesbrough

The division’s self-appointed financial policeman Steve Gibson turned to the untried ex-Boro player Jonathan Woodgate after parting with Tony Pulis.  Gibson’s rants about financial sustainability have become notorious, but Boro have had their own issues with overspending and this could be a season of reconciliation.  Aden Flint was sacrificed, joining Warnock at Cardiff and they have recruited promising young players like Marc Bola and Marcus Browne, while letting misfit striker Martin Braithwaite and veteran winger Stewart Downing go.

Stoke City

Stoke moved fast to revamp a failing squad this summer, bringing in an unspectacular but solid group of proven Championship players, who should make them much more effective at this level.  Lee Gregory and Stephen Ward hint at a return to the unrefined Potters’ style of old, but Nick Powell is a talented attacking midfielder.  Bolstering and renewing a squad which already included good players in Joe Allen, Peter Etebo, Sam Vokes and Tom Ince should help them to improve on an embarrassing 16th place finish last season, but still might not be enough to push them into the top six, especially after the loss of Ryan Shawcross to serious injury.  With eight surplus players having been ostracised from their pre-season tour, there is still a lot of work for Nathan Jones to do to turn the ship around.

MID-TABLE

Blackburn Rovers

Will continue to be solid under Tony Mowbray and have more than enough to be safe. Bradley Dack will continue to be a pain to come up against, while Mowbray got the best out of journeyman striker Danny Graham, who netted 15 goals last season (joint top-scoring with Dack) and Stewart Downing has signed on for a season. However, with Bradley Johnson joining on a free, it’s impossible for me to back them to finish in the top six.

Luton Town

Having lost Nathan Jones to Stoke, the Hatters were promoted under temporary boss Mick Harford and will now try to consolidate under another Jones, Graeme.  Defender James Justin’s move to Leicester provided funds to bring in Brendan Galloway, Callum McManaman and Ryan Tunnicliffe, all on free transfers and while they won’t be fancied, they will look at survival as a realistic target after last year’s excellent season. Jacob Butterfield has also joined, in search of a fresh start.

Nottingham Forest

Football dinosaurs Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill were rightly jettisoned, but their replacement, Sabri Lamouchi, is very much unheralded on these shores – his main virtue apparently being that he is represented by the infamous Jorge Mendes.  Greek owner Evangelos Marinakis’ latest attempt to curry favour with the Portuguese agent led to a fresh influx of Portuguese signings to add to an already bloated squad – full back Yuri Ribeiro, plus midfielders Alfa Romeo and Tiago Silva being the latest, plus Rafa Mir on loan from FC Mendes and another one since then (I’ve lost count) – but whether Lamouchi can actually mesh a team together before Financial Fair Play starts to bite (or Marinakis gets twitchy) is quite another thing.  The signing of Sammy Ameobi, who you might have expected to take the plunge into League 1 along with Bolton, was odd, while utility man Ben Osborn has been snapped up by Sheffield United. 

Forest’s sprawling (and gradually Mendesifying) squad, prior to the signing of Rafa Mir – depth chart created by @DavidMarples

Preston North End

I’ve never warmed to Alex Neil, but he is an effective manager.  Star forward Callum Robinson has gone to Sheffield United, but they still have some good players – not least in midfield, with that nice Ben Pearson complemented by veteran Paul Gallagher, goalscorer Alan Browne and much-hyped new signing Tom Bayliss – it’s not impossible to see them cracking the play-offs, although their move for the veteran David Nugent does make me wonder whether they will have enough quality. At the very least, they will continue to be really awkward opponents.

Queens Park Rangers

It would be unkind to base my prediction for QPR on Bob Mortimer’s Athletico Mince podcast, but really, Bob’s wicked joke that Steve McClaren was sacked for failing to meet Tony Fernandes’ target of finishing 15th was perfect.  Star midfielder Luke Freeman left for Sheffield United, while in a gently surreal twist that Mortimer would doubtless appreciate, giant striker Matt Smith left for his spiritual home of Millwall, only for another Matt Smith – a 19 year-old midfielder – to promptly join on loan from Manchester City. Jordan Hugill is a potentially decent signing on loan from West Ham, but there are concerns over their ability to keep the ball out of the net and “Mr Fernandes” would probably be happy if Mark Warburton steered them to the calm waters of lower mid-table.

Swansea City

An encouraging campaign under Graham Potter only led to the Englishman being poached by Brighton and so the Swans go back to square one, under former England youth coach Steve Cooper.  They have the benefit of a consistent club philosophy of playing attractive passing football to guide their recruitment policy, but under the chairmanship of financial troubleshooter Trevor Birch (who had a brief spell at Derby when we were in a spot of bother years ago), they have sold off their stars – winger Dan James to Manchester United and star striker Oli McBurnie to Sheffield United.  

Wigan Athletic

Under a respected manager in Paul Cook, the Latics will look to build on their solid survival total of 52 points last season.  Everton loanee Antonee Robinson has signed permanently and Nigel Clough-era Ram Michael Jacobs is still on the books, but Nick Powell departed on a free transfer and Reece James, an outstanding loanee from Chelsea, has returned to Frank Lampard’s care. 


THE STRUGGLERS

Barnsley

Daniel Stendel’s successful season at Oakwell has seen him linked to bigger jobs, but Barnsley’s success was as much due to clever recruitment as the abilities of their German coach.  Unfortunately, they will have to do the trick again, as several of their promotion-winning players were quickly snapped up by bigger clubs (most notably Stoke).   Moneyball legend Billy Beane is a minority owner and so it feels safe to assume that the club has been taking advantage of all the analytics they can get their hands on.  Having signed a disparate group of new players, including several from Europe, the Tykes will now hope Stendel is able to mesh them into another successful side.

Birmingham City

Brum are struggling with the hangover from the monumental binge of overspending under Harry Redknapp.  The pressure may have been eased through the sale of ex-Ilkeston striker Che Adams to Southampton, but with Garry Monk replaced by his former assistant – Oxford United reject Pep Clotet – trouble could still be brewing at St Andrew’s.  On the bright side, they still have Lukas Jutkiewicz and picked up ex-Arsenal midfielder Dan Crowley for a bargain fee from Dutch football.  There is also a potentially special player emerging from their youth set-up in Jude Bellingham, who was picked out as a future star in Michael Calvin’s excellent book The Nowhere Men when he was still practically a babe in arms.

Charlton Athletic

Lee Bowyer’s achievement of promotion was quickly overshadowed by a bizarre public contract row started by the Addicks’ deeply-unpopular owner, Roland Duchatelet.  With rumours of Derby County interest swirling, the manager did get the new deal he deserved in the end, but with Duchatelet not interested in investing in the squad and players including young stars Krystian Bielik (on loan from Arsenal) and Joe Aribo (lost to Rangers for a compensation fee) leaving, Bowyer will have a big job on his hands competing at this level.

Hull City

Hull will be cutting their wage bill this season under Grant McCann, who earned the promotion to the Championship that his Doncaster Rovers side couldn’t quite achieve. With star midfield Jarred Bowen likely on the move and a thin-looking squad, McCann has a job on his hands to stabilise the Tigers at this level.

Millwall

They are what they are – old-fashioned lump ball, with very little quality, but awkward customers on their day.  Embarrassed Derby home and away last season, making it galling to see them scrape to safety on 44 points.  Whether they have enough to repeat the trick of survival is another question.  Lee Gregory has gone, but his replacement, the enormous Matt Smith, was at least a logical pick-up.  

Reading

Reading seem to be going nowhere but into a downward spiral.  Under a ‘soft’ transfer embargo for breaching financial rules, the Royals have little opportunity to strengthen, little connection with their Chinese owners and every chance of getting relegated.   Experienced pros Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Chris Gunter and Sam Baldock were excluded from the club’s pre-season training camp and asked to find new clubs – a distress signal from a club which is in difficult straits.  The one-year signing of Scottish veteran Charlie Adam was met with bafflement by neutral observers. On the plus side however, Portuguese manager José Gomes seems to be well liked and to have secured the fans’ backing.

Sheffield Wednesday

Financial woes and the stagnation this caused prevented Steve Bruce from pulling his usual promotion trick – so he pulled a McClaren, by leaving the club in the lurch to sip from the poisoned chalice at Newcastle United.  With the Owls continue to struggle financially from the legacy of previous overspending and with Lee Bullen left to act as caretaker manager for the start of the season, they cannot expect to do much this season other than survive.

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New Derby County BlogCast – 2019/20 season preview

With the season only a couple of weeks away, it’s time to get the band back together – or at least, three bass players – to discuss where Derby are up to, what they still need to do in the transfer market to be ready for another crack at the top six and our initial take on the appointment of Phillip Cocu to replace Frank Lampard.

Chris and I were joined on this occasion by Ram Srinivas, who has the distinction of being the first international guest on the pod, the first non-Derby fan (like Lampard and Jody Morris, he is a Chelsea man) and also the first touring musician. He has also written a brilliant analysis of Lampard’s Derby last season, which I encourage everyone to read.

In the pod, we have a quick look back at last season, before moving onto the pressing business of potential transfer targets and a scan of the rest of the competition’s runners and riders.

Ram has produced some cracking player visuals for some of Derby’s players and also for some of the transfer targets he has identified:-


Graeme Shinnie – Ram sees him as a considerable upgrade on Craig Bryson for his all-round game, both creative and destructive
Kieran Dowell – he will provide some of the goals and guile which were lost when Mason Mount and Harry Wilson left the club
Mason Bennett – a curiosity of a player, but one Ram rates pretty highly. Great in the air, has good involvement in build-up play and really versatile. Can he become more than an impact player this season?
Krystian Bielik – Ram sees the young Arsenal player as one who should be a top target for Derby. Can play at centre back or in midfield, great on the ball and wins everything in the air…
The only trouble will be fighting to the front of the queue!
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