Derby County v Norwich City preview

Expectations brutally mown down under the inflexible Nigel Pearson have started to flower again, the players performing with flair not fear.  Ince has responded with a fusillade of goals, Bent has applied himself the lone striker role – statisticians have been quick to point out the incredible goal returns of these two players under McClaren – Johnson has grasped the opportunity to make the holding role his own and looks like a new man…

I could go on.  All over the pitch, players who previously looked either hopelessly short of confidence or shot, are gradually rediscovering and in some cases redefining what they’re capable of – liberated as they are from Pearson’s mindless pressure to turn them into something they were not.  For all that Mel Morris has made some strange and bad decisions in the last couple of years, sacking Pearson may well turn out to be his best.

Almost as soon as Pearson left and results began to turn around, eyes drifted away from the relegation zone and longingly back to where they should always have been resting – the top six.  To make up the lost ground remains a difficult challenge and McClaren is dead right when he refuses to discuss anything but the next game – but in this case, the next game has huge symbolic value.

Norwich are currently sixth.  One of the big guns, their parachute payments have allowed them to maintain a squad of internationals from their failed Premier League campaign.  But Alex Neil, who won them promotion in 2015, is now under huge pressure to repeat the trick and a run of four successive league defeats, triggered by a farcical 5-0 drubbing at Brighton, has more than scared the horses.


Graphic courtesy of

It’s pretty easy to name the Derby side for Saturday – fitness allowing, you’d expect an unchanged eleven.  Neil, on the other hand, made six changes for the defeat at QPR, including the goalkeeper.  His plans were then ruined by Martin Olsson’s bizarre first-minute dismissal and so it is hard to know how he will respond. Does he go again with the team he thought could beat QPR, including the former Forest loanee Nélson Oliveira, or restore experienced pros like Cameron Jerome and Wes Hoolahan to the starting line-up?

There is perhaps an element of too many options to choose from for Neil – not that many other managers at this level would sympathise.

Norwich 2 Leeds 3 (5 November)




Brady (Jacob Murphy)
Pritchard (Lafferty)


QPR 2 Norwich 1 (19 November)


Olsson (sent off)


Jacob Murphy
Naismith (Josh Murphy)

Oliveira (Jerome)


Statistically, there are incredible similarities (infographic best viewed online) in the two clubs’ records on many measures.  They have had exactly the same average possession, shots on target and shots conceded.  Yet despite this eerie parity, the two clubs have had completely different seasons so far.

Norwich have one of the division’s worst defensive records – they have conceded an eyebrow-raising 20 goals in nine away matches, which is clearly not good enough for a supposed promotion contender – and they have not kept a clean sheet in the league since 16 August.


It’s also very interesting to note that seven of Norwich’s eight wins so far have come against the division’s current bottom seven sides – the other being a 1-0 home win against Bristol City in August.

Norwich v bottom seven

P 7 W 7 F 19 A 8 Pts 21 GD +11 PPG 3

Norwich v Championship from 17th upwards

P 10 W 1 D 3 L 5 F 10 A 21 Pts 8 GD -11 PPG 0.8 

Norwich have been laudably ruthless against the relegation candidates, but against the better sides, they have routinely been found out – most infamously that 5-0 thrashing at Brighton, but also an embarrassing late collapse to lose 4-3 at Newcastle, a 3-0 loss at Birmingham and a late set piece sickener to lose at home to Leeds.

The Canaries have made up for the leaks at the back by scoring freely – albeit mostly against the division’s weakest teams – while the Rams are still recovering from their freakishly goal-free start to the campaign, although they have at least now scored more goals than Wigan and Ipswich.

Prior to Pearson’s departure, Derby were averaging more shots from outside the area (7.6) than from within it (6.4), a disastrous state of affairs, which shows the lack of creativity we endured during that barren spell.  That has turned around considerably since McClaren’s return.

Defensively, on the other hand, Norwich have looked distinctly vulnerable, despite the fact that they have been by no means peppered with shots.  Lax defending and a string of strange mistakes – not least goalkeeper Michael McGovern’s serious meltdown at the Amex – has been damaging to their season.

Back in the shape that suits them best, the Rams have started to remind everyone of how dangerous they can be.  Certainly, they took advantage of Wolves’ and Rotherham’s frailties and if Norwich defend as sloppily as they have done in recent games, there’s every chance that Derby could produce a real statement result and call time on Neil’s reign at Carrow Road.

On the other hand, I can’t help but remember a certain game in McClaren’s last spell, when the form book and all rational thinking pointed to a Rams win leading to the end of Stuart Pearce at Forest. It didn’t work out that way.

For all of their current problems, Norwich still have plenty of attacking threats and could ask serious questions of Keogh and company.  Much depends, literally, upon which Norwich side turns up – but regardless, with McClaren’s style coming up against porous opponents, a low-scoring, attritional affair feels unlikely.  If Derby are a good enough side to haul themselves back into promotion contention despite giving everyone else such a head-start, then Saturday is the right time to prove it.

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Huddersfield Town v Derby County: Pre-match infographic

Best viewed online.


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Poll: Derby County fans concerned over Mel Morris’ performance as Rams owner

42 per cent of more than 800 voters said they were unsatisfied with Mel Morris’ performance as Derby County owner, in a recent Twitter poll.

A further 40 per cent of voters said they were ‘on the fence’, while 18 per cent said that they were satisfied.


The poll was conducted using the hashtags #dcfc and #dcfcfans and with 806 people having responded, the overall picture is one of deep reservations and serious concerns over the future direction of Derby County, rather than of a happy camp.

And this is no surprise, with Nigel Pearson’s inevitable departure from the iPro Stadium having finally been confirmed.  The first report from a national newspaper – filed at exactly the same time as the club’s official announcement – claimed that Chris Powell will now be appointed until the end of the season.

Powell would certainly be a huge upgrade on last season’s stopgap head coach, Darren Wassall, but inherits a much more difficult situation.  The Rams’ start to the season has been appalling.  Chris Martin is gone and linchpin midfielder George Thorne remains sidelined.  Supporters have endured five home league games with only one goal, leading to nervous tension and negativity around the iPro Stadium.  Next up is a visit from the Damned United – which could end in cathartic relief, or a bit of a nightmare – and then a trip to the division’s surprise package, Huddersfield Town, top of the league under Jürgen Klopp’s former assistant David Wagner.

On the plus side for Morris, 40 per cent of voters remain ‘on the fence’ about his stewardship of the club and 18 per cent declared that they are satisfied with how he has done.  Doubtless, these loyal fans are mindful of Mel’s proven financial commitment, which has built up the club’s infrastructure and its Category One academy – even if the cash lavished on new players did not have the expected immediate impact.

However, on the whole, the wild positivity which accompanied the local lad Morris into Derby just 18 months ago has since been replaced with deep nervousness about the long-term direction of the club.

The main problems:-

Turnover of managers

Paul Clement’s dismissal followed a relatively iffy run of results, but still came as a shock.  A simple explanation was recently offered by Clement’s brother Neil: –

Listen facts are under my bro you where top at xmas and slipped to 4th in Jan.  And your chairman had a panic up cos he’s a nugget…   And that was because the season before you slipped up under mclaren toward the end of the season.

But if Neil Clement is right and Morris thought that promotion was slipping away again, then that leaves the question of why he didn’t look to appoint an experienced hand straight away – and then we come back to Mel’s infamous statement that promotion was not the main aim…

…And then we end up going back down the rabbit hole.

Whatever the reason, we ended up with Wassall until the end of last season – with a never-fully explained role invented for Harry Redknapp, after the shameful 3-3 draw at Rotherham.  This was a bit of a shambles all round and there was a general feeling that a golden opportunity to go up had been wasted.

Pearson’s appointment this summer was met with sage nods from the pundits and the majority of supporters, but it was always clear that it would mean a fundamental shift of emphasis – from the passing football we’d come to know, love and sometimes moan about when clubs frustrated us with a deep-lying defensive blob, to something more functional. Pearson spoke stirringly about playing good football ‘when possible’.

From the outside, it seems to me that well-run clubs have an identity and a clear vision in place for the type of manager (or head coach) they want and that this ensures continuity of appointments.  Swansea and particularly Southampton spring to mind – whoever is in charge, they seem to put out neat, passing teams, remain fundamentally stable and progress incrementally up the football pyramid, recruiting well to replace those players who are pinched by bigger clubs.  And if the club wants to play a certain type of football, then it needs a manager who will buy into that.

Unless Powell is appointed and makes a real go of it, long-term, the club might now looking for somebody who is more of a continental-style head coach – possibly a foreign appointment – and certainly somebody who plays football in ‘the right way’.  For example, at the time, his reputation was at a low ebb, following his sacking by Everton but it’s unquestionably the case that Roberto Martínez would have been a better fit for the current squad than Pearson was (although it may not have gone down well with Steve Nicholson!)


To put it bluntly, the money put in to strengthen the squad since Mel took over has not translated into improved performances.  Chris Evans’ tenure as Head of Football Operations resulted in a slew of underwhelming signings and it is only recently that new Directors of Recruitment have been brought on board.  Unfortunately, the money has already been spent and Financial Fair Play constraints are undoubtedly a factor.

The new manager, whether it’s Powell or somebody else, will not have access to a blank chequebook and will probably have to sell before he buys, or rely on the loan market.  That is not necessarily a disaster, as there is a good squad of players in place and one or two loanees, hopefully with the impact of a Jordon Ibe or a George Thorne, could be just the boost we need in January.  Derby are a club that can attract the top young prospects from the elite clubs and this is a market we can profit from.

Also, Will Hughes’ contract situation is one that will become more pressing as the days tick down.  At the moment, I can see no reason why he would pen an extension and that might force the club to cash in, at some stage.  It would be awful to lose him – but unless the player can see a clear direction and vision for progress, leading to the opportunity to play in the Premier League, then why would he stay?


Things have got a bit weird of late.  The club refused to allow Chris Powell, or anybody else, to speak to BBC Radio Derby after the Reading game and since Radio Derby tweeted this, there has been no further mention of the incident, as far as I am aware.  Presumably, things will be back to normal for the Leeds game next Saturday, but it was a very unusual thing for the club to do, to say the least.

I’ve seen it suggested that this was because Owen Bradley introduced his coverage of the game with the line: “The Derby County soap opera continues…” and if it is really the case that this mild and objectively reasonable comment led to a ‘power play’ from the club, then that seems like an incredibly heavy-handed response.  Subscribers to Rams Player may also have noted that the Radio Derby commentary, which used to be overdubbed onto the match footage, is no longer played on ‘Full 90’ videos.  I don’t think that this is a coincidence.


For what it’s worth, although I will never understand why Morris’ sacked Clement, I don’t disagree with him on this one.  Pearson was in place very early in the summer and had plenty of time to assess the squad, both through video analysis and then during pre-season.  He decided that the players he’d inherited would be able to play his way and that no changes were required – a policy reversed only in the dying moments of the August transfer window, by which time, it was abundantly clear that we were in a spot of bother. Morris watched all this unfold, watched the team die on its arse against Blackburn and then in the aftermath, whatever happened, happened.

In an interview with the Derby Telegraph this week, Richard Keogh seemed to make it pretty plain that the squad were not exactly devastated to see Pearson go.  “Our season started against Cardiff”, he said, adding that it was clear that 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1, if we must call it that) “probably does suit us a lot more [than 4-4-2].  We’re getting our ball players higher up the pitch and they can affect games more.”  Hallelujah.

But while I don’t disagree with Morris’ latest decision, that doesn’t mean that I am prepared to defend an owner who has now appointed and then sacked two managers in such a short space of time.  It is undignified and unsettling for everyone who cares about the club – some people will have voted ‘unsatisfied’ in my poll precisely because they disagreed with Pearson’s sacking – and without doubt, unsettling for the players as well. It’s been pointed out to me that if Powell is appointed until the end of the season, then the Rams could be in a position of a new man coming in next summer as the club’s sixth manager in two years. Even by the standards of today’s trigger-happy game, that is insane.

What happens next is far more important than knowing the gory details of why Pearson has gone.  But it cannot be denied that having another manager depart so swiftly is another black mark against the owner.  It is hard to think why any promising, highly-rated manager would risk coming to Derby now – and also hard to see how the club could afford to pay compensation for an in-work coach, given that pay-offs for Clement and Pearson have been added to the wagebill.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of Rams fans are still willing Mel to succeed with Derby County, but are desperately keen for him to bring the stability we need in order to progress.  We all want to talk about performances on the field, not rows behind the scenes – and points on the board, not rumblings in the boardroom.

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Derby County Podcast – on Pearson, Powell, Morris and where we go from here

I was pleased to be asked to take part in another Derby County Podcast, this time with Joel, Chris Smith (AKA Ramspace) and Matt Bregazzi.  The guys talk a lot of sense and it’s always interesting to get their perspectives on events.

In this episode, there was a hell of a lot to talk about – so we did well to keep it down to an hour.

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How I learned to stop worrying and enjoy the ride on Mad Mel’s Crazy Bonkers Derby County Train

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

I spent hours on a piece analysing where Derby were up to under Nigel Pearson and within hours of me posting it, Morris has suspended him.

To be fair, if Clement’s performance last season was only good enough to get him to February, then it’s no surprise that Pearson’s ended in, reportedly, a massive dust-up before the end of September.

The fact that Morris was saying before the season that he liked the fact that Pearson would tell you what he thought and sort things out man-to-man (which was a clear dig at his last victim, Paul Clement) may have led Pearson to think that he could tell Mel what he thought and sort things out man-to-man, but when he did, he got suspended.

Cards on the table – I couldn’t stand Pearson.  From all the evidence I saw and heard, he was a charmless, humourless, paranoid bully, with no personal skills and zero flair.   I was never as keen on his appointment as many other supporters were – I saw the reasons why, but also catalogued my misgivings in a blogpost, which were around his bizarre ‘charge sheet‘ from the 2014/5 season, in which he verbally abused a young journalist, verbally abused a Leicester supporter and grabbed an opposition player by throat in the middle of a game.  These were not the actions of a normal, balanced individual and it worried me.  When I said he was ‘more suited to the job at Villa‘, I was really thinking, ‘please take him Villa – he might end up here, otherwise’.

I hated the way he seized so radgily on Owen Bradley’s use of the word ‘deployed’ in a recent pre-match interview – sneering and belittling the journalist for having the temerity to use a polysyllabic word, I guess.  Again, it was a little window into Pearson’s world, a little loss of temper at a vanishingly trivial ‘offence’, or something that he deemed an offence.

Anyway, he’s gone.  Mad Mel strikes again.

And I think we just have to accept that this is the way it’s gonna be from now on.  We don’t have a rational, hands-off chairman who leaves things in the hands of the professionals.  We have a guy who can’t detach himself – a kid running a sweet shop and going absolutely mental on the sugar overload, might be another way of describing  it.  All those icy-veined business decisions that made him a multi-millionaire…  Not relevant to his role as custodian of Derby County.  If results go badly, he will take it upon himself to do something.  He will ‘enter the dressing room’.

The old logic – that the manager needs to be given years to set up his team – is largely gone from the game in any case – if you screw up, you’re gone, quick as a flash.

Then again, I don’t know why I’m bringing up the word ‘logic’ in an article about Mel Morris’ Derby County.

Stability is boring anyway.  Remember GSE and Clough?  We pootled along in mid-table, painstakingly developed multi-million pound assets in Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick, shopped in Scotland and the lower divisions and eventually, the arse dropped out of the attendances.  For better or for worse, there’s no danger of things getting stagnant with Mel around, this much is clear.

I’m going to ‘live blog’ this evening and post it after the final whistle against Reading.

6:15pm – I announce on Twitter that I’m available to take the reins for the rest of season, if Mel requires a ‘cheap, FFP-busting option’ – by FFP-busting, I meant ‘helping the club comply with FFP’.  Not a very good choice of words, but there you go.  I was a bit over-excited at the time.  It get me a few likes, but Mel doesn’t call.  Perhaps he’s busy.

6:45pm – The team is announced and Lowe, it is glorious – Max Lowe is handed his debut (as predicted in my last article.  You know, the one I spent hours on and was then redundant almost as soon as it was published.  I don’t know why I bother…)

And it’s 4-3-3!  You know, that system we used for three seasons and which had us in the top eight every time and yielded 38 home wins, compared to 13 losses, but was apparently shite.

7:20pm – A chap rings Radio Derby to suggest David Wagner as a good replacement for Pearson.  It’s a lovely idea – a technical coach, previously assistant to the superb Jürgen Klopp, playing short, passing football with aggressive pressing.  However, think of it from Wagner’s point of view – why would you entrust your future to Mel Morris?  He’s been well backed by Huddersfield, who have allowed him to bring in his own players – and they would resist any attempt to poach him.  Such is the amount of Mel’s money that has been jizzed on non-producing players, that I don’t see how we could afford to pay even more money out on compensation for a manager.

7:36pm – Owen Bradley reports that Big Sam is about to be sacked as England manager….

7:40pm A couple of highlights from Twitter, as we warm up –

Brian Ellis (chief reporter at the Lancashire Evening Post) – Nigel Pearson on his way out? Well that didn’t take long. Most obnoxious manager I think I ever came across in 25 years as a footy writer.

My mate Stu – It appears talk of Sol Bamba was the final straw!

7:45pm – We’re off!  Ed Dawes censures Craig Ramage for using the word ‘transition’.  “You can’t use that word, it’s banned…”

7:48pm Tom Ince has a good shot and I get a genuine sense of excitement – two minutes in, it’s already better…

7:58pm Always worth having a look at the Match Centre for an idea of how the game is going.

7:59pm Rickie Lambert goes off with a groin injury, replaced by Kenneth Zohore.

Steve Nicholson – First chants of “Chrissy Powell’s balmy army” from the Rams fans. He will be on the shortlist should Nigel Pearson be sacked

8:04pm Cardiff have half a spell of pressure and there’s a bit of noise echoing around what sounds like a perilously half-empty stadium

8:06pm Ben Lavender posts a poll – would you take Steve McClaren back as Derby manager?  I vote ‘No’.

8:07pm “Johnson’s first touch gives the ball away” says Ed.  I’m afraid that’s something you see all too often.

8:10pm Patient possession – remember that?  And Hughes has a shot blocked out for a corner.

8:11pm More shots!  Ince, saved, Vydra, saved for corner……  This is exciting!

8:12pm Another corner!  Not that we ever score from corners.  But neither does anybody else – a study of Premier League corners 2011-13 found that only two per cent of them resulted in a goal.

8:14pm Ed says how much he’s enjoying himself.  Me too!  Long may this continue.

8:18pm Noone denies Butterfield, aaaaargh…… Nerves!

8:19pm Lex Immers sounds like a super-villain.  Meanwhile, Whittingham nails Vydra and is booked.

8:29pm Max Lowe getting lots of praise.  Which makes me idly wonder…  Did Morris not feel that Pearson shared his focus on youth?  That was part of why Clement was sacked, apparently.  When ‘the kids’ came off the bench in the cup friendly against Liverpool, Pearson said it “wasn’t political”, which I thought was a very odd choice of words.  If it wasn’t political, why even say that?

8:34pm Half time 0-0 and were those a few boos from the home end?  Ed suggests that Derby have ‘better control’ and the pass success is certainly much more like it – 84 per cent, compared to 75 per cent under Pearson.  That’s the extra central midfielder.

8:40pm The Derby Way is back, apparently…!

Hebberd’s Shin Pads ‏@wristslasher909 – We lost the plot appointing Pearson, never a #derbyway man.  I would never have paid to watch 2 seasons of that shite

MEL8:52pm We’re back and Ramage just launched into Ashford & Simpson’s Solid (as a rock), in praise of Alex Pearce.  Would it be a stretch to suggest that this is all reflective of the delirious sense of relief which has followed the suspension of Mr Pearson?

8:57pm Ince denied by Amos, there’s that excitement again…  The Rams fans are audible – all 317 of them.  God love them, every one.

8:58pm Ramage discussing the fine art of ‘defending from the front’ – something I also heard the great Klopp talking about last night on Sky and which I thought was sadly lacking on Saturday.


9:00pm Ramage: “Possession football – our footballers are coming good.”  YES RAMAGE, YES POWELL

9:01pm Eek, a stung Cardiff come straight up the other end and win a corner, which is headed just wide by Morrison…  Lucky.  “TOUCH TIGHT”, roars Ramage.

9:03pm Ramage using the ‘E’ word…. ‘Enjoy’.  “They’re enjoying it”.  First time all season….

9:08pm The away fans remind me what the Derby way is:-

“If you don’t attack, then you get the sack,
It’s the Derby Way…”

That’ll do as a definition for me!

9:13pm Bradley Johnson getting plenty of encouragement from Ramage.  If he can do that holding role, it would be a huge bonus for our season.

9:15pm Top three players on the park, according to

Ince 7.7 (/ 10)
Lowe 7.6
Pearce 7.4

9:16pm Ed says “Cardiff are the worst side we’ve come up against and if Derby can’t beat them…” Instantaneously ushering in a spell of Cardiff pressure and making everybody listening curse him bitterly.

9:17pm Ramage: “This is the Bradley Johnson we’ve been looking for”.  Long may that continue.  Ed: “Derby’s passing has been very good this evening”.  Long may that continue.

9:19pm 15 minutes to go and Cardiff trying to mount a comeback.  You’d think it would be time for Powell to use his bench – but the bench is Baird and five forwards.  A reminder that there are still some problems, for whoever is going to take the job on, to tackle.

9:20pm Nick Blackman is coming on… It’s a fresh start for everyone.  He’s on for Vydra.

9:24pm Blackman has won a penalty and Connolly is sent off!

9:24pm Nerves


9:26pm Derby have scored more than one goal in a game for the first time all season.  No Pearson, no problem.  Apparently.

9:26pm: Ramage: “I don’t know, this 4-3-3, you know….

“They’re not a team of doggers.”

9:29pm Ince is withdrawn for Russell and receives warm praise from the commentary team and the fans.  Lovely.  Another player who had apparently been destroyed under Pearson.  Centre back Manga is brought on for the injured super-villain Immers.

9:31pm I just keep hearing long spells of commentary which involve Derby passing the ball to each other.  It’s like the good old days again.

9:33pm A pithy quote from a long suffering Cardiff journo…

Dafydd Pritchard ‏@DafPritchard
One more goal and Derby could double their tally for the season in one game.


Since I was young
I followed them
The 4-3-3
It’s the shape for me….

9:35pm Five minutes of stoppage time to play.  Nigel Pearson is still trending, but has been displaced from the top of Twitter by terms like #SamAllardyce, Southgate, Nicklas Bendtner (unfortunately) and Steve Bruce (in connection with the England job, not Derby)…

9:38pm Ramage: “It’s been a stroll.  We could get another one, here… I’ve been starved”.

9:39pm: Weimann on for Anya, to waste a few seconds.

9:40pm Butterfield almost scores another one… “WELL DONE” It’s the Ramage Roar

9:40pm “AND THAT IS TIME”, Ed says.  Cardiff 0 Derby 2

Bigger tests than a moribund Cardiff are ahead of us, but this is where it starts.



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