Carroll the derailer?

Spurs blogger Chris Miller asked me to jot down a few thoughts on our half-season loanee Tom Carroll, at the end of what was, unfortunately, an unsuccessful spell at Derby County for the 19-year old…

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Tom Carroll joined Derby County on a half-season loan from Tottenham Hotspur at the end of the January transfer window.  He came with a reputation as a serious young talent, with great technique and a range of passing, but untested at Championship level, with only a loan spell at League One Leyton Orient on his CV.

Carroll’s signing came in slightly unusual circumstances.  After he joined, Derby’s Republic of Ireland international midfielder Paul Green was left out of the squad for a game at Barnsley, which fell on transfer deadline night, in case an offer came in for him from another club.  It didn’t.  In Green’s absence, a Derby side which had conceded one goal in the previous six games went to Oakwell and collapsed in dismal fashion, trailing 0-3 by half-time.

Derby started that game in a 4-4-2 shape, with Carroll playing centre midfield alongside the energetic Craig Bryson and Eire U’21 midfielder Jeff Hendrick shifted to the right, from his natural central berth.  This had the effect of completely unsettling the balance of the Rams line-up and pretty quickly, Hendrick was moved back into the centre to make a three, with Sunderland loanee Ryan Noble moved from striker to wide right.  By then though, it was too late and Barnsleylona’s serenely unpressurised midfield trio had already done the damage.

This could have been put down to teething problems, a blip as the Rams tried to integrate a new player into the team.  However, the Rams, who had been in great form through December and January, promptly slumped disastrously through February, a poor run which ultimately cost them any chance of making the play-offs.  With the diminutive Carroll shoehorned into the team, everything ceased to make sense and results suffered.

Carroll is so small and slight that it is very difficult for him to impose himself on games at this level.  His best moments came when he managed to find time and space for himself to receive the ball and pick a pass.  He is capable of some lovely football and it’s obvious why Clough fancied him, but unfortunately, he was a midfield luxury we couldn’t afford in a tough Championship campaign.

After the embarrassing defeat at Oakwell, Derby failed to score in their next four games.  A 0-0 draw at Millwall was as good as it got, as Reading beat us 1-0 at Pride Park, promotion-bound Southampton trounced us 4-0 at St Mary’s, then, most aggravatingly of all, Leicester completed a league double by handing us a 1-0 home defeat.

The slide was arrested with two good results – a 2-2 draw at Birmingham and a 2-1 home win against Blackpool – but then Watford visited PP and strolled into a 2-0 lead within 15 minutes.  Derby were appalling in that first half and Carroll was withdrawn from his central midfield berth at the interval.  My mate Tommo suggested to me that it was a good idea from Clough to spare him the trauma of having a substitution mid-half applauded by the home following.

After that, we welcomed local rivals Nottingham Forest to Pride Park and I must admit, I spent the whole week leading up to the game praying that Carroll would be dropped.  He was and it was absolutely the right decision.  As you’ll know from North London derbies, the atmosphere in these games is generally pretty caustic and it was no place for an inexperienced kid.  Clough simply had to leave Carroll out and Derby toughed their way to a 1-0 win, with a headed goal from a set piece in stoppage time.

A move to Derby was a step too far for Carroll at this point in his career.  If he was moving to the Championship, it should have been to one of the smaller clubs with lower crowds, where there is less pressure and expectation.

From Derby’s perspective, there was actually no need for us to sign him, with hindsight.  He was clearly intended to cover for the departing Green, but Green never departed.  Even then, it seemed slightly odd, as Green had been playing on the right of midfield, or even covering at right back, whereas Carroll is obviously a central midfielder.

Carroll’s place in the side meant that our own James Bailey was left out and more importantly, meant that Bryson, our eventual Player of the Year, often ended up being moved out to the right flank, where he simply didn’t belong.

I believe that Clough is very keen to add a genuine ‘passer’ to the Derby squad.  He has no problem with giving a chance to small players – he previously signed Barry Bannan on loan from Aston Villa – while Derby fans have no problem with dinky technicians, with previous favourites including Kris Commons and probably the most successful loan signing we’ve ever had, Leon Osman.  Unfortunately, Carroll was unable to make a similar impact.

At one point, Clough did mention the possibility of Carroll returning to Derby next season, but this now seems highly unlikely.  After the Watford game, he never started again, as Hendrick and Bryson proved themselves to be our most effective and best midfield partnership in a 4-4-2 formation, which the manager has said he intends to stick with for next season.

In total, Carroll started eight games for Derby this season, scoring one goal.  Our record in those games was W 1 D 2 L 5.  However, it should be added that those five defeats included some of the toughest games of the season – Southampton away, Reading at home and Leicester at home – and from a Spurs perspective, the experience he’s gained from playing at a high level will be invaluable.  It’s just a shame that the loan wasn’t quite so fruitful from the Rams’ point of view.

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