It is hard to try to point out Nigel Clough’s positive legacy – Clough signings are still playing for Derby to this day and completely dominated Ryan Conway’s recent suggested Rams team of the decade – without having it thrown back at you that he was always mid-table Nige. Yes, he was, but had he ever been given £25m to spend, then we would not have ended up signing Camara, Butterfield, Blackman and Johnson. Each manager we’ve tried in recent years have had their different strengths and weaknesses. They were only human, after all.
Craig Bryson was recently interviewed by Steve Bloomer’s Washing and said that his ideal Derby manager would have been a mixture of Clough’s man-management, Steve McClaren’s coaching skills and Frank Lampard, for how much he enjoyed the experience. That makes sense to me. Clough to identify and develop players, McClaren to set a style of play, then Lampard to get everybody revved up and bouncing.
However, finding one person who combines all of those elements, would be little short of miraculous – and Phillip Cocu definitely isn’t that mythical creature.
He doesn’t have Lampard’s charm (doubtless picked up from his Uncle ‘Arry) and he is yet to hit on a playing style which lights the blue touchpaper, as McClaren did so quickly. But Cocu certainly has a sincere commitment to the club’s youngsters and, bit by bit, is promoting them into his set-up above more senior players. Morgan Whittaker, to give the most notable current example, has jumped above Florian Jozefzoon, Jamie Paterson and Kieran Dowell in the pecking order. If they have the talent, Cocu will be give them the opportunities. To throw a 19 year-old into a game in which the Rams needed to find a way through, as first change, was a brave decision from a manager who could hardly have been blamed for turning to a more experienced forward in his moment of need.
That is undoubtedly a positive. And here’s some mitigation for what was overall a very disappointing performance against QPR. The starting XI featured the back-up goalkeeper – brought in after a chicken / egg situation in which the first-choice ‘keeper became subject to fan derision and lost form – one defender making his first start of the season, two more who were third and fourth-choice centre backs (if that) at the start of the season and a midfield shorn of three players Cocu would have selected if they were available.
Cocu was criticised for making a lot of changes for this game, which I can’t really understand, because we were awful at Fulham and it would have made no sense to send the same team out. Then Krystian Bielik then pulled out in the warm-up, to be replaced by a much less commanding player in George Evans, left Cocu’s gameplan seriously disrupted. Without him, Graeme Shinnie or Tom Huddlestone available, Duane Holmes and George Evans were left to struggle, particularly during the first half, to provide an effective screen for the defence – none of whom were particularly suited to playing the passing game which Cocu favours.
Within ten minutes, Cocu had pulled Waghorn to the touchline and ordered a change of shape. Suddenly, Bogle was playing as a right winger, with Waggy on the left and fulfilling considerable extra defensive duties – with unfortunate consequences.
In short, this felt like a truly makeshift team. Cocu is struggling to get a tune out of the squad and the lack of consistency in performance levels and team selection is frustrating, but – at the risk of sounding like a broken record – this random mob was signed by many different managers for very different reasons. It is hard to expect cohesion in these circumstances, particularly given the loss of key players through injury.
This was far from the worst performance of the season, but it was yet another game in which the Rams were not dominant against opposition who were not very good. And in the 80th minute, Cocu made a decision which I will not defend him for, because I felt it was a misjudgement.
Derby had actually improved in the second half and managed to work the ball through the lines neatly on several occasions, Holmes becoming ever-more influential in carrying the ball towards the QPR area. Jayden Bogle could easily have reinstated the lead from Jack Marriott’s cross and his replacement, Whittaker, showed glimmers of his obvious potential. A league start is probably not far away for him now.
With the game grinding into its final stages, QPR’s threat became more sporadic as they hunkered down. Momentum threatened to build for the home side. Marriott seemed to have the bit between his teeth and was fizzing around the penalty area with menace – so when Chris Martin was introduced, I thought that would be perfect – a CM9 flick-on could provide Jack with the sight of goal he needed to turn the game in our favour.
So I was horrified when it turned out Martin was coming on for Marriott, while Waghorn was also withdrawn for a midfielder in Jason Knight. Given Tom Lawrence’s severe allergy to the penalty area, it was a decision which left Martin with nobody to run past him and which, in my opinion, let the Hoops off the hook. Two points dropped.
But let’s focus on the positives, because it’s easy to forget amid the doom and gloom that there are some. Derby have still only lost one home game all season and, despite the daft penalty – clumsily conceded by Waghorn in his eagerness to help the defence – the Rams have only let in seven goals at Pride Park, which is among the best defensive home records in the division. There were more minutes for Whittaker, who still looks physically slight for a Championship player, but demonstrated an excellent first touch, vision and passing range, which will make him an asset this season. Whittaker’s emergence could yet allow at least one loanee to be sent back to his parent club – hopefully facilitating another signing for one of the other areas of the squad which needs reinforcement.
And we have been told that the much-mooted investment deal, which will bring extra funds into the club while leaving Mel Morris in control, has moved a stage closer and could be finalised this month. That could be good news – depending on who it is and what this consortium’s intentions are.
Morris may have been the ‘local boy made good’, who simply wanted to plough money into his club for the love of it, but much like ideal managers, such unicorns are in scant supply. Major investments of the type needed to turn around loss-making football clubs will not come without strings attached. Certainly, there have been positive examples of people coming into clubs and doing great work, but there are plenty of horror stories to tell, too. If Mel has managed to find a genuinely respectable partner who can finally help to propel this club out of its twenty-year second division stagnation, then that will be a sensational development. I can’t help wonder, though – while remaining in the dark about the new investors’ motivations – whether Cocu’s long-term schemes and a prospective external partner’s Premier League dreams might leave Derby with yet another circle to square.