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.
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….
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.