A few thoughts on the Derby County Podcast pre-season special

I was really pleased that Joel Clyne asked me to take part in a season preview Derby County Podcast, alongside Chris Smith (Ramspace) and Jonathan Rodgers (@popsider).

The discussion was good, but as is always the way with these things, there were a couple of things I didn’t get the chance to say – so thought I’d do a mop-up piece here, to be read alongside the audio.

I didn’t say as much as the other guys on Pearson.  Joel, Chris and Jonathan are all highly positive about the appointment and I agree that it was logical and sensible.  Even my reservations about his character have been mitigated somewhat by the identity of his number two, the excellent Chris Powell.

One point I did want to make though is that the nature of the managerial role has changed out of sight in recent years.  Today’s managers are appointed with a brief to tackle a particular job – win promotion, steady the ship, fire-fight against relegation.  They come in almost as ‘project managers’, rather than with an eye on building an institution.  The clubs insulate themselves from the possibility of a new Clough or Ferguson or Wenger coming along, in some ways.  They cannot allow a manager to take complete control.  The sums of money involved in the myriad sponsorship deals and the recruiting of star ‘assets’ (players) are too vast to allow for a new breed of Cloughian ‘perfect dictator’ to emerge, motivated solely by thoughts of footballing glory and acting as a law unto himself.

Since Arthur Cox, we’ve had almost as many managers as we did in the first hundred years of the club’s history.  More, if you count the interim guys!

Derby County had 16 managers in its first 100 years and 13 in the past 32 years.

So, it seems unlikely to me that Pearson will still be at Derby in five years’ time – maybe not even in three.  He’ll come in, hopefully do the job he’s been hired to do and, fingers crossed, will leave the club in a better position than it is in now.

Judging from the way that the pressure got to him in 2014/5, he may not be the right man to stabilise us in the Premier League – but let’s worry about that after we finally get there.

***

In his first round of interviews, Pearson never used the word ‘Academy’ once, that I heard – and I found that interesting, given that Clement was reportedly sacked, in part, for not being sufficiently focused on the academy.

The cue I took from this omission was that there has been a pragmatic acceptance by the club that if we’ve got academy players who are good enough to be in the squad, great – but if we don’t, that also has to be OK.  You can’t have an inflexible target that six or eight of the 22-man squad will be academy products by a certain point in time – it isn’t realistic.  If Pearson doesn’t think that Jamie Hanson is ready, for example, he won’t play him – and he won’t be sacked for it, either.

The academy should be churning out a good standard of young professionals all the time, but it probably won’t be the case that a really top player is produced every year, or even every two or three years.  How often does a Will Hughes come along?

The point of having a strong academy in a strong club is that whenever a Hendrick, Huddlestone or Hughes does crop up, the Rams can offer them a career path – and are not in a situation where the starlet has to be quickly sold, to balance the books, or feels the need to leave for a club that can meet their ambitions.

The progress of Hughes and Hendrick under Clough was partly down to necessity.  We didn’t have loads of money to spend on players at the time.  You can’t have your cake and eat it – you either put up with their growing pains and have an inconsistent team, or you buy experienced players who have developed elsewhere.  Derby have gone for the latter option.

By the way, I suspect that Hughes will depart if we don’t go up this season.

***

As Chris and Jonathan alluded to, the appointment of Pearson signals a major cultural shift for the club.

I was leafing through Jonathan Wilson’s biography of Brian Clough before we recorded the podcast and noticed a story that felt oddly relevant to the situation today.

Under Tim Ward in the 1960s, Derby had, as they do now, a popular player named Buxton.   Cromford-born Ian Buxton played up front and was a throwback to the glory days of the amateur sportsman.  Once the football season finished, he donned his whites and turned out for Derbyshire County Cricket Club.  Buxton had an agreement with the Rams that he could play the full cricket season for Derbyshire, then have a two-week break before reporting back to the Baseball Ground – meaning that he missed the start of the football season.

Clough quite rightly pointed out that this was madness and had to stop – and Buxton was promptly sold to Luton Town.

I wonder what Pearson’s attitude to today’s “Bucko” will be?  Will he indulge the cult hero – now 31 and entering the final year of his contract – and keep him on the books, even if he clearly isn’t going to be first choice, or will he let him leave, despite his popularity with supporters?

***

Chris and Jonathan both mentioned 4-4-2 as a possibility, but I think it’s very difficult to organise the current squad into that formation.  We have four extremely good central midfielders (Thorne, Hughes, Bryson, Hendrick) and I don’t see how you could leave two of them out, or shoehorn one of them onto the wing.  That doesn’t even reckon in Johnson or Butterfield – and, although Chris pointed out that Johnson could play on the left of a four, that would still leave no less than three good central midfielders with no place in the starting line-up.

This is a squad currently configured to 4-3-3 – not even 4-2-3-1, as we only have one genuine holding midfielder, in Thorne.

Of the wide players at the club, Russell and Weimann could probably ‘do a job’ on either flank of a midfield four – maybe Camara, too, who knows? – but I don’t think you’d be getting the best out of them that way.

Perhaps (and I’m speculating here) we could try a diamond formation, with Thorne, Bryson, Hendrick and Hughes playing behind two strikers.  Now, that might be interesting….

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