Derby County v Queens Park Rangers – preview Q & A for Loft For Words

I’m sure I’m not the only Derby fan who sees this tie as a sort of quasi-derby match these days.  Beating QPR will never erase the memory of what happened, but it doesn’t harm anything either and I’m always looking for a performance when we play them – keeping above them in the table feels symbolic, somehow.

Their promotion didn’t do them any good in the end and now they’re bumping along below us again, finally having got rid of the assorted shithouses who drained the club of its Premier League millions.

Clive Whittingham does sterling work over at Loft for Words and I’m always happy to answer questions for him.

(For what it’s worth, my crude amateur statistical model, The Thing, makes Derby moderately strong favourites to win tomorrow and I am highly optimistic that we will see a strong performance for Rowett’s home debut – and a morale-boosting three points.)

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Clive (Loft for Words): Taking your latest weird and wonderful season in order, why didn’t it work for Nigel Pearson?  A much sought after appointment at the time…

Ollie (Yours Truly): I think Pearson’s biggest mistake was not to bring in at least a couple of his own players during the summer.  He did no business before the start of the season and was completely caught out when the squad struggled to implement his methods.  Eventually, hand forced by awful results, he sold Jeff Hendrick to sign Matej Vydra and Ikechi Anya on deadline day, while sending Chris Martin to Fulham on loan – a patently ridiculous decision.  Thus, he left himself short (literally) in midfield and with no effective presence up front as a target for the long balls he insists that his defenders hit.

His hardman, disciplinarian reputation – which many fans believed was just what our squad needed – were never going to make up for the bald fact that he had made a colossal tits of his transfer dealings.  He shouldn’t have been surprised that a team set up to play on the grass with a midfield three couldn’t adapt to a more direct style and 4-4-2 without some new faces, but he was.

I don’t know if it’s true that ‘senior players’ told Mel Morris they couldn’t work for Pearson after we lost pitifully at home to Blackburn, but he is so arrogant, charmless, inflexible and generally psychologically flawed that it wouldn’t surprise me.  I said before he joined that I thought he would have been a better appointment at Villa, whose floundering squad seemed more in need of his brand of nasty-bastard, autocratic discipline.

LFW: Why would you go back to Steve McClaren so soon after sacking him?

DCB: Morris decided that the best way to get back to the style that worked so well (until you mugged us) was to bring back the man who had implemented it in the first place.  Plus he was out of work at the time.

LFW: Having started so well, including a win at QPR, it all fell apart again – why?

DCB: There was an initial bounce when the team were allowed to go back to a midfield three, but this could only temporarily mask the fact that the squad, by now a Frankenstein’s monster of various managers’ additions, is imbalanced. The players ran out of steam badly at Christmas time and the problem then was that McClaren’s main aim for January became a failed bid to get Martin back from Fulham, while he also repeated a previous recruitment mistake by signing a fancy but flimsy youngster to play what he calls the ‘controlling’ role in midfield. Julien de Sart can do many things, but he cannot control a game of football in the Championship.  The only convincing player we’ve ever had for that position is George Thorne and Mac’s 4-3-3 has never been as good without him.

Just like in 2014/5, Mac lost his way after Christmas.  Just like in 2014/5, we started to produce truly bizarre, incompetent performances – drawing 3-3 and losing 3-4 against lesser teams brought painful memories from his last spell back to the surface, for Morris as much as the rest of us, I’m sure.  It got very messy very quickly.

LFW: McClaren’s latest sacking is a sixth change of permanent manager in little more than three years – any thoughts that maybe you should have stuck with him?  Maybe the manager isn’t the problem?

DCB: Morris caused all the instability which followed by sacking Paul Clement, who was doing absolutely fine.  He got it wrong with Pearson and he got it wrong with McClaren, but both were out of work at the time, as was Rowett.  Not paying compensation has been a factor in all of the post-Clement appointments.

For what it’s worth, I think Morris got it right with Rowett.  He was probably worried that Norwich might make a move for him, unless he got a wriggle on, which would also have been a factor in pulling the trigger.

I have to say that based on McClaren’s previous recruitment record, I didn’t have much faith in him to oversee a fairly major clear-out, which is what the club needs this summer.  But yes, it’s also clear that Morris has a gargantuan ego and has made a series of impulsive, or plain bad choices so far.  On the current trend, Rowett has until about Christmas to get it right, so we just have to hope that he hits the ground running.

LFW: Can you put your finger on exactly why Derby’s seasons keep following this pattern of high expectation, strong periods of form early in the season, then complete collapse at the end?

DCB: There are different reasons for each time.  2014/5 basically went wrong when Chris Martin got injured at Bournemouth.  We lost key midfielders to injury as well and McClaren had no idea how to cope without them.  His head had also been turned by Newcastle’s unsubtle advances, which undoubtedly destabilised the club.

2015/6 was torpedoed when Morris sacked Clement for no reason and replaced him with the unqualified Darren Wassall.  This season went wrong because Pearson was the wrong appointment in the first place.  McClaren did well to lift the team from the doldrums, but it would have been some feat to finish in the top six, bearing in mind the headstart we gave to the competition.

Getting the job done is going to take a combination of factors.  Firstly, Morris has to understand that he is not the manager and that whoever is in post probably knows what he is doing, especially if we’re fifth. If the manager is trusted and backed, then it comes down to the players doing the business and it’s clear that we need different ones, especially in midfield.

LFW: To an outsider looking in, yours looks to be a dressing room with more problem children / arseholes than you’d ideally want – Johnson, Ince, Bent.  Do the players cop any grief from the fans when it all goes tits up? Any rumoured dressing room issues?

A: Well, we certainly do need to change the squad around a bit.  Other fans would probably be more forthright than me on this issue.  What I will say is that although Ince has long been perceived as a ‘mardy’ player, his effort this season has been excellent, including an obvious improvement in his willingness to track back and defend for the team.  He will probably get my vote for Player of the Year. Unfortunately for him, his performances have probably earned him a move to Middlesbrough in the summer, poor sod…

On the other hand, Bent made a real tit of himself on Twitter recently, when he sought to defend the manager and team from what he described as ‘these fans’, who ‘make me laugh’, after yet another farcical last-minute cock-up, this time against Preston.  That really was one of those moments when ‘the mask slips’ and the carefully constructed social media image is fractured.  There is some confusion as to whether Bent will be staying at the club next season or not – McClaren’s regrettable penchant for retaining veterans means that Bent’s contract extension may already have triggered – but we’re not sure either way yet.

Bradley Johnson isn’t particularly good at football and so McClaren tried to invent a new image for him as ‘the warrior’.  He is one of several players who the club overpaid for and would be impossible to shift on for more than a fraction of what he was signed for.

So while I honestly can’t comment on whether these players are ‘arseholes’ or not, I can say that there are plenty within the squad who I do not associate with good football or good times and who I would not be sorry to see leave.

LFW: Why will it be different for Gary Rowett – who is clearly a very good manager at this level?

DCB: I think you’ve answered your own question there.  Also, I think there is a huge willingness for him to succeed from the supporters and a sense – to me at least – that he’s the right man at the right time.

He’s got no chance if Morris can’t keep a degree of distance from the club’s operations, but I genuinely believe that, if he’s allowed to, he can do a great job. He knows the division perfectly well and has proved that he can get results on a tight budget, overachieving notably at Birmingham, who looked nailed on for relegation and oblivion when he took the job there.  Given that there is general agreement that the squad needs a major refresh and there won’t be much money to throw around, Rowett’s credentials made him the outstanding candidate for the job at hand – much more so than McClaren.  The factors above *should* also lead Morris to have more patience this time.

LFW: The chairman was seen as something of a great white hope initially, has the chaos that has ensued damaged his rep at all?

DCB: Yes, of course.  He’s made a series of poor recruitment decisions which have set the club back – exactly how far back, we will understand probably by September.

I think we were all a little bit guilty of assuming that he was Messiah when he took over, but he has learned the hard way that football isn’t as simple as we all think it is from the stands.  If he can work with Rowett, there’s no doubting his financial credentials – in a sense, maybe he felt that his money had been squandered, particularly by Clement, who made some questionable signings in January 2016.

LFW: Finally, what exactly is ‘the Derby way’?

DCB: A figment of Morris’ imagination.  A naive attempt at spin, gleefully, predictably seized upon and shredded by the cynical massed ranks of pundits.  A nebulous, malodorous cloud, the whiff of which will probably take a generation to dissipate.

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