Did poor early summer recruitment decisions hamper Derby County this season?

Within a couple of weeks of Paul Clement’s appointment as the new Derby head coach on 1 June last year, five new signings had been unveiled as the Rams looked to move on swiftly from the wreckage of the 2014/5 season.

8 June: Signings of Alex Pearce and Darren Bent announced – Pearce was unveiled exactly a week after Clement – but the deal had actually been initiated well before Clement’s arrival.  Pearce told Rams Player:

“I found out about it quite early doors after the season finished..  we got in contact and things escalated quite quickly.”  

Pearce then was asked: “And should this be announced, you have got a new manager [Clement] to look forward to…”

Bent, now 32, was announced on a two-year contract on the same day, with Clement quoted as saying: “He is going to be key in our plans to move forward.”  This has not proved to be the case, as Clement decided to stick with the McClaren 4-3-3 system, which does not suit Bent’s attributes.  At a later Fans Forum, when asked what might happen if Chris Martin was to get injured, he suggested that Bent could play instead, but it would mean a change to 4-2-3-1.

18 June: Andreas Weimann announcedThe Guardian reported that the Austrian, who had been a ‘peripheral figure’ towards the end of his time at Aston Villa, cost £2.75m.

19 June: Chris Baird announced – The utility player, who turns 34 next week, was announced as Derby’s fifth signing of the summer on a two-year contract, plus an optional one-year extension (in theory, he could continue to be a Derby player until the age of 36).

8 August: Bolton Wanderers 0 Derby County 0 – Of the five early signings, only Scott Carson and Baird started the first game of Clement’s reign, with the other three named among the subs.  Disaster struck, as, within minutes, Will Hughes and Craig Bryson picked up serious injuries.

29 August: Derby County 1 Leeds United 2 – Chris Wood’s late rasper ended a run of four draws with Clement’s first defeat, less than 72 hours before the summer transfer window closed.  With Hughes and Bryson injured, Jamie Hanson had started three of the first five games of the season in midfield.

1 September – Jacob Butterfield and Bradley Johnson sign – The Huddersfield playmaker joined for around £4m (Chris Powell later told Channel 5 that the fee could eventually reach £6m).  Johnson reportedly cost £6m, rising to a potential £7.5m.

28 September: Chris Evans leaves Derby County – It was announced that Evans, who was in charge of scouting and recruitment, had resigned.

***

After the sacking of Nigel Clough, much was made of a shift in management model, with the ‘head coach’ now to work alongside a ‘director of football’ – although Evans, when he arrived, was actually given the title ‘head of football operations’.  Hired for his recruitment expertise, he gave interviews in which he emphasised how hard he would work for the club.  Ripping yarns soon emerged about Evans dashing around the Spanish countryside in pursuit of Iberian hearthrob Raúl Albentosa.  He got his man.

When things started to unravel last season, I remember having a few conversations with mates about the recruitment side of things.  Many of the loans had been stellar, yes – but George Thorne aside, how about the permanent or semi-permanent signings?

  • Of course, it was doubles all round when Thorne signed, but cruelly, he was lost to injury for the whole term within days (and is still struggling to stay fit this season).  His replacement for 2014/5, Omar Mascarell, found the Championship an unsurmountable culture shock.
  • Cyrus Christie, brought in after a move for Bournemouth full back Simon Francis failed, was clearly talented, but young and raw.  He struggled to cope with the rigours of his first Championship season, but has since grown in stature.
  • Leon Best, brought in as cover and competition for Chris Martin, had a nightmare stay and his season-long loan was cut short.
  • I raised both eyebrows when Ryan Shotton was described by Steve Nicholson as a right back who could cover at centre back – because I’d always thought of him as a centre back who could do a job at right back, at a push.  This confusion over his best position, I think, says it all.
  • Stephen Warnock was given a two-year contract.  He started this season as second-choice behind Craig Forsyth and while nobody can fault his commitment, Clement found it necessary to sign Marcus Olsson in the January window, presumably due to Warnock’s lack of pace and attacking impact.
  • Albentosa, whose wife was heavily pregnant when he joined and who couldn’t speak a word of English, completely failed to settle and is back in Spain.

Evans’ ongoing player identification work was presumably the reason why Derby were in a position to recruit so rapidly at the start of the summer window.  But within four months of the new head coach’s arrival and with around £20m spent, Evans had gone.

Perhaps I’m completely wrong, but it seems totally plausible to me that Clement, once he’d had time to properly assess his squad, started to have serious doubts about the standard and suitability of some of the players identified by Evans’ team.

After all, Clement barely picked four of them.  Pearce has never and probably will never play a minute of league football for Derby.  Maybe Bent will play more under Darren Wassall, if he is determined to persist with 4-4-2 and kicking it long.  Before his recall at Fulham, Baird had not started a league game since September and was today sent to Fulham for the season.  Weimann had not even been on the bench for several weeks prior to a ineffectual outing at Craven Cottage and an equally ineffectual sub appearance in the disaster against Milton Keynes.

League starts this season (after 30 games, up to Clement’s sacking)

Pearce 0
Bent 3
Weimann 12
Baird 8

Between them, that is a lot of wages to have sitting on the bench (or in the stands, or playing for someone else).  And I do not think that it’s a coincidence that those four players were recruited within days of Clement’s official arrival.

Had the head coach been given more time to actually assess his squad and work out what he wanted before these players were presented to him, would they still have been signed? After all, the first pre-season friendly wasn’t until 11 July.

And then there were the two deadline day signings.  OK, you could argue that Butterfield possibly made sense, in that it was an attempt to sign a creative midfielder to fill the gap left by Hughes.  But what about Johnson, at an initial £6m?

Speaking to Norwich fans about Johnson, they tell me that he played his best football for the Canaries as a left midfielder.  While he is by no means an orthodox winger, Norwich fans fondly remember him as having been hugely effective on the left for them, where his comparative lack of technical ability did not render him as much of a liability as it does in the centre.

So when Clement was playing 4-3-3 exclusively, just as McClaren had done before him, why did the club sign a player for a vast fee when there was never an intention to play him in what I’m reliably informed is his best position?   This makes no sense.

Mel Morris told Owen Bradley ‘categorically’ that Clement had ‘sole sign-off’ on every player recruited this season.  He added that the ‘recruitment team’ headed by Evans had offered players as options for the head coach’s requirements.  In ‘some cases’, the player signed was the ‘named candidate’ Clement had himself suggested.  I would love to know which ones were Clement’s suggestions and which ones weren’t.

My impression is that the recruitment has been incoherent all season and I suspect that this is why Evans is no longer at the club.  The lack of a solid strategy, at least, is confirmed by Morris, who told Bradley:

“We had a period where… although I was financing the purchase of players, it was against a budget the Americans [GSE] were also on the hook for, even if I was paying for it.  And then we had my takeover of the club and if you look at the signings, they’re different as you look through that calendar…

“In the period when I became chairman but hadn’t bought the club, there were a number of… free signings who came in as part of that process.

(Mel presumably means Bent, Pearce, Carson and Baird.  Weimann was also signed for a fee at this stage)

“Then of course, when budget was available, you’re bound to want to bring in a couple of additional signings.

(Tom Ince and Jason Shackell)

“Then we had that first game, we had Bryson out of the picture.  Hendrick had his [legal] problems… Hughes had his ACL and so we had no choice but to bolster that…

(Butterfield and Johnson)

“You could say, ‘if promotion wasn’t the target, then why do that?’  But it’s soul-destroying for a team of players who’ve been close for two seasons to suddenly have a hole in the midfield that would be the heart and soul of the team.  So the signings of Butterfield and Johnson were a reaction to the injuries we’d had and, given the previous season, that was not an unreasonable…. over-reaction…

“So the signings were not one coordinated plan, they were three or four separate pieces glued together that may not look quite as cohesive now, but they didn’t happen as one plan.”

Morris was describing a club in flux, disrupted by ownership change off the field and by injuries on the field – and in need of a major squad rebuild to compete at the top end of the table, given the amount of loanees and surplus players who had left at the end of 2014/5.  Evans, the recruitment guru, departed – as have a lot of unimpressive players he recruited, already – and in my view, he pulled up no trees for Derby County as head of football operations.

It would be difficult, I think, for any manager / head coach to walk into this unsettled situation and instantly achieve miracles on the pitch, especially one taking on his first job.

Morris explains pretty comprehensively the considerable behind-the-scenes upheaval, which translated into variable performances this season.  At this stage, I cannot understand for the life of me why he didn’t take all of that into consideration and pause before deciding ‘the coach is crap and deserves the sack’.   Especially when that coach only lost five out of 30 league matches and left the club fifth in the table.

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