In a few short weeks, Derby County will run out to kick off their tenth consecutive season in the Championship, at Sunderland. It is highly unlikely that any academy products will be in the starting line-up. Max Lowe probably won’t get the nod, not with Craig Forsyth returning. Others, like Mason Bennett and Jamie Hanson, have not quite proved up to the mark and seem destined to pursue their careers elsewhere.
And the most gifted academy player the club has produced since Giles Barnes over a decade ago has been sacrificed, for reasons I cannot easily forgive.
Hughes was different – he was a source of genuine pride – he meant more than the others. I don’t have to tell you about how good he was. He is not perfect, of course, not versatile, not a dead-ball specialist, not the complete article, not yet as good as he will ultimately be. But he was just patently so much more talented and so much more exciting to watch than the overpaid, underachieving, uninspiring bunch of journeymen hired in from wherever they’ve come from in recent years. He made the game look simple, where others laboured. He saw and delivered passes that others couldn’t see, or have executed even if they had. Watching him play made me happy. I had faith in him and I know I am right when I say that he will get better and better. This sale diminishes the club.
We knew that there would have to be outs. Of course there did. The club’s disastrous transfer dealings in the past couple of seasons ensured that. But now we are left with two players signed to cover the midfield while he was injured who are nowhere near as good as him and we have no Hughes. The reported fee – even if the highest figure plus all of the add-ons is right – is lower than the combined outlay on Johnson and Butterfield.
The fee – again, even at the highest end of the reports, with all of the add-ons included – is less than what the Rams paid to Watford for Vydra and Anya, neither of whom have had much impact at the club since arriving. And the money for those deals was raised by selling a talented youth product, too. Our future has been traded away and so far, the players recruited with the proceeds have, to be brutal about it, only succeeded in making us worse.
Early in his reign, Rowett told BBC Radio Derby that he wasn’t a fan of signing players on their way down from the Premier League and looking for one last payday. I wonder if he now regrets that assertion. Curtis Davies (32) was his first signing of this season, because he was available from relegated Hull on a cut-price deal. Davies was keen to come at least in part because the transfer suited his wife, who is from Birmingham. Derby have since been repeatedly linked with moves for the veterans Glenn Whelan and George Boyd.
Quite reasonably, Boyd has refused a one-year extension to his contract at Burnley, because he would much rather pick up another two (or more) years at a second-tier club like Derby, which is starting to feel more like a welcoming home for has-beens to rock up at when they’re ready to wind down than a nursery for the next generation.
If it is right that the club is selling an England under-21 international developed through the academy in order to fund the signing of a 33 year-old who is finished at Stoke, then that is dreadful. The symbolism of such a transaction – trading away our most talented young player in order to buy a waning star – is just awful. I was under the impression that Mel Morris wanted the Derby Way to be a path for young players to tread, but now Hughes is leaving and at the time of writing, we are left with a bunch of ageing, largely uninspiring journeymen – apparently the only species of player guaranteed a game and an easy, obscenely healthy payday at this place.
Looking at it more positively, the Brighton & Hove Albion side promoted last season had plenty of experience on its books and there’s no doubt that a certain amount of nous can help drag a team through difficult spells in the gruelling Championship campaign. Different signings from the players mentioned above may yet materialise and there’s no doubt that Andre Wisdom is a very good capture, pending a successful medical.
But it is difficult to square Rowett’s reported interest in a motley crew of grizzled veterans with the injection of athleticism, pace and fresh blood that we were initially briefed to expect coming through the door.
I was totally behind the idea of Rowett as a ‘new broom’. I was also looking forward to the anticipated ‘clear-out’. I was fine with the idea of new players with athleticism and pace. I nodded approvingly when Rowett talked about not wanting to give a final pay-day to players whose best days are behind them.
Wisdom joins, Forsyth is back and with the addition of Davies, the defence starts to look good for this level – then (whisper it) George Thorne is returning for pre-season training and you start to feel like the future might be a bit brighter. Hughes and Thorne playing together could have….
This situation reminds me, unfortunately, of when Tom Huddlestone left. I feel the same way. Here was a player who should have been at the heart of Derby County’s future, sacrificed for short-term expediency.
Whatever happens next, what I cannot forgive is that Hughes’ departure is a consequence of the gross recruitment incompetence which reigned at the club over the past two seasons. That is what upsets me more than anything.
Still, this is Rowett’s decision to stand or fall by. This week, he told TalkSport that he would like to sign two or three more players, pending the necessary outs. He said that we will see “a very different Derby team” next season:-
“We’ve had a very technically strong team that perhaps lacked a few of those elements that you need in what’s a really resilient Championship league.”
Announcing the Davies deal on Rams TV, Rowett said that he wants Derby to be difficult to play against. This is the change in mindset that he is looking to bring. Under McClaren, everything was about what we did with the ball – under Rowett, it seems that our game will be all about stifling the opposition first and foremost.
If Rowett does not consider Hughes as a good fit for how he wants to play – and that is the only possible interpretation I can see for the comments he’s made, especially given that Will was repeatedly left out at the end of last season – then I cannot help but resent him for it.
And so now it is up to Rowett to justify his choice by delivering on what he has promised and proving that his brand of football can win promotion. If we are defensively solid and disciplined enough to grind out results on a consistent basis, then maybe we will have a chance of finally, finally clambering out of this bloody Championship, in which we have been marooned for almost a decade – and the loss of a player who was such a joy to watch will have been a price worth paying. But those two or three new signings are going to have to be very good players if they are going to make the difference.
I do not associate the current squad with good football, good results, or good times – only with disappointment, embarrassment, patchy commitment, bizarre lapses and the ever-present threat of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And now, one of only two players we had who was capable of turning a game with a moment of magic, who was a unique, genuine, miraculous class act, a beacon of hope in the increasingly impenetrable fog of mediocrity, is gone, punted out for a relative pittance to fucking Watford. No disrespect, Jonathan.
He was supposed to go to the Premier League with us, not without us. Maybe Rowett has a rabbit up his sleeve and things will look brighter in a few weeks from now, but as it stands here and now, the Premier League has never felt further away and supporting this club has never felt more pointless.
I hate the club I love today.
See you all at Macclesfield on July 15th.