The club had been left in the lurch. The chairman was sick of being criticised all the time, fed up of the limelight. No obvious candidates to replace Gary Rowett were waiting in the wings, because, just for once, it wasn’t Derby County that pulled the trigger.
A sticky situation.
But then, at Derby’s moment of crisis, up steps one of the biggest names in English football, putting his name forward for one of the trickiest, most demanding jobs around. Either out of naivety, or sheer confidence in his own ability and that of the people who would form the team around him, Frank Lampard of all people threw his hat into the ring.
Said ring cleared very, very quickly.
This has been a strange process, which has felt more like a coronation than anything else. There were no whispers in the press about a Lampard candidacy until his odds started plummeting at the bookies. From that point on, any unenthusiastic mumblings about the potential merits of other contenders melted into thin air. Really, once it was out there, none of the other applicants had a prayer.
Big Mick McCarthy, anyone?
Mick McCarthy #dcfcfans
— Derby County Blog (@derbycountyblog) May 22, 2018
The pros – a truly great player with worldwide renown, a name to make people sit up and pay attention, even foreign players who have never heard of Derby (and who seem not to have even been scouted in recent seasons). A much more exciting alternative to the tedious litany of experienced but ultimately mediocre alternatives, who are experienced in failure, after all – experienced in relegation and getting the sack. A reputation so big that the idea of Mel Morris interfering by marching into his dressing room to act as the “grizzly bear” becomes ludicrous.
The cons – he has never managed before, yet could be about to walk into a club which has served as a managerial charnel house ever since Morris took the reins and which has been open about needing to cut costs, to avoid a potential transfer embargo. The squad is stuffed with too many aging, declining players, so there’s a need not just to cut costs, but to hack out chunks of dead wood. Lampard will need plenty of support and guidance from an experienced backroom team – meanwhile, Derby haven’t exactly excelled in recruitment of late, which makes you question the strength of its existing scouting web. He is not joining at the most opportune of moments in the club’s history.
But the vast majority of fans I polled (and in other polls I’ve seen) were positive about the idea of Lampard taking the job.
Seeing as people seem to be putting money on it…
— Derby County Blog (@derbycountyblog) May 23, 2018
Some, of course, are less than enthused and think that the idea of giving the job to an unqualified rookie, no matter how garlanded a player he was, is a recipe for disaster: –
Fans of other clubs will be laughing at us.
— Guy Pearson (@GuyPearson1) May 28, 2018
Yeah he's won everything at club level but has he ever lost 5 on the bounce and then been away at Shrewsbury on a freezing Tuesday night in November? We should consider the experiences he *hasn't* had too
— Frank (@frankosonic) May 27, 2018
But when you asked the detractors which candidate they would prefer to see appointed, there didn’t seem to be an answer. There was plenty of talk about the kind of attributes they wanted to see – Championship experience, a proven track record in the transfer market to cope with the budget restrictions – all eminently sensible, of course – but no actual names.
If you preferred a guy who “knows this division”, it was most likely to be the out-of-work McCarthy, or Chris Coleman, fresh from Sunderland’s slide into League One. Or how about the recently sacked Forest manager, Mark Warburton?
Anyone currently in work and doing well would have commanded a compensation payment and Derby are guarding every penny, as they try to comply with FFP. Would it really have been worth paying for someone like Dean Smith, Alex Neil or Lee Johnson – and in any case, would they have necessarily come from their solid Championship jobs, when it had already been declared that there would be no “warchest” to spend on revamping the Derby squad?
Managers from the lower leagues – for example Paul Hurst (who has joined Ipswich from Shrewsbury) or the much-praised Cowley brothers of Lincoln – would in my opinion have been just as much of a gamble as Lampard. They may have learned their chops down the divisions and rightly earned respect for their achievements, but in a totally different environment to the febrile pressure cooker of Derby, with its vastly higher profile and demands. What do they know about dealing with a dressing room stuffed with pros with Premier League CVs and inflated wage packets (and egos) to match, or a Premier League-sized stadium full of irate punters, upset because you’re losing a game against “the type of team we should be beating”?
A hell of a lot less than Lampard, that’s for sure.
There were lots of sensible objections to appointing Lampard. But there were lots of sensible objections to appointing anybody else who would have been available. I’m trying to put myself in the club’s shoes and work out how they would have announced McCarthy as manager. What would you highlight? The promotions on his CV (from 2005 and 2009), his years of Premier League fire-fighting, his time with Eire. These are all valid, but his best achievements are from a long time ago. Managing Ipswich to Championship safety with an arm tied behind his back financially was valid experience too, but his appointment would have spoken of exactly that – a man being brought in to steer the ship to an unremarkable mid-table harbour while slashing the wage bill. It may be realistic and might have been a ‘safer’ option than Lampard, but it would not have sent the type of message which people respond to in their droves, or with their wallets (also, the whole “man’s man”, “knock heads together”, “kick ’em up the arse” spiel died, or should have died, around the time of the exit of a certain Pearson, N.)
I don’t know if Lampard will become a great, good, competent or hopeless manager. But I do know that there is a lot of goodwill around his appointment.
Many of Lampard’s friends in the media have mentioned that Morris must now give his new man time to work and I think, or hope at least, that won’t be an issue. Morris stuck with Rowett after the pathetic collapse he oversaw towards the end of last season and given that he now says he wants to see a different approach, there should be no kneejerk reponse if we don’t achieve instant success.
I’m 100 per cent behind this gamble, gamble though it is. I may be drinking the Kool-Aid, as a close pal of mine suggested the other day on Twitter and there is plenty more detail to come about how Lampard will work, with what support staff and under what financial restrictions. But when it comes to this appointment, my instinctive response is not “WTF?”, but “Why not?”