Great Expectations – Derby County’s new role as ‘overdogs’

Last week, I got an email from a journalist requesting my opinion on ‘the state of things’ at Derby.  Were the majority of fans still behind Paul Clement, or was there a growing mood of unrest?  Did the manager have a clue what he was doing? Where was the ‘Plan B’ when things were going wrong?

Here’s how I responded:

Firstly, any fans who have called for Clement to be fired don’t even represent a ‘minority view’, they represent a ‘kneejerk lunatic fringe’ view.  We’re third in the table, for Christ’s sake. 

Re the fabled ‘no Plan B’ (which was a criticism constantly levelled at Steve Mac last year).  Signing Blackman and Camara was supposed to add a different element to the attack – pace – so once they’ve had the chance to bed in, let’s see. Clearly, it will take time to integrate those players into the team.

I personally feel that the current short winless run is a blip and no more than that.  It was always going to be the case that all eyes would be on Derby this year after the Morris investment and here we are – the wobble, the moment that all neutral and hostile observers were waiting for.  Pressure on!

Notwithstanding the dreadful performances in the last two home games, the ‘state of things’ at Derby is good – really good.

My first post on this website, more than five years ago now, was about the free transfer of Paul Connolly to Leeds United.  I was worried about a youngster freshly signed from Crewe, John Brayford, being thrust into Connolly’s boots as replacement, with the wagebill set to be trimmed – again – as the club desperately tried to keep its costs vaguely in line with its income.  The nightmare Premier League debacle was only two years gone and players like Nicky Hunt had been stalking the land.

No more.  This summer, the previous club record for an incoming transfer fee was smashed, re-smashed and then eclipsed a third time.  In the Tom Ince deal alone, Derby reportedly committed to a fee of about £3m more than Nigel Clough spent net in his entire tenure* – and there has been no talk of selling players to ‘balance the books’.

After the middling years of make-do-and-mend, we’re now expected to lead the way, while other clubs are left to sell fans the ‘challenging’ narrative of parting with star players, bearing with the academy kids’ growing pains and signing potential bargains from the lower leagues.

All of which means we’re a huge scalp for everybody to aim at taking – and we are not the Hipster’s Choice.

In a podcast debate with Brentford supporters last season, I was told that AFC Bournemouth’s success was not due to spending big, but to their ‘visionary’ transfer policy, which caused ‘green-eye’ for supporters of bigger clubs.  This is very much the perspective of the savvy, light-footed David aiming to bring down the powerful but unwieldy bully, Goliath.  It’s also not entirely accurate – Bournemouth broke Financial Fair Play rules in 2014/5 and are due to be sanctioned by the Football League (no hard feelings towards Brentford, just to be clear – or towards Bournemouth, who were excellent last season and deserve their success).

Sean Dyche also aimed his wrath at Derby after the Jason Shackell transfer.  Never mind the fact that Burnley received more than £65m in Premier League TV money last year, topped up by a parachute payment of £24m for this season alone – it’s them who are the underdogs, not us.  But supporters lap up this attitude and Burnley’s fans will love it if they beat us this season.  Shackell will doubtless be jeered to the rafters at Turf Moor, while Burnley quietly spend their money on whoever they like.  For more on Dyche’s worldview, read my review of Michael Calvin’s ‘Living on the Volcano’, or ask Brentford fans about the way Burnley successfully destabilised the Bees by making ‘laughably low’ bids for two of their players, days before the two sides met at Griffin Park.

It suits Burnley and the other promotion contenders to have the spotlight shining elsewhere.  This season, Derby will be monitored more closely than anybody else, their every draw or defeat magnified under the lens of media scrutiny, while smaller clubs go about their business under the radar.

When Sam Rush sacked Nigel Clough, he said he wanted to get away from the “Poor Derby” tag.  Mission accomplished now, thanks to Mel Morris.  I even saw an Ipswich Town fan describe us as the ‘Man City of the Championship’ this summer – which is ridiculous, but indicative of the sort of hyperbole our new signings have generated.

Now, it is for Derby to shoulder the pressure and expectation of being the overdogs, while other teams try to achieve promotion ‘against the odds’.

***

Just finally, a bit of context – despite the awful game against Birmingham, Derby have still lost less games than anybody else this season, except for Brighton.  The rest of the top six have all lost games they would have expected to win – Middlesbrough have managed to lose to Bristol City twice, while Hull have been beaten by Preston, Rotherham and even Charlton.

Defeats for the Championship top six so far this season:

HULL – 6
Brighton (away, 0-1)
Derby (home, 0-2)
Preston (a, 0-1)
Leeds (a, 1-2)
Rotherham (a, 0-2)
Charlton (a, 1-2)

BORO – 6
Hull (a, 0-3)
Cardiff (a, 0-1)
Forest (h, 0-1)
Reading (a, 0-2)
Bristol City (h, 0-1)
Bristol City (a, 0-1)

BRIGHTON – 4
Boro (h, 0-3)
Ipswich (h, 0-1)
Forest (h, 0-1)
Rotherham (a, 0-2)

DERBY – 4
Boro (a, 0-2)
Birmingham (h, 0-3)
Forest (a, 0-1)
Leeds (h, 1-2)

BURNLEY – 5
Hull (a, 0-3)
Boro (a, 0-1)
Ipswich (a, 0-2)
Reading (h, 1-2)
Preston (h, 0-2)

SHEFF WEDS – 6
Boro (h, 1-3)
Boro (a, 0-1)
Burnley (a, 1-3)
Ipswich (a, 1-2)
Milton Keynes (a, 1-2)
Charlton (a, 1-3)

*****

*Using the data publicly available in this world of undisclosed fees, I estimate that Clough spent around £10.25m in transfer fees during his time as Derby manager, recouping around £8.5m.  That gives a net spend on transfer fees of something like £1.75m.

I’ll break it down, for the geeks out there:

2008/9 Spent £400k, Recouped £0
2009/10 Spent £1.5m, Recouped £2.6m
2010/11 Spent £1.2m, Recouped £1.3m
2011/12 Spent £2.9m, Recouped £750k
2012/13 Spent £3.25m, Recouped £2m
2013/14 Spent £1m, Recouped £1.75m

TOTALS Spent £10.25m, Recouped £8.4m

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