Great expectations – the Championship challenge ahead for Derby County

“Happiness is when your expectations are exceeded” – Mel Morris, at the March Fans Forum

It’s a great quote, when you think about it.  And the question it puts to us as supporters is what we expect for our club – where we expect it to be.

On raw attendances, Derby County in the Premier League would be a mid-table proposition.  Leicester, Cardiff, Wolves, Brighton and Southampton all pull in 30,000 spectators on average in the top flight and so would we.  On that basis – on pure size – there is no reason why we shouldn’t be in the tier of Premier League clubs which, with a fair wind, could end up in the Europa League, but should at least be aiming for consolidation among the other middleweights. 

Anything can happen of course – Burnley in Europe, Leicester winning the thing, Sunderland in League 1 – but that should essentially be our lot in life and it’s acknowledged in the club’s latest Strategic Report, which states: “The Club’s vision is to [be] a sustainable and perennial competitor in the Premier League.” 

But after another opportunity to get there was missed at Wembley, the top flight feels as far way as ever. 

Derby have effectively been a second division team for nigh on twenty years now.  As a young man, I revelled in the Jim Smith era, so did all my mates.  Our fathers (it seemingly was just the dads, in those days) had the magical Brian Clough and Peter Taylor era, a feast of football to nourish them through their whole lifetimes.  The odd glimmer of hope aside – and this season in particular had some glorious moments – today’s kids basically have to depend on their ability to generate pithy memes to haul themselves through the long winter months of supporting a club which is forever finding new ways to fall short. 

‘Next season’ has been the mantra for too long now – but on this occasion, anticipation for 2019/20 is boosted by the knowledge that change is genuinely coming, with a group of overpaid underachievers finally, finally being shifted off the books, making room for a new breed of younger replacements, who in most cases can hardly fail to be better.  Once they’ve taken a break to recover from the epic disappointment at Wembley, there is a hell of a lot for the club do this summer. 

Here is Lampard’s most used Championship XI in terms of minutes on the pitch. The players whose names are in bold have contracts running into next season, at the time of writing:-

Carson (2,700 mins)

Bogle (3,755)
Keogh (4,392)

Tomori (4,062)
Malone (2,256)

Bryson (2,120)
Johnson (2,364)
Mount (2,511)

Wilson (3,456)

Waghorn (2,204)
Lawrence (2,845)

Other players who played more than 1,000 minutes in the Championship were Tom Huddlestone, Jack Marriott, Kelle Roos, Duane Holmes, Florian Jozefzoon, Mason Bennett and David Nugent.

Seven of that group of 18 players – Tomori, Wilson, Mount, Bryson, Johnson, Roos and Nugent – reached the end of their Derby deals this month. Nuge has been released, as expected.  Harry Wilson and Mason Mount, who are far too good for the Championship, said their goodbyes very quickly after the play-off final defeat.  Fikayo Tomori was lovely enough to say that he would be open to staying for another season, but in reality, he will get better offers and you’d have to be much more optimistic than me to believe that he’s likely to return.

A long-term extension for Roos has been announced, now that the dust has settled after Wembley.

Given the public silence over Bradley Johnson’s future, I was expecting him to leave, despite his late-season return to favour. However, it has now been disclosed that his contract was actually extended by twelve months earlier this season, on what we are told by the Derby Telegraph are ‘vastly reduced’ terms (Johnson was the biggest of all the dismal Paul Clement / Sam Rush-era signings and so it’s safe to assume that he will be still be on a generous wage).

Craig Bryson has been offered an extension, although reportedly has to weigh this offer against opportunities to return to Scotland and so we still await a decision on his future.

This is going to be an extremely busy summer for the club, which has been handed what feels like a unique opportunity for renewal.  Along with the aforementioned players, out go the Clement / Rush-era signings Marcus Olsson and Alex Pearce, with last January’s short-term cover signings, Efe Ambrose and Ashley Cole, also released.  

Street parties to coincide with the departure of two deeply unpopular players – Nick Blackman and Jacob Butterfield – will have to be postponed, albeit hopefully not for long. Their contracts were finally due to expire this summer, or so we thought – and so it was thoroughly bemusing to see their names included in Derby’s retained list. The club came out with some weak guff about ‘protecting their value’, but ultimately, it’s just another piece of administrative manoeuvring to help absorb the ruinous cost of these infamous flops by spreading the pain into the next financial year. In other words, an embarrassing little kicker to add to the tale of woe which was the club’s transfer business during Rush’s tenure.

We are not out of those thoroughly bear-shitted woods yet, not by a long chalk. Not only are the club still trying to shed that pair, three more malnourished ghosts of Christmas past – George Thorne, Ikechi Anya and Chris Martin – also have a further twelve months to go on their existing deals.  There have been no shortage of Championship options for Martin so far and hopefully, somebody will take him on a season-long loan, but 31-year old Anya has not played senior football for a long time now, while the luckless Thorne failed to break into the team at League 1 champions Luton Town, after the manager who signed him left for Stoke City within days of his loan move being confirmed. 

In those three cases, the Rams will be on the hook for most if not all of the players’ generous wages for one more season (at least).  All of which helps to explain why it was necessary for any Financial Fair Play worries to be parked for now, courtesy of a £14m profit booked in 2017/8, following Mel Morris’ purchase of Pride Park for £80m. 

That manoeuvre bought Derby time and now the club needs to decide what to do with that time.  Do they grit their teeth and continue to get their house in order by cutting costs – working within their limitations, weathering the criticism which would rain down for a lack of ‘ambition’ – or do they push the boat out once again and continue to invest in new players, hoping that this time, they get much more bang for their buck than Rush was able to deliver (and that maybe, in the interim, the EFL’s controversial and in some quarters derided FFP rules are relaxed again)?

It’s probably worth mentioning the Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson’s vendetta against Derby. Having failed to get the Championship clubs to rally round and take action against clubs who have dealt with FFP through creative accounting, Gibson is now apparently intent on suing Derby. Mel Morris responded by raising the creative practises used by Gibson himself in previous seasons and inviting him to stop ‘bitching’. Perhaps Gibson’s sabre-rattling is his way of keeping the issue in the media spotlight for long enough that the league feel obliged to exclude the sale of fixed assets such as stadia from FFP accounting in future.

But that’s more than enough of all that. Let’s put these unseemly shenanigans to one side for now and get back to the actual football….

The main item of business for the club is that before August, they somehow need to replace their two best attacking midfielders and a centre back with serious pace and ability on the ball. The three loanees took Derby higher up the table than they would otherwise have gone.  It was a coup for Frank Lampard to get them in the first place – no other Championship team could have borrowed Mount, while Wilson was wanted by everybody.  Lampard made the difference and if he stays, he will again push Derby towards the front of the queue when next season’s top prospects review the options for the next step in their development. 

If the aim is to compete at the top end of the division again, then put bluntly, Derby need to sign quality.  Any club would struggle to cope with the loss of three of its best players in one window, which is what Derby are facing up to. And given the number of players who are leaving (or frozen out until we can afford to pay them off), they’ll also need to sign quantity.

As it stands, the core of senior players who will form the basis of Derby’s team next season is as follows (listed in age order):-

Goalkeepers

Carson
Roos
Mitchell


Defenders

Davies
Keogh
Forsyth
Malone
Wisdom
Lowe
Bogle


Central midfielders

(Bryson has been offered terms)
Huddlestone
Johnson
Shinnie
Evans
Bird


Attacking / wide midfielders

Jozefzoon
Lawrence
Holmes


Forwards

Waghorn
Marriott
Bennett


And by no means all of even that small group of players can be expected to stay.  Scott Carson is contracted until 2020, but lost his place in the team to Roos this season and seems almost certain to be moved on.  Andre Wisdom barely featured under Lampard and, barring a change of management, has no obvious future at Pride Park.  Rumours swirled on January’s deadline day that Huddlestone could be leaving for Italy and although his contract was later extended to 2020, this was only due to an appearance-related clause in his existing deal, not through the club’s choice.

Meanwhile, there seems no point in retaining three senior left backs, not when money needs to be saved and when one of them, Max Lowe, is a young player who needs to be playing regularly at this stage in his career.  

And even Lampard’s own signings Florian Jozefzoon and George Evans, who didn’t exactly set Pride Park alight during their debut seasons, could be considered as possible candidates for the exit. 

On a more positive note, Jayden Bogle will doubtless be continually linked with a big-money move to the Premier League this summer, after his fantastic breakthrough season. Another positive is the return of Curtis Davies, who should hopefully be fit again for pre-season, with Craig Forsyth also hopefully due to return.

Beyond that, it’s about the youth. Luke Thomas, now 20, did well out on loan in League 1 and will expect to continue his development, either here, or out on loan again.  We’ll have to wait and see whether Max Bird, much-praised for his attitude as a young professional, is ready to force his way into the first team reckoning, or is destined to become the next Jamie Hanson and forge his path at a lower level.  Another 18 year-old, Jayden Mitchell-Lawson, got a single sub appearance this year.  17 year-old England youth midfielder Louie Sibley is hotly-tipped by Rams youth-team watchers, but didn’t feature in the matchday 18 last season, while newly-capped Eire U’21 midfielder Jason Knight was added to the bench for Wembley and the second leg of the play-off semi-final at Leeds, alongside a relative veteran in 21 year-old defender Calum Macdonald (whose only senior experience so far came on loan at Barrow. Macdonald has been retained for next season).

The younger prospects have the opportunity to play in the under-19s UEFA Youth League next season, which will hopefully be a great stage for the likes of Sibley, Morgan Whittaker, Lee Buchanan and Tyree Wilson to shine on.

Despite the eight senior departures, there is probably just about a starting XI to build on, as we stand. For example:-

Roos

Bogle
Keogh
Davies
Malone

Shinnie
Johnson
Holmes

Lawrence

Waghorn
Marriott

(Bench options)

Carson / Mitchell
Evans
Wisdom
Forsyth / Lowe
Huddlestone / Bird
Jozefzoon / Thomas
Bennett

It’s clear that this squad is short of the depth and quality which would lift the Rams into promotion contention.  Indeed, Lampard spoke about being left with a “squad of 12 or 13” after Wembley – a comment which might have been hyperbole at a highly-charged moment, but did suggest that most of the underused fringe players are not part of his thinking and will remain firmly on the sidelines until new homes can be found for them.

With Carson clearly earmarked for replacement, we might see a new first-team goalkeeper by August (unless the club have decided to persist with Roos).  At least one centre back, if not two, will be required to compete with Richard Keogh and Davies.  Matthew Pennington of Everton was a target in January and could be linked again.  A transfer for Wisdom (or Bogle) would mean reinforcement at right back would be essential.

Central midfield is another obvious position for renewal.  With Bryson’s future still to be determined, the club currently has the new signing Graeme Shinnie, Johnson, Huddlestone and Evans as senior pros in this position, with Bird as a younger cover option.

Marriott and Waghorn are both great options for any Championship team up-front and are guaranteed to score goals, but with the veteran Nugent leaving, they are now the club’s only two mainline senior strikers. Harry Wilson finished the season as top scorer from midfield and his goals will need replacing.

And there will be a need for much more guile to supply the strikers.  Mount was the chief provider of chances last season, with Wilson not far behind him.  While Waghorn has played wide right, it’s obvious that this is not his best position.  Much here depends on the manager’s assessment of whether Thomas and maybe Mitchell-Lawson are ready to play for Derby, or need further development out on loan. Whatever happens, it seems likely that at least one more attacking midfielder will be recruited.  

So in terms of ‘ins’, I think we need, as a bare minimum:-

Goalkeeper
Centre back
Utility defender
Central midfielder
Wide attacker
Centre forward

We’re not sure at this stage what kind of budget the manager will have available to him, but we do know that it won’t be massive. That said, any talk of a summer which will be all about belt-tightening may be not be quite right. 

To the justifiable scorn of football finance analysts and fans of rival clubs, the sale of Pride Park stadium to Mel Morris led to a profit being booked in 2017/8.  The academic Kieran Maguire estimates that Derby would have breached the EFL’s permitted loss threshold by a whopping £14m, had it not been for the Pride Park sale. Instead, that transaction means that there will be room to manoeuvre again.  

Derby County profits (+) or losses (-), per season

2013/4 – £7m
2014/5 -£10.1m
2015/6 -£14.7m
2016/7 -£7.9m
2017/8m +£14.6m

Without the stadium sale, Derby would have lost more than £25m in 2017/8 and breached the ‘sustainability’ threshold set by the EFL.  As we’ve seen from the case of Birmingham City, this would have led to a major points deduction and perhaps even a transfer embargo. 

The wage bill is much, much too high, as everybody knows:-

Wage bill / turnover (wagebill as percentage of turnover)

2013/4 £14.5m / £20.2m (72%)
2014/5 £19.3m / £21.5m (90%)
2015/6 £33.1m / £22.6m (147%)
2016/7 £34.6m / £29m (119%)
2017/8 £40.5m / £29.6m (137%)
 
I won’t go too far into the finances, as I’m not an expert – two men who are, Maguire and the authoritative Swiss Ramble, have done detailed studies of the club’s accounts (the latter acknowledging that even for him, the task had not been easy).  Without getting lost in the weeds of ‘amortisation’ and ‘EBITDA’, it’s enough to say that the Pride Park sale has given Derby the option to continue investing in new players for 2019/20, if they choose to.

We were told to expect cost-cutting before Gary Rowett’s departure last summer, only for the club to go on to spend millions – largely funded by the sale of Matej Vydra, but still, £5m for Martyn Waghorn was not a small deal, coming on top of £4m for Jack Marriott, plus £2.75m for Brentford’s Florian Jozefzoon (the Bees must have been absolutely delighted with that) and an undisclosed fee of probably around £2m for Huddersfield’s Scott Malone.  

Until things improved somewhat last summer, wretched recruitment had dogged Derby County’s Mel Morris era.  When you think about the millions squandered on players who were average at the absolute best, you want to weep – lord only knows how Mel feels about it, with his investment now up to around £200m. 

Lampard and Jody Morris have shown signs of being much more switched on as recruiters than some of their predecessors.  Marriott was manifestly a good signing and we have yet to see the best of him, in my opinion.  Waghorn is clearly a great Championship-level professional and at 29, has a couple of years in him yet (albeit the club will eventually lose money on him).  Malone is far from universally popular, but goes down as a decent signing in my book as an attacking full back to suit Lampard’s purposes, while little Duane Holmes has been embraced by the fans, at least partly because of the novelty of the fact that he cost less than £1m, yet can clearly play a bit.    

Their good signings significantly outweigh those who did not impact on the season – Jozefzoon, an odd buy who was nowhere near as cheap as people seem to think and Evans, who signed on the basis of Lampard’s time training with him at Manchester City, but struggled badly in his limited midfield appearances to date (albeit his heroic cameo at centre back during the run-in helped the Rams to make the play-offs).

I’ve written before about team cohesion – Sheffield United are a great example of how a unit can develop over season, having blossomed under Chris Wilder since their League 1 days, with a core of players clocking up plenty of experience working together.  Norwich City have also benefitted from such stability, hanging onto Daniel Farke despite a deeply underwhelming first season under his stewardship and reaping the rewards of sticking to the same recruitment and tactical plan for a second season.

The Canaries tapped into European markets – most notably Germany, but also picking up key men Teemu Pukki from Denmark and Emi Buendía from the Spanish second division. Derby have been unwilling or incapable of doing this for many years now – having had their fingers burned by signing Abdoul Camara and Raúl Albentosa, they seemed to decide that it wasn’t really worth the hassle.  Which is bizarre, in my opinion.  Both Camara and Albentosa were major failures of scouting, in different ways, but that just means that better scouts are required.  The answers to our problems may well lie beyond these shores and there’s certainly better value to be had in those markets than there is in the Championship, where any half-decent player’s fee is inflated by the fact that clubs with parachute payments can afford to pay over the odds. Camara and Albentosa may have flopped, but their reported transfer fees added up to less than what Jozefzoon cost, or less than half the cost of Jacob Butterfield (Albentosa was even sold on at a profit).

What we badly need is some stability at the top of the football side of the club, so that a team can start to grow and develop together.  Chopping and changing managers so regularly has led to an uncoordinated mishmash of players at the club, all signed by different people for different reasons, only to be discarded by the next manager.  It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect any manager, let alone one with no direct experience, to walk in and fashion a bloated, uneven squad into a Championship-destroying unit overnight.  So it goes down as a genuine achievement for Lampard to have hoisted his group to within 90 minutes of the Premier League. Ultimately, we simply weren’t quite ready to accept the Wembley opportunity and so simply have to take it as a positive that we got as far as we did.

At this stage, all we can really do is sketch out the current situation and hazard a few guesses about what might happen in the next couple of months. As Mel reminded us in March, happiness is when our expectations are exceeded.  In the second division, we are a big fish and we expect to win much more than we lose. How would we, as fans, cope with a genuine ‘transitional’ season – one where the wage bill is radically slashed, departing players aren’t replaced, our own youth players instead promoted through the ranks – resulting in a team with less experience, less match-winning quality, which would find a run at the play-offs a much more difficult ask?

So much depends on what Lampard chooses to do.  Hopefully, he is up for seeing through a long-term project here at Derby.  But clearly, he is an ambitious man (with an abiding love for Chelsea) and it’s hard to see him being content with slumming it in the second division for very long.  Would he be happy to patiently oversee the development of a younger team through a difficult, ‘transitional’ season in the hope that things would improve the season after, will he be cajoling Mel behind the scenes to allow him to bring in the classy players who would allow him to seriously press for promotion straight away – or will he just bugger off to Chelsea, on a wave of emotion?

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