Derby’s preparations for another gruelling Championship campaign continued, with two separate XIs fulfilling an unremarkable friendly at Macclesfield Town of the National League. Macclesfield is a pleasant town to visit, with plenty of decent pubs on offer and easily accessible from Manchester (which may explain why old ‘Cheshire set’ pros like Wes Brown train there, these days).
The first half team experienced some problems against the Silkmen, who forced Jonathan Mitchell into a couple of saves, but Scott Carson largely had a watching brief in the second half, when the Rams scored twice.
In the opening 45, Craig Forsyth made his first appearance at left back since last August. He was relatively subdued – it would be unrealistic to expect him to look the player he did before the injury straight away – but on the other flank, the powerful Andre Wisdom looked like a man playing against boys.
Nick Blackman started on the left and managed to float into a couple of dangerous positions, but missed the target from his one presentable opportunity, on the edge of the box – close range, by his usual standards – following a set from Darren Bent. By that stage, Curtis Davies had hit the post with a header from a corner, Bent had a drive saved after a cute flick from the ever-lively David Nugent, while the Nuge also improvised a close-range overhead kick from Blackman’s cross, unfortunately directed too close to the home goalkeeper.
But on the whole, the first half side put in a bitty, unconvincing performance. Nugent was the pick of the bunch in the second striker role, but Jacob Butterfield’s passing radar was well out, Bent looked off the pace, Blackman and especially Johnny Russell were largely peripheral and Craig Bryson made little impact. Derby looked loose and easy to play through at times and you couldn’t shake the feeling that a higher quality opponent would probably have netted, at least once.
The second half turned out to be more entertaining from a Rams perspective, largely due to Chris Martin’s introduction. Suddenly, the ball started to stick when it travelled up-field, allowing the three attackers behind the Wardrobe – from left to right, Ikechi Anya, Andi Weimann and Mason Bennett – to link together and create opportunities. Anya’s pace and dribbling in particular worried Macclesfield, but all three looked encouragingly sharp.
The second-half team was generally much more coherent, with the Slovenian teenager Timi Max Elsnik, who has a better build than I realised, showing up well in central midfield. His more experienced partner Bradley Johnson, on the other hand, endured a torrid time. While Butterfield had struggled to pick the final pass to release a striker, Johnson was struggling to find a white shirt from any kind of range. His goal, when it came, resulted from his own farcically slack free-kick, an attempted quick release of Weimann which was duffed feebly into the Macclesfield wall. However, two of said wall then attempted to launch a counter attack, which was broken up by Johnson, who controlled and mullered it with something like fury into the back of the net from 20 yards. It was an unstoppable, vicious strike, perhaps born out of frustration.
Later, Elsnik’s simple, effective build-up play helped to create a raiding opportunity down the right flank for Anya, who crossed deep. Martin headed back across goal and Bennett completed the move by nodding home. It was heartening to see the youngster, who is currently training with the first-team, net a goal which his all-round performance merited.
Other than a melee when Johnson reacted with genuine fury after he was apparently elbowed – like Wenger, I did not see it, but the offender, Birmingham City loanee Jack Storer, was instantly “sent off” and replaced by a sub – this was a fairly low-key affair, with little to raise the pulse. Young pros Bennett, Elsnik and Jamie Hanson (who completed the 90 minutes at centre back) all performed well, nobody got injured and several senior players did look the part.
As we took in a few of Macclesfield’s many hostelries afterwards, however, we were asking the question – who is going to play alongside Tom Huddlestone in the midfield?
Before the game kicked off, news had already emerged of Huddlestone’s withdrawal from Hull City’s training camp in order to fly home and sign for the Rams. Arriving home, slightly worse for wear as I was, to watch the big man calmly chatting to Colin Gibson about stuff that happened twelve years ago was truly surreal. But the more you thought about it, the more obvious it was that this was a potentially excellent piece of business.
I have chuntered on about the worrying age profile of the Rams’ squad for a while now and Huddlestone’s arrival takes the number of outfield players aged 30 or higher to nine. However, in this particular case, I can look the other way. Everyone knows Huddlestone can pick a team-mate out from any range and he never had any pace to lose, so his age is less of a factor in that regard. It’s a two-year contract and the reported fee (£2m – £2.4m, depending on who you believe) has to be considered a bargain. I know Rowett said he didn’t want to take players on their way down from the Premier League, but when he’s able to take advantage of relegation release clauses to sign two high-calibre players with plenty more to offer for less than £3m, it’s very hard to knock those deals.
For sure, an influx of youth is required, but who knows – maybe some of the answers to that problem are already in the building.
And then there’s the romantic side of the story. Rowett wouldn’t have signed Huddlestone if he didn’t think he was the right fit, but it is no way harmful for him that bringing the player ‘home’ a dozen years since he left a stricken club which was being run into the ground by fraudsters rights a long-standing ‘wrong’. I said previously that selling the best youth product the Rams had produced in at least a decade for the sake of a veteran like Glenn Whelan, who was being strongly linked at the time of Will Hughes’ departure, felt horribly wrong – but it’s an awful lot harder to find fault when the club have moved to retrieve another of the greatest gems the club has ever mined and one who is cut from the same cloth when it comes to technical quality.
I never thought I would see Huddlestone play for the Rams again and always felt genuinely sad about that, because I never shook the feeling that he was stolen away from us much too soon. While explaining his decision to sell Hughes, Rowett said that he understood it was harder for the fans when they perceived the departing player as ‘one of their own’. Well, Huddlestone has always felt like one of our own too and although we were denied the opportunity we should have had to watch him develop, we can at least now hopefully enjoy at least two good seasons of a player generally accepted to be one of the best English passers of the ball there is.
The question now is, who plays alongside him? There will be a maximum of two berths for five senior players to contest, all with different strengths and weaknesses.
Bryson offers his desire to get into the box, but lacks defensive instincts (and his statistical output last season was worrying.)
Butterfield is a competent passer who can help knit things together, but lacks physical stature.
Young Hanson is a plucky competitor who will graft and do the unglamorous stuff willingly, while Johnson is technically limited, but can win his headers (and shoot)…
…and then there’s the man George Thorne, who is, as Rowett points out, a similar calibre of talent to Huddlestone, but still needs to get himself fit.
Midfield is the area most obviously still in need of work at this stage. I can’t quite see what Rowett has in mind just yet – it may well be that, with Huddlestone signed, he starts to look at a 4-3-3 system again – although that in turn decreases the opportunities for the various forwards to play….
Over to you, GR.