Frank Lampard joins Derby County

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?

Thought not.

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.

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: –

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?”

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¡Viva España! ¡Viva la Shithouse! – Derby County 1 Fulham 0 (half-time)

After the Cardiff game, I felt like I needed to take a break from blogging about them bloody Rams, choosing not to continue with my series of game-by-game preview pieces, which I’d originally intended to carry on until the end of the season.   During the Villa game, I took a long walk on the moors around the village where I live – heading uphill to a place with no mobile reception where I could clear my head and enjoy the sights and sounds of spring, rather than go subject myself to yet another emotional battering by listening live to the match with Ed, Chris and ‘Ramma’.

The day before the Barnsley game, I went on a much-needed holiday to sunny Spain with my wife and two close friends, Trev and Linda.  In my Cardiff preview, I made a gallows-humour “prediction” that the Rams, so inexplicably feeble at Burton, would go on to beat the Bluebirds, draw at the Villa and then reach “peak Derby” by losing to the Tykes.  With two out of three of my dark “acca” having come in, I was getting worried, but Trev updated me on the 4-1 stomping we handed to Barnsley as we were driving through the beautiful Calblanque national park.

From then on, I barely gave the play-offs a thought until the day of the match.  We found the local Boris Sports bar on social media and the man himself promised to oblige by screening the game.

“Boris Sports” (image courtesy – www.canalprint.com)

We went off to Cabo de Palos for the day, ate in a local restaurant and then returned to our villa for a barbecue and a couple of beers.  Everything was good and having had a comprehensive breather from thinking about football, I was revved up for the match and a few more cold ones.  But then, as we set off for Boris’ place, I started to feel a bit queasy – nothing too alarming, just a bit off.  I tried to ignore the queasy feeling and bought a round of drinks, before pulling up a strategic pew in front of the big screen.

About a quarter of the way into my pint of Mahou and on the brink of kick-off, I realised that something was definitely not right with my innards.  I fell silent.  I looked across the bar and then over my shoulder to the road behind us and decided that, if the worst came to the worst, I would make a run for the bushes on the other side, rather than risk rushing inside to Boris’ loos and not making it.

My wife suggested I was just suffering from pre-match nerves.  Unable to stomach more lager, I switched to lime and soda and, for the first twenty minutes of the game, achieved a kind of dubious equilibrium.  So did the game, with Fulham setting the tone, but Derby continuing to show how switching to a back three has helped to make them far more threatening than ever before on the counter.

Seeing us play without the ball for prolonged spells will always make me nervous, but there’s no doubt that we are getting better at it.  The first half-hour against Villa was absolutely excellent and again, the Rams’ front three plus the wing backs demonstrated how they could quickly outnumber Fulham’s defenders with the help of an astute pass out from the back – usually by Huddlestone – and spring into a menacing attacking position.

About half an hour in, my nose suddenly started streaming and then, very quickly, the moment of internal crisis had arrived.  I stood up and activated “Plan A” by hastily making my way out front, to cross the deserted road and vomit into the bushes.

But the road was considerably wider than I had realised and the need was much too urgent.  I lurched into a trot, then as much of a sprint as I could muster, but it was too late – an arc of brown bile spewed from my gullet and onto the highway, fortunately not spattering my new DCFC track-suit jacket.  After this initial barrage of spew, I reached the side of the road, sank to my knees in the dirt and retched anew.  I quickly.saw that it wouldn’t do me any favours to stay and stare at the erstwhile contents of my stomach, so I stood up and moved on before dropping to the ground to  puke again.  Move and puke, move and puke.

Then, after the fourth spasm, it was done.  And miraculously, I felt like a new man.  I was pretty much fine.

As I mooched steadily back towards Boris’, I suddenly remembered what I’d been watching before.  I glanced up at the big screen and saw something more majestic than any vista that the proud nation of Spain could ever offer.

For in slow, replay motion, Cameron Jerome was rising, the Fulham left back Matt Targett brutally picked out, isolated and exploited, made to look a callow youth.  Jerome’s header was rocketing past the stretching Bettinelli and distending his onion bag, much as, I suspect, a couple of mouthfuls of my wife’s seafood pasta at that bloody restaurant had distended my innards.

I looked over to Trev, who held up his hands to make the time-honoured “one-nil” gesture.

For Fulham, who attack with width provided by overlapping full backs, the Rams’ tenacity and readiness to rope-a-dope before counter-punching was a major test and they only barely passed it on a number of occasions – sometimes through Derby’s lax final ball, other times through a last-ditch defensive intervention.  The Rams may have had only three shots in this game, but they had plenty more threatening situations than that, whereas Fulham, despite their 13 shots, very rarely worked dangerous openings.

If Derby do go up this season – and although we are considered outsiders, it’s a real possibility now – then we will have to sit in and defend a lot in many games, against far classier outfits than this Fulham team.  I wondered aloud if Rowett may have come up with a formation and way of playing which would work in the Promised Land.  Trev, a United fan, chuckled as we talked through it.  “You’re coming around to the Mourinho way, then?”

I guess I was always something of a McClarenista, in some ways – entranced by the Hughes – Hendrick – Thorne midfield trio and convinced that to win consistently, you had to dominate the ball, at this level at least.  And while good teams have done it that way, Sean Dyche’s Burnley and, decisively, Neil Warnock’s possession-phobic Cardiff have proved that it can be done in other ways too.

A fluent counter is one of the most thrilling things in football – a pal even messaged me during the game to say: “This is some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen them play” – and it is beginning to suit these players well.  Keogh is allowed much more licence to join in the play.  Forsyth seems much more comfortable at left centre-back.  The less time we spend on the ball, the less likely it is that Johnson will lose it in a dangerous area (and he has played a couple of delicious through balls in the past two games).  Huddlestone’s playmaking ability helps to release Lawrence and Weimann, who seem happy in their wide-ish roles – and the powerful, hard-charging Jerome, who simply can’t stop scoring at the minute, is unchained.

All being well, we even have a cracking young homegrown left wing-back to come in next season and while Rowett has said that Wisdom isn’t really suited to the wing-back role on the right, I’d say he’s played pretty well there so far.  Ryan Sessegnon’s early departure on Friday night after a largely ineffectual showing was a major feather in Wisdom’s cap.

Rowett made a good double switch at a time in the game when Derby were really starting to struggle under the weight of Fulham’s probing pressure.  I imagine Ikechi Anya will start on Monday, although he may not see out the 90.  Another conundrum is whether to start Vydra as one of the front three, or leave him out in favour of Weimann or Lawrence.   But Rowett very rarely drops either of those two and they are undeniably better suited to the 3-4-3 / 5-4-1  than Vydra, who can’t or won’t consistently tackle or track back.  Rowett has already shown that he’s not afraid to leave out the Championship’s top goalscorer and I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if he did it again on Monday.  The composition and discipline of the team is the main thing.  As Curtis Davies said: “We’re a clean sheet away from Wembley.”

It’s nuts.  As I’ve said before, Rowett deserves huge credit for overseeing a turn-around in form from the crisis moment, after a dismal run of results threatened to derail the whole season.  Regardless of whether we get promoted, or even get to Wembley, I can finally see what he is driving at now when, for a while, I feared he had badly run out of steam and ideas.  Just at the vital moment, he came up with something radical enough to re-energise the campaign.

Friday night’s win over the divisional darlings was close, very close, to being the perfect performance.  Had just one more of those vicious, swift counters ended in a goal, then it would have been.  Trev raised an eyebrow when I made that point after the final whistle – “you’d have taken 1-0 if offered before the game” – and I absolutely would have done.  But the way the match panned out, the way we largely nullified them as an offensive force, I had a slight nagging suspicion that we’d missed a chance to, if not kill the tie off, then at least to go to Craven Cottage with a significant advantage.  Rowett adopted the same tone in his post-match interview for Sky Sports, saying: “I felt we could have picked them off for a second and I’m a little disappointed we didn’t.  You can see when we switch play, we get into great positions.”

As for Fulham, I quite like the fact that both Slaviša Jokanović and Kevin Macdonald said that the Cottagers “totally dominated” or “battered” Derby, because they actually didn’t.  That ‘domination’ was, mostly, by Derby’s choice and the end result for the Rams was a clean sheet.  If Fulham feel that more of the same will eventually win them the game, fine.  If they feel that morally, they deserved a better result, more than fine.  We felt like that at Wembley a few years ago – and ended up heart-broken.  If you’re superior to us, then score the goals.  Prove it.  That was the challenge for Derby in 2013/4 and it is the challenge for Fulham tomorrow.

Fulham’s Kevin McDonald, quoted in the Mail on Sunday

Having done so well for so long and being so settled in their style, they won’t change significantly.  Neither will we.  So the second leg will be nerve-wracking at times.  We will sit in very deep and defend for our lives.  Nearly every pass will go short, so Fulham need to find pockets in and around the box.  The key to success will be not allowing them time and space to pick their way through into the penalty area, because they prefer not to sling in hopeful crosses – just look at how many short corners they took for proof of that.   We snuffed them out through sheer concentration and a touch of luck at times – if ever we lapsed, they would find room for a shot, but fortunately, these were usually from outside the box.

But conceding so much of the ball to such creative. technically able players makes it inevitable that they will get a chance at some point.  Curtis Davies has been a colossus, but he and the rest of the defenders could do with the players in front of them keeping the ball a bit more, if only to provide a bit of respite.  Three shots on goal may have been a strange reflection on a game in which Derby got into so many exciting positions, but it was undeniably a poor final reward – especially against the rather flappy Bettinelli, who looked like an accident waiting to happen all night.

The first goal at Fulham will change the balance of the tie utterly.  But rather than feeling nervous, or pessimistic about it, I feel really happy.  Happy with how things are going, happy with the direction of travel, happy with the team, happy to be a Derby County fan.

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Derby County 3 Cardiff City 1

To misquote the great Barry Davies: “You have to say that was magnificent”.

For a team who had been so bewilderingly poor, who had been completely written off and who were, let’s be honest, widely tipped to roll over and have their bellies tickled by Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City to put in that level of sheer effort was fully deserving of both the three points and of maximum praise.

Against Boro, they put in the work, but were punished for their mistakes and looked much too blunt in attack.  Against Cardiff, they had the rub of the green on two occasions at the back.  Bradley Johnson got away with his latest brainfart because there’s no VAR and Gary Madine missed his kick when a strong connection from his left foot probably would have billowed the net for 2-0.

But Derby were the dominant force for most of the game.  They pressurised a notoriously miserly and physical Cardiff defence and, by banging at the door long and loud enough, forced them into a series of game-changing howlers.  It wasn’t pretty, but my word, it was stirring stuff when the levee finally broke.

They didn’t create any goals through pure quality.  They just summoned them into being through sheer force of will.

It started with a panicked Aron Gunnarsson muffing a clearance when a cooler head – an “Iceman”, you could say – would have realised that ‘keeper Neil Etheridge could have claimed the loose ball comfortably.  It reached its delirious zenith when a dozy Yanic Wildschut failed to realise that Andre Wisdom, playing as right wing back, had pushed right up to him, nearly on the Cardiff goal line.  If I’d been in the Dutchman’s shoes, I’d have skipped the dressing room, walked straight out into the car park and hailed a taxi back to Cardiff, rather than face Warnock’s wrath.

But most appetisingly, most satisfyingly of all, it ended with Warnock’s captain and leader of men, “Mr Big Willy” himself, Sean Morrison, suddenly being obliged to reassess the relative scale of his genitalia, as the clearly handsomely proportioned Cameron Jerome thrust him aside and stabbed the ball under Etheridge’s dive for a truly hilarious clincher.

What a night.  What a turnaround.  And what a colossal shift the Rams put in to make it happen.

Cardiff are horrible to watch, but horribly effective.  Suddenly, after weathering five minutes of pressure, there they are, in and around your penalty area, testing your physical strength and tenacity with crosses and long throws.  They play something more akin to rugby, or gridiron, punting it forward to gain yardage before heaving the ball over the line.  Even throws from their own half are hurled as far as possible away from their own goal.

To be in contention for automatic promotion to the Premier League with an overall pass success for the season of less than 60 per cent flies in the face of every trend going and even common sense.  But it’s working because they almost exclusively pass it into straight into the opposition’s final third, from wherever they happen to be standing – if you don’t keep it in you own third of the pitch, you don’t usually run the risk of giving it away there.  There’s a cynical logic there and while Warnock’s style of football might have gone out of fashion years ago, he abides, the last of his dinosaur race, stubbornly refusing to go extinct.

For Derby to stand up to the aerial barrage and hassle the Bluebirds at the other end until they could take no more and collapsed was a terrific achievement.  Granted, the Rams could have shown more precision with their final pass into the box at times, but the bottom line is this – the players proved that they are prepared to work together and fight together as a team.

People like to talk about managers ‘losing the dressing room’ and after some of the recent performances, that cliched accusation has been thrown around a bit.  This performance, rough around the edges though it may have been at times, proved that was absolute nonsense.  Teams who aren’t motivated to try don’t win games like that.  They lose and reach for whatever excuses they can grab.

The manager has to be credited for his bold decision to drop Matej Vydra, but also for introducing him when he did.  Vydra was very quickly booted up in the air, forcing the ref to book two Cardiff players, because they couldn’t live with his pace and skill.  He didn’t necessarily turn the tide of the game single-handedly, as Derby were pushing hard anyway, but he had the quality we needed to take the chance to win it when it finally arrived.  And now, the Rams have got the Championship’s leading goalscorer.

Let’s just put everything else to one side for a minute – play-offs, promotion, forget all that – after all the disappointments of recent times, it was just vital that we won a game of football.  To go and do so in that manner, to beat that lot in a way which genuinely restored pride and put a smiles on faces again, was absolutely amazing.

Rowett deserves credit for having the stones to change the shape and risk it backfiring. There was more fluidity, more movement, seemingly more freedom for players to get forward into areas where they could hurt the opposition.  Maybe not enough precision at times, but if the players can settle into this new formation – and Rowett said after the game that 4-2-3-1 was “done” for the season – then it bodes well for the future.

Certainly, Keogh warmed to his task of striding out from the back, at times, playing more like an all-action box-to-box midfielder than a defender.  Maybe Morrison’s pathetic video had an impact on Keogh, after all – but if it did, it was the exact opposite of what the overgrown child responsible had intended.

Ok.  Having refused to do so since Sunderland, I’ve now been drawn into the madness of checking everybody’s remaining fixtures and trying to work out what will happen next.  It’s very quickly made me feel a bit dizzy.

The bottom line is that nobody should presume that a play-off spot is in any way guaranteed, just because we’re playing Barnsley on the last day.  If you think that’s a banker after everything we’ve already been through, honestly, there’s no helping you…  The Cardiff win is a start, but that’s all it was.

Defeat at Villa would see us drop straight back out of the top six if Millwall also won at Middlesbrough – a tough assignment for them, sure, but they can’t be underestimated.  Whatever happens, it’s almost definitely going down to the final day and oh my head.

Of course, if we do manage to sneak into the play-offs, the most likely opponents are either everyone’s favourites Fulham, or Cardiff again…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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Boro recap, plus Cardiff City preview of sorts

The feeling after Boro seemed to be: “At least they tried hard this time”, which only pisses me off even more, if I’m being really honest.

The sloppiness which typified the Sunderland and Burton games was gone…  well, at least for 45 minutes.  And apart from the goal.

In the end, two awful goals were conceded because of bad mistakes by senior players.  On this occasion, I’d point to Bradley Johnson, failing to do anything to prevent Mo Bešić from waltzing into the area and then – alas – the recalled Richard Keogh, who, for reasons only he could explain, decided to stop marking Britt Assombalonga and charge like a witless chicken towards the ball, giving the former Forest man the most sickening of tap-ins.

As good as Adama Traoré was, the goals resulted not from moments of magic, but from lapses of concentration.  Terrible decisions are being made, week after week, by players who are too old to improve.

For all the positive noises around the visibly increased effort and the new formation, the same howlers were ulitmately made and once the second one went in, nobody could have complained had Boro won 3-0, or 4-0, based on their clear chances.  The Rams’ offensive effort, on the other hand, was the definition of ‘huff and puff’ – other than from Matej Vydra, who at times looked as though he rather be elsewhere, frankly.

Some wicked crosses were sent in on the day – a benefit of the extra width provided by the back three system – but with absolutely no takers, on any occasion.

Enough about that and onto tonight.

It’s all ready to unfold.  Neil Warnock is ready to celebrate his umpteenth promotion.  The mocking chants of “it’s happening again” are still reverberating around everyone’s mind and are ready for another airing.  The unblinking eye of Sky Sports TV is ready to capture the latest chapter in another embarrassing Derby County collapse, the social media hordes cannot wait to gleefully retweet Sean Morrison’s horrific “banter” video.  Of course we’re going to lose.

What else could possibly happen?  We haven’t got a functioning team.  Too many key players seem to be playing half-injured, or past it, or demotivated, or just plain calamity-prone.  Gary Rowett has been left with no obvious way of fixing the crisis of confidence and also left to wonder whether he will get another crack at it next season.

Morrison will score first from a corner, of course he will.  Then Warnock will make the game as horrible as possible for everyone, until Johnson gets sent off for nutting someone, Cameron Jerome pounces on a loose Bamba backpass, rounds the keeper and misses the target from three yards, before finally, poor old Keogh slices an aimless cross into the top corner of his own net for 0-2.

Script’s written.

Unless.

What if, instead, a 35-yard Tom Lawrence potshot deflects in off Morrison’s backside for 1-0.  A galvanised Derby immediately form the Roma-inspired “Testudo” formation first spotted at Griffin Park this season and cling to their lucky lead like limpets.  Warnock orders all ten of his outfield players to lie down injured in an attempt to have the game abandoned, but the ref simply waves “play on” and Keogh strides into the box before toe-punting it home.  He attempts his patented “ramhorns” goal celebration, only to poke Lawrence in the eye and rule him out for the season, but that’s neither here not there.

Keogh then scores an own goal during twelve minutes of stoppage time – the result of an ill-considered “rondo” – but no matter.  The Rams, outshot 25-2, win 2-1.

The reason this will definitely happen is because Peak Derby has not been reached yet.

Oh no.  You don’t really think that they would let you relax with two whole games to go, do you?  Not a chance.  It would be too simple if this bunch of sadistic bastards lost this, lost at Villa, dropped to ninth or tenth and allowed everyone to do the conga around a dead rubber against Barnsley on the final day.

No.  For reasons the likes of you and me will never understand, they will beat Cardiff, draw 0-0 at Villa, go into the final day sixth…

And then lose to Barnsley.

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Burton Albion recap, plus Middlesbrough preview

Not so long ago – although it doesn’t feel that way – Derby County were second in the league and the fans were singing “We’ve got (boom boom) Gary Rowett” to the tune of “Glad All Over”.  Simpler, happier times.

But they’re forgotten about now, because since an excellent run of victories propelled them through October, November and December, Derby have played like a drain in 2018 and plummeted quite deservedly out of the top six.  At the moment, it’s so hard to feel positive, really about anything connected to the club, whether on the pitch or behind the scenes.

Yet as dismal as Derby have been in 2018, they are seventh, which was exactly where I predicted they would finish when asked by FourFourTwo, back in August.  OK, they may have a bit further to fall yet, but mathematically, they can’t drop further than 11th.  A top ten finish outside the play-offs would be in line with my expectations before a ball was kicked – but of course, with the way the season has turned out, that outcome would now feel like a crushing disappointment.

The Middlesbrough Gazette produced a handy graphic showing what the table would look like had the season started on 30 January 2018, when Tony Pulis took the reins:-

Graphic credit – https://www.gazettelive.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/championship-table-pulis-took-charge-14550720

If Derby were ninth or tenth in the league but gradually rising up the table on the back of a good run of form, instead of slumping down from a highpoint which proved unsustainable, we would probably all feel a lot more positive and hopeful.  But instead, it looks as though, just like in every season since 2014 (except for the Nigel Pearson one), we peaked too soon.

It’s weird, isn’t it?  If Derby beat Boro, they go fifth.  The season is far from over.  But instincitvely, it feels to most of us like it already is and that its defining moments are already past.

If my poll was representative, most Derby fans now believe there’s no chance of us going up (and might even fear what came next, if we did).  With Middlesbrough and Cardiff next up at Pride Park, you have to worry that things could be about to get worse before the end of the season.  The sour taste could become even less bearable and things could get even more difficult for Rowett ahead of 2018/9.

After what can only be described as a shameful defeat at Burton Albion, the BBC’s veteran reporter Pat Murphy tweeted that Rowett was gearing up for a major clear-out of players in the summer.  That would be a lot easier had a load of them not recently been given contract extensions.  George Thorne and Craig Forsyth both got new deals to 2020, but have been banished since Sunderland.  Richard Keogh, likewise, was extended to 2021.  I wonder if Rowett wishes those deals hadn’t been handed out now.  Even Jamie Hanson got a new deal this week, a 22 year-old who has outgrown reserve team football, but has never made the breakthrough and seemed to be totally out of the picture.  With only Jason Shackell, Darren Bent and Chris Baird out of contract (alongside reserve keeper Kelle Roos), there isn’t much ‘chaff’ that can simply be let go.

But that’s for the summer.  For now, the question is – how can we get the win we need against Middlesbrough (stop sniggering at the back, please)?

The most pressing problem is the speed demon Adama Traoré and the worst news is, he plays on the right wing, which brings Rowett’s left back problem into stark focus.

Baird is not a left back, of course – he’s simply been dragooned into the job out of desperation.  I’ve never been a fan of Marcus Olsson, but he is at least a bit quicker than Baird and naturally left-sided.  If he is fit, then surely, Olsson will have to come back into the team today.

Traoré’s goals and assists record – five and eight respectively – is decent, but not all that impressive, on the face of it.  He has scored less than either Andreas Weimann or Tom Lawrence.  However, unlike our guys, he has started only 23 games and has peaked at the right time, bagging all of his goals since 20 January after being given a new lease of life under Tony Pulis.

Yeah, that sounds weird, doesn’t it?  But the winger described by the Middlesbrough Gazette last month as “a phenomenon, a freak of a talent, arguably the most electrifying right-wing weapon in the entire division” struggled under Garry Monk, who apparently didn’t trust him, didn’t always select him and, according to the Northern Echo, told him he needed to do more to fit into the ‘team shape‘ – to ‘shelve some of his individual instincts… track back and carry out the defensive duties he has been instructed to enact.”

Pulis may not be renowned as a champion of jogo bonito, but he’s been able to get the young Frenchman producing the goods, where Monk failed.  The secret?  Balance, according to the Gazette’s Anthony Vickers: “I think the key is having a solid defensive full back behind him.  It means he is not asked to cover back so much and his weaknesses are not exposed so often.”  Rather than asking Traoré to change his game, Pulis has made allowances for him and is reaping the rewards.

One former Derby man, Ryan Shotton, has replaced another, Cyrus Christie, at right back for Boro.  About the only thing those two have in common as players is that they weren’t exactly popular figures with a lot of fans by the time they left Pride Park (I found this out whenever I tried to defend Christie on Twitter – the level of trolling he experienced was appalling, in my opinion).  Rams fans may not recognise the description of Shotton as ‘solid’, but will understand the difference in style between the two full backs.

Patrick Bamford won’t play today, but another ex-Forest striker, Britt Assombalonga, is also in Boro’s squad and has 13 league goals to his name this term.  And Daniel Ayala, who has played for Derby and Forest, has proved he’s a threat at set plays, chalking up an impressive seven goals.

But it’s been a tough season for Boro too and on the whole, they’ve underwhelmed.  Monk failed to deliver and now they’re scrambling for fifth or sixth, when their pre-season expectation must have been higher than that.

Derby’s abdication from the concept of ‘form’ has helped Boro massively, so it would be ironic (and quite funny) if the Rams suddenly sparked back into life now, of all weekends.  But how can that happen and what team does Rowett pick?

He’s been let down consistently now for months and without transferring players, there are only so many ways you can rejig the side.  Five changes were made after Sunderland, but Burton was so dismal that some of those players – Keogh, at the very least –  may now have to be considered for selection again.

The kickoff.co.uk form guide shows a clean sweep for Boro

Monday’s experimental U23s line-up, with three at the back and Keogh as a holding midfielder, got tongues wagging – if you want to make friends on Twitter, start talking about a back three – and according to the Derby Telegraph, many of the first-team squad were watching the match.

Meanwhile, the club have made a big fuss over Luke Thomas, releasing a video interview with him, while a suspiciously-timed article in the Gloucestershire Echo (Thomas’ local paper) claiming that he is being monitored by West Ham and other Premier League clubs, despite still not having made his Championship breakthrough.

After the pitifully inadequate way they performed against Wolves and Burton, surely Rowett can’t pick the same team again – it would be madness to do that and expect anything different.  The players showed that they currently can’t win matches, or even really compete at Championship level, with that line-up and in that formation.  So it will have to be a case of going back to the drawing board, forgetting any previous assumptions about what would work and what wouldn’t work and trying something new, building on whatever strengths Rowett can identify and trying to protect any glaring weaknesses.

However, short of recruiting a new team, there is no magic bullet.  There are too many problems for that.  Left back has become a massive headache and Andre Wisdom hasn’t had a great season at right back either.   Central midfield is a live issue, with the pairing of Joe Ledley and Tom Huddlestone currently looking much too slow and ponderous.  With those two struggling for form and pretty obviously fitness too, there is precious little energy and even less bite in midfield.  If Rowett is to persist with them, then they need some help in there.  If Bradley Johnson is still injured,  the most likely candidate to do that job is Jamie Hanson.  But a midfield three would necessarily mean dropping an attacker from a team which is already failing to produce enough in the final third.

Yet again, Derby did not create much at Burton.  This is a clear pattern now, not a blip.  They are not scoring enough goals, not out-shooting teams, not even getting into the box with any regularity.

Rowett has put Kasey Palmer on as a midfielder when chasing a goal, but it seems clear that to get the best out of him, he needs to be playing further forward.  David Nugent doesn’t look fit and is struggling to get through games, let alone score.  Matej Vydra’s half-arsed free kick from the edge of the box at Burton, followed up by his absolutely brainless penalty, speak to me of a man who is struggling to cope with what is happening around him.  And who can blame him?

The above sums up why my mood is currently so terrible.  But the crazy thing is, it’s theoretically still salvageable.  I’m not sure how it can be done, but it can be done.  Two wins from the next four games and Derby might just squeak into the play-offs and then who knows what happens next.

Just look how much is riding on this game….

Graphic credit – Ben Mayhew (https://twitter.com/experimental361)

A win could change everything, absolutely everything.

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