Derby County 3 Reading 2

This was not a game which Derby won through footballing excellence.  It was a game they won through hard work.

We knew exactly what Reading were going to try to do.  Under Jaap Stam, they play the Dutch passing game, taking the short option at all times on principle.  We know how beautiful that can be when the opposition lack the energy or bravery to shut it down.  We also know, from painful experience, how badly it can go wrong if the opponents push as high as they can and refuse to allow the keeper and defenders time to play.

Derby were lucky to go in at 1-1.  They did nothing to deserve their equaliser in the first half, having been guilty of allowing Reading to settle into their rhythm and dictate terms. Swift’s opener was as predictable as it was exasperating and at that stage, Derby were a remote second best.  There are times when I’m unable to celebrate a goal and Bent’s was one of them, but it was a stroke of fortune which the Rams had to capitalise on.

And they did.  Derby presumably got a bollocking at half time, because in the second half, they did to Reading pretty much what Leeds had done to them last week.  They pressed as high as they could.  The purist game which looks so slick when it’s working is best disrupted by haranguing the worst players in the side – the defenders and goalkeeper.  We know this and finally, we did it.  We forced the inevitable errors and we profited with three points.  Ince’s goal looked like a present, but of course it was actually the result of hard work and a bloody-minded determination not to allow them to play.

It was perfect timing that Hughes netted as Stam waited to make a double change. The third goal was a blessing and a curse, because it gave us a cushion, but also proved to be the cue for the Rams to retreat a bit, stop harassing Reading and let them settle into their passing game again.  It said something about Mac’s lack of faith in his threadbare bench that he refrained from making any changes until the last few minutes, because there was a clear need for fresh legs well before then.

Méïte made a difference with his mobility – and was granted an infuriating free header from a corner to make it 3-2 – but fortunately, with McClaren finally using his bench to create something akin to a back six, it was too little, too late for visitors who were left to settle for the moral superiority of 65 per cent possession.

A word for Marcus Olsson, who was well involved in the Hughes goal and who put in an impressive shift for a player only just returning to the side from a hamstring injury.  He looked as edgy as anyone else in the first half, but he kept going, felt his way into the game and made a telling contribution in the end, making his way into the box for the shot which was blocked into Hughes’ path for what turned out to be the winner.

And a word too for the South Stand, for their magnificent “we’ve got the ball” prank in injury time.  It was just beautiful – a gleeful lancing of the Reading supporters’ naive enjoyment of Stam’s possession-based system.  Because referee Peter Bankes didn’t have a clue what he was doing, he probably only added on about half the time the Rams fans wasted.  And Reading can’t complain about it, because they had been time-wasting from about the twentieth minute, right up until the point when they went behind.

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Derby County Podcast, with Ramspace and Popsider

The latest Derby County Podcast is out now and as usual, it was a really interesting chat with Joel, Chris and Jonathan.

Unsurprisingly, the kick in the balls that was defeat at Leeds United cast something of a shadow on the debate, but as Chris pointed out, it’s very important not to be swayed by individual results – we have to look at the overall trend, rather than the occasional bump in the road.

A few points, to expand on topics that we touched on in the debate:-

  • Bryson hasn’t played regularly for some time now and has said himself that he needs a run of games to get back to full sharpness.  I don’t want to slate him and am certainly not prepared to write him off, but we really need more from him, because the midfield three needs at least one player who can break into the box.  None of the others on the books seem capable of doing that, so fingers crossed he has a couple more seasons in him yet.  Otherwise, we may have to look at recruiting a replacement for Hendrick.


  • Pearce v Shackell – I understand why McClaren gave Shackell the nod at Leeds, given that Shackell was by general agreement man of the match at The Hawthorns. If a player is given a chance and does really well, what does it do to his morale if you then drop him?  I’d also add that I don’t think we lost at Leeds because of the centre backs.However, it’s obvious that the fans have taken Pearce to their hearts and want him back in the team.  This is a hard situation for McClaren to manage, but certainly, the people have spoken.


  • Butterfield – Chris correctly pointed out that Butterfield has not scored this season.  I think it’s worth pointing out that he has had more shots than any Derby player this season except for Ince – 47, of which, only nine have been on target.  The main reason being that 37 of those shots have been from long range.  Everyone remembers the beautiful strikes from last season, but those goals are the exception that proves the rule.Butterfield is a neat and tidy player who knits things together and passes well, but he can’t drive into the box – so I see his role in our squad as providing cover for Hughes.

    (This shot detail infographic illustrates just how much we have relied on Ince this season for attacking threat, let alone goals, this season – best viewed on Piktochart)


  • Ageing players – The club has developed what I believe is an unhealthy habit of awarding long-term contracts to players who are getting to the end of their careers. Shackell will be almost 35 by the time his deal expires.  Bent will be 33, Bryson 32, Johnson 32, Anya 32, Olsson 31.  This pattern has continued, with Nugent contracted until 2019, by which time he will be 34.  This is no good.  It’s almost as if the club are being blinded by reputations – they are not getting out there and finding younger players with scope to develop from McClaren’s much hyped coaching abilities and form the core of the team for the long-term.


  • Who would you lose from this squad?  Joel asked Jonathan the question and my answer, in this window anyway, would have been ‘Camara’.  He’s been here for a year now and he’s 26 – not a kid.   It would be wonderful if he proved me wrong, but I honestly feel that if he was capable of doing it at Championship level, then he would be doing it by now.  If there is an opportunity to sell him back to France, it seems wise to cut our losses and take it.


  • Chris Martin – (Sigh…) I take Chris’ point about ‘moving on’, but it’s not possible to move on until we’ve got the dosh he’s worth.  That is the problem – we’re in this limbo phase and it’s affected the club negatively.  The situation is a complete mess and clearly still a long way from being resolved.   This will drag on until next summer.  In the meanwhile, it’s perfectly possible that Martin’s goals will help propel Fulham into the play-offs and thence the Premier League, while we continue to struggle to score and pine for a ‘Martin type’ to hold up the bloody football….
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New Year’s resolutions for Derby County 

It’s well worth pausing at the turn of the year to congratulate the team and Steve McClaren for the miraculous way in which they’ve turned the season around.  The Rams’ form in the last couple of months has been exceptional – so much so that a GIF sent to me in October to use ‘when things haven’t gone so well’ was never relevant for the rest of 2016.

In honour of the non-performance at Norwich and Jacob Butterfield’s rather brainless dismissal, here it is, finally making an appearance a full two months after it was originally delivered:-

As we praise the team for their sterling efforts in recent times, the dawning of 2017 is also a fitting moment to look forward and consider what happens next.  Here are a few resolutions which I imagine will be pinned up on a board somewhere at DCFC HQ.

Work some magic in the transfer market

Every transfer window is important, but this one feels particularly so.  Even with players to come back from injury and suspension, the squad needs strengthening if it is to have a real chance of maintaining what, only a few weeks ago, seemed an implausible play-off push.

There is added pressure on the new (old) recruitment team to deliver, as the Directors of Recruitment brought in for Pearson have been elbowed aside for their sake and because Chris Evans’ record in his last spell contained at least one Ryan Shotton for every Alex Pearce.  Meanwhile, the new Chief Scout – Steve’s son Joe – will always be open to accusations that he did not get where he is on merit.

Hopefully, Julien De Sart will fill the George Thorne niche well and it was encouraging to see Derby come out of the blocks early this January with a promising loan signing, especially given the short-term midfield issues.  Now, with Weimann and Camara unable to force their way into the team, another wide attacker must surely be a top priority, while sharing the lone striker load between Darren Bent and Matej Vydra has led to the pair scoring four goals between them in the 16 games since Pearson’s departure (three for Bent, one for Vydra).

Which leads on to the next resolution…

Get Chris Martin back

Despite the vitriol aimed at him by a vocal minority of fans who can’t stand him, there is a dire need to retrieve Martin from his purgatory at Fulham.  Unless, of course, the Rams can find another 15-20 goal Championship centre forward for less than £10m elsewhere.


As soon as it became clear that there was no recall clause in the deal rushed through in August – and that Fulham had absolutely no intention of converting Martin’s loan into a permanent deal in January – Derby had a big problem, because they had neither the player, nor the money he was worth.

The increasingly intricate structure of Financial Fair Play regulations make it hard to know for sure – and we still haven’t seen the club’s accounts for last season – but I wonder whether Derby, even if Mel wants to, could ‘break the bank’ on a serious new striker without also breaking the new spending limits (with permitted losses now capped at £39m over three seasons).  That becomes almost irrelevant if you get promoted, but if you don’t make it, the Football League now have the power to decide to hammer you with a points deduction, let alone a transfer embargo.

New contract for Will Hughes

Two of the more positive stories this season have been contract extensions for players who have done really well – Max Lowe and Scott Carson.  While reinforcements are of course required during the window, it would also be a huge boost to everyone associated with the club if Hughes committed to an extension at this stage.

With his current agreement ticking down to its last 18 months, now is the time to get a new one inked.  However, after all the upheaval and play-off heartache he has experienced at PP, Hughes could not be blamed if he decides to wait until the summer, see if Derby get promoted and then reassess his situation.

Finish in the top six

If Derby managed to get promoted after giving the rest of the division such a head start, it would be little short of miraculous.  That said, with order and pride now restored by McClaren, another tilt at Wembley glory must now be the aim.  There is a decent challenging pack, but nothing to be unduly afraid of and a successful January window, followed by a bit of luck with injuries, could see the season extended yet again – and even a different outcome this time…

Don’t sack Steve McClaren

… Nevertheless, we have to accept the very real possibility that Derby will be facing yet another season in the Championship come August.  It would be nice to think that we would be doing so with the same manager in post, because for now, the ship is back on an even keel – and that is not nothing, given the scale of the slump under Nigel Pearson.

The club will only tread water at best if there is constant upheaval.  Even by modern standards, Mel’s attitude towards managers has been alarmingly casual – but by now, even Massimo Cellino himself finally seems to have learned that chopping and changing is a recipe for disaster.

The owner is determined to make this club successful, but even he will finally have to acknowledge that Rome wasn’t built in a day (and the only man who could have pulled off that particular feat is sadly no longer with us).

Which leads onto a final resolution which seems to be occupying Mel’s mind at the minute!

World Domination

One of the more interesting off-the-field stories of the season has been Mel’s decision to challenge the Football League over what he deems to be an unacceptable TV rights deal for the 72 clubs.  This week, he summoned all of the clubs to his Citadel to discuss what should be done next and it was subsequently reported by Owen Bradley that Morris ‘will be involved’ in the next set of negotiations, adding that the FL clubs are ‘impressed by Morris and his vision’.

So, the point Mel is making is assuredly valid.  However, I sincerely hope that his wheeze of a ‘friendly’ against Leeds United, of all clubs, doesn’t go ahead in March.  The idea is theoretically sound, because there is a clear tone of misery and despair among English football fans during every international break (certainly there is ’round my house, anyway) and a ravenous appetite for televised domestic football on any given Saturday (hell, on any given evening).  It’s also worth remembering that the Premier League have always opposed the idea of a winter break, pointing out that far from allowing their superstars to put their feet up, the megaclubs would simply take themselves off, Harlem Globetrotters-style, to play hyper-lucrative friendlies around the world instead.

Decent ticket prices – maybe even freebies to reward loyal season ticket holders – and family-friendly offers will make for a buzzing stadium and a good day out for supporters.  But the idea of staging a friendly purely to prove a point, at a time when the players should be in the midsts of a dogfight for the top six if all goes to plan, is laden with risk.  Once you sell TV rights to the thing, you’ve got to play the first eleven and they have to try a leg, as well.  That’s not to mention the historic rivalry between the two clubs, which further rules out a cozy kickabout.  While Wednesday, Huddersfield, Reading and the rest are enjoying a Saturday off to recharge tired players’ batteries ahead of the final push, our lads will be out there risking injury in a meaningless game, which, OK, could be relatively lucrative if Mel is right, but ultimately only a sideshow.  The players have looked very tired in recent weeks, labouring to a victory against Birmingham before running out of gas against Wigan and Norwich.  Proof that regular breathers through a punishing season are a necessity.  A penny for Steve McClaren’s thoughts on this particular plan….

Happy New Year to all Rams fans, here’s to a belting 2017!

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The good, the bad, the ugly and the East Midlands Derby


Thanks a lot to Trev for keeping these GIFs coming!

As the two clubs have been marooned in division two for years now, East Midlands Derbies have become useful as regular milestones, moments to take stock of where we are as a club.  Over the last couple of years, we’ve generally been the favourites to win and free to aim a few smug darts at Fawaz, over his dysfunctional reign at the City Ground.  That sense of superiority departed around the time that Clement was sacked.  The bizarre ‘Interim Derby’ of Wassall v Paul Williams came at a time when things at Derby looked just as chaotic as they did down the road.

But things have finally calmed down a bit, with McClaren’s latest return steadying the ship and I make Derby slight favourites for this one.  However, despite the superb run of five straight wins – four of which were pretty tough games – we are not in what you would call sparkling form offensively and it can’t be ignored that Forest are also improving.  With Montanier left in post for more than five minutes, they have found a system which works for them and are starting to climb the table.

The history of the fixture suggests that it will probably be a tense, grim grind of a game, but a classic encounter could just erupt – it really all depends upon how soon the first goal goes in.

Graphic courtesy of

Graphic courtesy of

It is by no means a given that both teams will score in this fixture.  That 5-0 sticks out like a sore thumb (sorer for them than us, of course).

Here’s my EMD infographic (best viewed here, where you can hover over the individual bars to read the values)

derby-v-forest_18717072_3dd62d5cacfb0912a5b5d56fdcaa23979a99968cForest certainly look the more threatening attacking force so far this season.  Not only have the Red Dogs scored double Derby’s paltry tally of 17, they also lead the Championship for shots on target and are far more likely than the Rams to work shooting opportunities inside the box.

Derby are much improved since that horrendous goal drought under Pearson, but are still only averaging 13.2 shots per game – ninth in the division – and too many of those efforts are still being taken from long range.

The Rams’ most dangerous attacker this year by far has been Tom Ince, who has hit the target as much as almost anyone in the division, but behind him, there aren’t too many other players who have been testing the goalkeeper regularly.  For Forest, Vellios, Lansbury and Kasami have all been goal threats, with Assombalonga returning to fitness as well.  The latter has been on the pitch for less than 400 minutes this season and has scored six times already.

And then there’s Nicklas Bendtner, a man who famously broke the scale on Arsenal’s psychological tests when it came to ‘self-perceived competence‘ – who, in other words, genuinely believes that he is God’s gift.  A man like that would of course love to become a hero for Forest fans by scoring tomorrow and it would be horrible for such a thing to happen.

With all that said, it’s worth adding that Derby’s goal tally for the last ten games is 14, not far off Forest’s 17 goals over the same spell.

Graphic courtesy of

Graphic courtesy of

And then there’s the defence.  Four goals conceded in the last ten games is a simply outstanding record and the Rams’ most recent test against a top attacking side, Norwich, was passed with relative ease.  They have become so mean this season that Carson has by his own admission hardly been busy.  On such foundations, success is built.  The attackers can get away with not being particularly silky on the day when guys like Alex Pearce are behind them, snuffing out even the merest hint of danger.  I thought Pearce was excellent at Wigan, along with the rest of the back four.

If Forest could defend, they would certainly be in contention for a play-off spot, but they have leaked more goals than anyone but Rotherham, keeping only one clean sheet all season to date.  Cavalier wins against Wigan (4-3), Burton (4-3) and Barnsley (5-2) have to be weighed against less impressive results at the better sides – losses at Brighton (0-3), Reading (0-2) and Sheffield Wednesday (1-2).  Yes, they beat Newcastle, but the two red cards suffered by the Toon last Friday night have since both been rescinded by the FA, which says a lot about how fortunate they were on the night.

For this game, I suspect we will see the return of the Forestbuster himself, Craig Bryson. OK, we won at Wigan, but four shots in the game is an unacceptable return and McClaren may well look to shuffle his pack in a bid to add more attacking impetus.  Bryson has been introduced from the bench in the last four games and it might be time to let him off the leash, in the hope that he can get up and support Bent or Vydra more than Hughes or (more likely) Butterfield.

If we can win this, I will finally genuinely believe that a play-off push is back on for Derby this season.  I still remain to be convinced about us as an attacking force in the absence of Martin, or a like-for-like replacement.  But if the defence can play as calmly and competently in the hostile atmosphere of the EMD as they have in more run-of-the-mill Championship battles this season, then that will say a lot about the Rams’ ability to climb further up the table.

There are plenty of stats to pore over in this article – I do hope you like stats – but perhaps the one that says the most about the sheer unpredictability of this match between a team who score and concede freely and a team who keep clean sheets but haven’t scored enough is the goal totals metric.  Forest’s games have produced a total of 67 goals this season – more than anybody else in the division – whereas Derby’s have produced only 30 – less than anyone else.

If anybody wins a bet on the correct final score tomorrow, then fair play to them…

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Derby County v Norwich City preview

Expectations brutally mown down under the inflexible Nigel Pearson have started to flower again, the players performing with flair not fear.  Ince has responded with a fusillade of goals, Bent has applied himself the lone striker role – statisticians have been quick to point out the incredible goal returns of these two players under McClaren – Johnson has grasped the opportunity to make the holding role his own and looks like a new man…

I could go on.  All over the pitch, players who previously looked either hopelessly short of confidence or shot, are gradually rediscovering and in some cases redefining what they’re capable of – liberated as they are from Pearson’s mindless pressure to turn them into something they were not.  For all that Mel Morris has made some strange and bad decisions in the last couple of years, sacking Pearson may well turn out to be his best.

Almost as soon as Pearson left and results began to turn around, eyes drifted away from the relegation zone and longingly back to where they should always have been resting – the top six.  To make up the lost ground remains a difficult challenge and McClaren is dead right when he refuses to discuss anything but the next game – but in this case, the next game has huge symbolic value.

Norwich are currently sixth.  One of the big guns, their parachute payments have allowed them to maintain a squad of internationals from their failed Premier League campaign.  But Alex Neil, who won them promotion in 2015, is now under huge pressure to repeat the trick and a run of four successive league defeats, triggered by a farcical 5-0 drubbing at Brighton, has more than scared the horses.


Graphic courtesy of

It’s pretty easy to name the Derby side for Saturday – fitness allowing, you’d expect an unchanged eleven.  Neil, on the other hand, made six changes for the defeat at QPR, including the goalkeeper.  His plans were then ruined by Martin Olsson’s bizarre first-minute dismissal and so it is hard to know how he will respond. Does he go again with the team he thought could beat QPR, including the former Forest loanee Nélson Oliveira, or restore experienced pros like Cameron Jerome and Wes Hoolahan to the starting line-up?

There is perhaps an element of too many options to choose from for Neil – not that many other managers at this level would sympathise.

Norwich 2 Leeds 3 (5 November)




Brady (Jacob Murphy)
Pritchard (Lafferty)


QPR 2 Norwich 1 (19 November)


Olsson (sent off)


Jacob Murphy
Naismith (Josh Murphy)

Oliveira (Jerome)


Statistically, there are incredible similarities (infographic best viewed online) in the two clubs’ records on many measures.  They have had exactly the same average possession, shots on target and shots conceded.  Yet despite this eerie parity, the two clubs have had completely different seasons so far.

Norwich have one of the division’s worst defensive records – they have conceded an eyebrow-raising 20 goals in nine away matches, which is clearly not good enough for a supposed promotion contender – and they have not kept a clean sheet in the league since 16 August.


It’s also very interesting to note that seven of Norwich’s eight wins so far have come against the division’s current bottom seven sides – the other being a 1-0 home win against Bristol City in August.

Norwich v bottom seven

P 7 W 7 F 19 A 8 Pts 21 GD +11 PPG 3

Norwich v Championship from 17th upwards

P 10 W 1 D 3 L 5 F 10 A 21 Pts 8 GD -11 PPG 0.8 

Norwich have been laudably ruthless against the relegation candidates, but against the better sides, they have routinely been found out – most infamously that 5-0 thrashing at Brighton, but also an embarrassing late collapse to lose 4-3 at Newcastle, a 3-0 loss at Birmingham and a late set piece sickener to lose at home to Leeds.

The Canaries have made up for the leaks at the back by scoring freely – albeit mostly against the division’s weakest teams – while the Rams are still recovering from their freakishly goal-free start to the campaign, although they have at least now scored more goals than Wigan and Ipswich.

Prior to Pearson’s departure, Derby were averaging more shots from outside the area (7.6) than from within it (6.4), a disastrous state of affairs, which shows the lack of creativity we endured during that barren spell.  That has turned around considerably since McClaren’s return.

Defensively, on the other hand, Norwich have looked distinctly vulnerable, despite the fact that they have been by no means peppered with shots.  Lax defending and a string of strange mistakes – not least goalkeeper Michael McGovern’s serious meltdown at the Amex – has been damaging to their season.

Back in the shape that suits them best, the Rams have started to remind everyone of how dangerous they can be.  Certainly, they took advantage of Wolves’ and Rotherham’s frailties and if Norwich defend as sloppily as they have done in recent games, there’s every chance that Derby could produce a real statement result and call time on Neil’s reign at Carrow Road.

On the other hand, I can’t help but remember a certain game in McClaren’s last spell, when the form book and all rational thinking pointed to a Rams win leading to the end of Stuart Pearce at Forest. It didn’t work out that way.

For all of their current problems, Norwich still have plenty of attacking threats and could ask serious questions of Keogh and company.  Much depends, literally, upon which Norwich side turns up – but regardless, with McClaren’s style coming up against porous opponents, a low-scoring, attritional affair feels unlikely.  If Derby are a good enough side to haul themselves back into promotion contention despite giving everyone else such a head-start, then Saturday is the right time to prove it.

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