Ahead of the latest instalment of the East Midlands Derby psychodrama, it felt like a good time to look at how Phillip Cocu has done so far and how we see things panning out in the coming weeks, ahead of the arrival of a certain Wayne Rooney.
This month, we were joined by Ryan Conway, the new Derby County reporter for The Athletic, an American website which has this season launched a new football news service, with a journalist covering each Premier League club and selected high profile Championship clubs.
We’re very grateful to Ryan for taking time out to talk all things Derby on his day off (having been up late the night before filing stories!). This was a wide-ranging chat, with sections on probably most of the current first-teamers, but a particular focus on Jack Marriott, Rooney’s potential impact, plus we get to know Ryan a little better, as a new face on the Rams media scene.
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On a balmy August evening, I set off from my West Yorkshire gaff to make the short trip to the John Smith’s Stadium. Just as I was leaving, I saw a text from Tommo, which read: “Have you seen the Rooney link, got to be bollocks”. I thought nothing more of it, given that yes, it was obviously bollocks and got on with making my way to Huddersfield.
When I arrived at the ground, a few lads were chanting “Rooney, Rooney” in the bar area of the concourse, much to my amusement. It was all good fun, but surely nothing serious, I thought, as I wandered to my ‘seat’ to watch the Rams play the Terriers.
The 2-1 victory was probably deserved, thanks to five minutes of magic from Tom Lawrence and a second half which was all about discipline, team shape and concentration. However, within hours, the trifling matter of a three points from a strong away performance was basically forgotten, thanks to the rapid escalation of the club’s biggest transfer story in decades, if not ever.
I was quite looking forward to us being a normal football team again. The “Frank Lampard’s Derby” thing was annoying by the end and there was definitely a downside to being more of a target for the media to latch onto. Under the undemonstrative Phillip Cocu – a great player, but one who never played in England and hence was not a household name on these shores – I kind of hoped we could just get on with our season without being subjected to the unwelcome extra national press and TV commentary which arises whenever a ‘newsworthy’ big name is involved.
But listen, Mel’s gonna Mel.
He initially did what he does every summer, which was make extremely convincing noises about restraint and developing the kids and shopping in the loan market and reining it in, only to then suddenly drop everyone’s jaws by signing one of the biggest names in English football, in a move which he admitted had only became a possibility in the past few days. Whatever the plan was for the rest of the window, the plan changed overnight and a man who was until recently hailed as one of the best players in the world was hopping on a transatlantic flight to sign on the dotted line for the Rams.
The last time England’s record goalscorer played for Derby, the journalist Richard Jolly tweeted, was Steve Bloomer in 1911. In my lifetime, the only signing I can think of with remotely the same level of starpower was that of Igor Štimac, but I’m sure even the supremely self-confident Croat himself would admit that Rooney is a far bigger name. Last summer’s appointment of Frank Lampard felt like the biggest coup we were likely to experience, at least until the club could finally haul itself out of the Championship. And Mel has gone and topped it within twelve months.
It has taken me this long to get an article together on the subject partly because I simply couldn’t begin to get my head around it for a couple of days. It is so far beyond the spectrum of what I had thought possible that it is mind-bending.
So, let’s take a step back, take all the hoo-ha out of it for a moment and try to look with clear eyes at what we’ve actually acquired.
The first point to make is that Rooney’s best days are well behind him. However, in his best days, he was one of the best players in the world. He will be 34 by the time he joins Derby, not an exceptionally ripe age for a player in this day and age, but Rooney peaked earlier than most, partly because of the prodigious development which made him an Everton first-teamer by the age of 16 and a Manchester United superstar before his 20th birthday. José Mourinho described him as a ‘model professional’ when he left United, which is slightly at odds with some of the tabloid tales about his life off the field, but should be taken as a highly encouraging sign about how he will approach his time at Pride Park. He has made it very clear that he is joining in order to help us get promoted and it’s to be hoped that his signing will galvanise the squad, in the same way that it has clearly electrified most of the supporters.
I don’t watch MLS, so can’t claim to have kept an eye on him at all since he left these shores, but Whoscored.com data rates him in the top ten of players currently appearing at that level (Zlatan Ibrahimović is rated #2). Playing as a centre forward, he has scored 11 goals and contributed six assists in 23 appearances this season – about 0.8 goals + assists for every 90 minutes on the field. By all accounts, he has been tremendously influential on and off the pitch at DC United and will be a huge loss to the club. The Washington Post’s ‘soccer’ correspondent Steven Goff describes his impact at DCU as ‘immeasurable‘.
The excellent Ram Srinivas has of course created a graphic, which demonstrates that he has been one of the most effective creative forces in MLS this season. On the flip side, he is no longer carrying the ball regularly, not actually popping up in the box that often and his defensive contribution has been below average for an MLS striker. So it seems he has effectively been afforded a free role, with license to drop deeper as he likes and focus on making things happen around him – DCU have been rewarded with plenty of goals and assists as a result.
It’s also worth considering that his quality from set pieces (and penalty-taking) will be a major asset, especially with Harry Wilson no longer around.
Another important factor is his ability to pass the ball accurately into the danger area (‘deep completions’ are successful passes aimed close to the goal). A big criticism of Lampard’s Derby from the stattos was that they did not create enough high-quality opportunities to shoot on goal (from close range)- on the evidence of his MLS performances at least, Rooney should help to solve that problem.
The question for Phillip Cocu is how to fit Rooney into his line-up. It’s hard to see him starting up-front in place of Martyn Waghorn, who is so important for the team, but playing Rooney as a number ten seems to be a likely answer. In a free attacking midfield role, he could drift into spaces, pick the ball up in dangerous areas and release the younger runners around him. If there is enough energy and pace in other areas of the pitch – for example Waghorn or Marriott up front, Lawrence on the left, new signing Jamie Paterson on the right, Krystian Bielik and George Evans in midfield, Bogle and Malone at full back – then maybe we can afford to carry a creative force with less mobility.
However, like Lampard’s appointment, Rooney’s arrival undoubtedly comes with its darker side. Once again, Derby are a target for the boo-boys – most particularly of course the supporters of two other Championship clubs who I don’t want or need to name. A particular mountain has been made of the issue of Rooney’s squad number, which, it quickly dawned on everyone, had been chosen to marry with the brand of Derby’s shirt sponsor. This was seized upon by those with an axe to grind as an absolute moral outrage.
My personal opinion is that the morality of gambling companies sponsoring football clubs and leagues is dubious. As far as I’m concerned, there is definitely a case for banning them from doing so and I would happily see this implemented tomorrow. Gambling can ruin lives and the way it has gradually insinuated itself into football has to date met with little apparent resistance from the game’s authorities.
As things stand, there is simply no way of children and young people being engaged with the game they love and not being exposed to the big betting brands. If your concern is that advertising betting through football is helping to normalise a potentially harmful product for the next generation, then you should be in favour of an outright ban.
But until the powers that be are brave enough to decide that they do not want bookmakers part-funding professional clubs through sponsorship arrangements, they will just be another potential commercial partner for those clubs to court. And if it is morally acceptable for ’32’ to be emblazoned on the front of Wazza’s shirt, which is where most of the cameras will focus after all, then why isn’t it also OK for it to be printed on his back? What’s the difference?
Supporters of other clubs and some newspapers have been trumpeting a supposed salary of up to £100,000 per week for Rooney at Derby. Nobody knows the real figure, but what we can say, because in the MLS, these figures are not kept secret, is that in 2018, Rooney’s ‘base salary’ at DC United was $3.5m per year – about $67,000 per week, or £55,000 per week, at the time of writing. A fun fact is that MLS players taking home a higher base salary than Rooney include not just Ibrahimović and Bastian Schweinsteiger, but also Giovanni dos Santos and the notorious Sunderland flop Jozy Altidore.
No doubt, Rooney will be on a relative fortune for a Championship player, but as he only joins Derby in January, we will only be paying him for half of this season. He will be under contract for the whole of 2020/21, but a look at our current depth chart, sorting the players by their age, shows that this may not be quite as problematic as some observers would like to make it look.
With the obvious exception of Rooney, the top line of players aged 30+, in red – Davies, Forsyth, Huddlestone, Anya and Martin, plus the loanee goalkeeper Ben Hamer – are all out of contract next summer and will presumably leave the club at that point. Only Hamer, Davies and Huddlestone are important members of the squad at the time of writing (with Forsyth injured), so it’s fair to say that at least some of those veterans can be released without any need for a direct replacement. Letting them go will get a fair chunk of wages off the club’s books and should allow Derby to absorb an extra six months of Rooney’s salary. All of that, of course, is assuming that the Rams don’t get promoted this season – if we do go up, clearly the financial landscape changes beyond all recognition anyway.
The bottom line is, the Mel Morris era is going to make for a cracking book one day. He is going to continue throwing curveball after curveball, all with the aim of getting us promoted in the end (and if it happens, he won’t want a repeat of last time, either). Like it or not, it seems that we will never be far from the headlines while Mel is in charge. Folks used to find the GSE era of financial sustainability under Nigel Clough tedious – well, nobody can complain about it being dull any more.
For now though, it would be great if we could just park the Rooney story for the moment and focus on the first half of the season to come. All the gossip and click-baiting and moral panic should be totally batted away, because Cocu (remember him?) has a lot of games to try to win before he can call upon the former England captain. By the time Rooney steps onto the Pride Park grass for the first time, much of the story of 2019/20 will already have been written.
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The season preview returns, after a break last season. As usual, I have split the various runners and riders into four categories, rather than putting my neck on the block and going for a thorough ‘1 – 24’ – although several pundits have done this and for what it’s worth, the guys I follow with interest all had Derby finishing outside of the top six, but in the top half of the table (I might go for a 1 – 24 on Twitter… TBC)
I also crowdsourced a #dcfcfans league table, with polling conducting after the Burton Albion friendly. At that point in time, most of those who responded were very optimistic about how the season might pan out:
Interestingly, a poll conducted by Owen Bradley with similar categories saw the fans return a much less confident result – this poll came after the Rams had lost to Girona and at Glasgow Rangers, scorelines which led to a much gloomier outlook from the faithful:-
That much less bullish result would have plunged Derby to about 10th or 11th in my predicted table. But I’ll bet a repeat poll taken after news of the Rams’ interest in signing Krystian Bielik from Arsenal broke would have been more optimistic again.
This preview piece should ideally be read in the context of our recent preview BlogCast, in which myself, Chris and the excellent analyst Ram Srinivas took a look at where we felt Derby needed to strengthen this season:
Here goes nothing.
The Bees will be preparing to punch above their weight as one of the division’s financial minnows yet again. Quality recruitment the Moneyball way has got them so far, but hasn’t pushed them through the glass ceiling yet – however, bigger fish are always ready to help them turn a profit by pushing through moves for Brentford’s best players. Romaine Sawyers was sold to West Brom for a mere £3m, but the bumper £12m sale of Ezri Konsa to Villa could really help them kick on. David Raya, a £3m buy from Blackburn, is a highly rated goalkeeper, while Pompous Jansson’s move from Leeds was arguably the most sensational Championship development of the off-season and their Danish recruits, Mathias Jensen and Christian Nørgaard, are reportedly very promising. At the time of writing, Neal Maupay, Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins are still on the books. The Bees’ statistical performance last season was much better than their actual performance, so they will feel that they deserved success (where Derby didn’t). If they live up to their billing – or even just get the rub of the green in a few games – this could well be a big season for them.
The stattos swooned over the Robins’ summer recruitment, which included Jay Dasilva and Tomas Kalaš from Chelsea, plus a coveted attacking midfielder from League 2 Colchester, Sammie Szmodics. Defender Adam Webster became a wanted man, but with no pressure to sell, the club rebuffed interest until Brighton forced the issue with a walloping offer. They are having a go – and have a stable ship under the stewardship of Lee Johnson. They could crack the play-offs, just as long as they can score more goals this time.
Neil Warnock refuses to retire, Cardiff stuck with him despite relegation and so here we are again. A promotion specialist who smirks in the face of pretentions about ‘playing the right way’, Warnock will have no fears as he looks to keep Cardiff yo-yoing. This time, getting them up will presumably turn out to be a final, pyrrhic victory, but he won’t care about that so long as he wins. Aden Flint from Middlesbrough is a signing to make him purr, while striker Robert Glatzel arrives from Heidenheim with strong references.
Dumped back in the Championship despite relatively huge investment in their playing squad last season, the Cottagers have doubled down, pushing the boat out to try to bounce straight back. We know what to expect from them – lots of goals ,hopefully at both ends of the pitch. They still have Tom Cairney, plus Ivan Cavaleiro on loan from Wolves, while Aleksandar Mitrović signed a new contract and ominously, Anthony Knockaert has joined on an initial season loan from Brighton. That front four could batter anybody at this level. They need to shift out some players and carry out a wider rebuild, which may take them more than one window, but they will be ferociously dangerous opponents in the meantime.
Convincing Marcelo Bielsa to stay for a second season was the first order of business for Leeds and keeping him on board should, in theory, give them a great chance of going at least one step further than last time. But Pompous Jansson’s move to Brentford was an eyebrow-raiser, with the club reportedly forced to consider at sales to help keep them above the financial fair play threshold. The sale (and immediate loan-back) of Jack Clarke to Tottenham helped to free funds to strengthen a team which Bielsa felt had hit its performance celling last season. Hélder Costa was an eye-catching loan addition from Wolves and they still have to be considered as promotion favourites – but the delicious prospect of another meltdown is never far away.
West Bromwich Albion
The Baggies have gone for a relatively high-profile appointment in Slaven Bilić and will expect the Ígor-era Croat to guide them back to the promised land. But they managed to miss out last season under Darren Moore and Jimmy Shan, despite having two 20-goal strikers – neither of whom will be returning. Dwight Gayle was only on loan from Newcastle and Jay Rodriguez has been sold to Burnley. Cardiff’s Kenneth Zohore, who Curtis Davies once dismissively described as a ‘big lump’, has joined as a first replacement and I’m placing them in the Contenders pile solely in the expectation that they will bring in more players before the deadline. Bilić has demanded signings publicly and it wouldn’t seem to make sense to bring in a coach with his reputation and then not back him… Would it?
Frank Lampard’s departure left a void, but just as significant was the loss of the three loanees who helped propel the Rams to Wembley. With a group of senior players also (rightly) released on free transfers, it will be difficult for the Dutch legend Phillip Cocu to replicate that play-off run, but having arguably overachieved last season, we live in hope of repeating the trick (and of signing more players before the deadline). Graeme Shinnie was signed by Lampard to add energy to the midfield, while Kieran Dowell, on loan from Everton, will be tasked with replacing some of Mason Mount’s guile and Harry Wilson’s goals. Centre back Matt Clarke comes with rave reviews from Brighton and will hopefully be a fine replacement for Fikayo Tomori, while defender / holding midfielder Krystian Bielik, who has cost a packet from Arsenal, is a signing whichjust makes sense. Other players in the squad, such as mighty mouse Duane Holmes and Tom Lawrence (who had a difficult 2018/9 season), will need to step up and much still depends on what happens before the window closes.
Huddersfield’s improbable promotion and even-more improbable survival in the Premier League couldn’t last, so now they go again under David Wagner’s much less noteworthy replacement, Jan Siewert. Their largely foreign squad was miles short of Premier League quality – Aaron Mooy and Phillip Billing aside – and the embarrassing stunt they allowed a certain bookmaker to inflict on their supporters in pre-season made them look like a small club, despite the largesse of Premier League parachute payments. Billing promptly left for Bournemouth and while they have some cash to spend and a hotly-tipped striker in Karlan Grant, it would surprise me if they cracked the top six again.
The division’s self-appointed financial policeman Steve Gibson turned to the untried ex-Boro player Jonathan Woodgate after parting with Tony Pulis. Gibson’s rants about financial sustainability have become notorious, but Boro have had their own issues with overspending and this could be a season of reconciliation. Aden Flint was sacrificed, joining Warnock at Cardiff and they have recruited promising young players like Marc Bola and Marcus Browne, while letting misfit striker Martin Braithwaite and veteran winger Stewart Downing go.
Stoke moved fast to revamp a failing squad this summer, bringing in an unspectacular but solid group of proven Championship players, who should make them much more effective at this level. Lee Gregory and Stephen Ward hint at a return to the unrefined Potters’ style of old, but Nick Powell is a talented attacking midfielder. Bolstering and renewing a squad which already included good players in Joe Allen, Peter Etebo, Sam Vokes and Tom Ince should help them to improve on an embarrassing 16th place finish last season, but still might not be enough to push them into the top six, especially after the loss of Ryan Shawcross to serious injury. With eight surplus players having been ostracised from their pre-season tour, there is still a lot of work for Nathan Jones to do to turn the ship around.
Will continue to be solid under Tony Mowbray and have more than enough to be safe. Bradley Dack will continue to be a pain to come up against, while Mowbray got the best out of journeyman striker Danny Graham, who netted 15 goals last season (joint top-scoring with Dack) and Stewart Downing has signed on for a season. However, with Bradley Johnson joining on a free, it’s impossible for me to back them to finish in the top six.
Having lost Nathan Jones to Stoke, the Hatters were promoted under temporary boss Mick Harford and will now try to consolidate under another Jones, Graeme. Defender James Justin’s move to Leicester provided funds to bring in Brendan Galloway, Callum McManaman and Ryan Tunnicliffe, all on free transfers and while they won’t be fancied, they will look at survival as a realistic target after last year’s excellent season. Jacob Butterfield has also joined, in search of a fresh start.
Football dinosaurs Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill were rightly jettisoned, but their replacement, Sabri Lamouchi, is very much unheralded on these shores – his main virtue apparently being that he is represented by the infamous Jorge Mendes. Greek owner Evangelos Marinakis’ latest attempt to curry favour with the Portuguese agent led to a fresh influx of Portuguese signings to add to an already bloated squad – full back Yuri Ribeiro, plus midfielders Alfa Romeo and Tiago Silva being the latest, plus Rafa Mir on loan from FC Mendes and another one since then (I’ve lost count) – but whether Lamouchi can actually mesh a team together before Financial Fair Play starts to bite (or Marinakis gets twitchy) is quite another thing. The signing of Sammy Ameobi, who you might have expected to take the plunge into League 1 along with Bolton, was odd, while utility man Ben Osborn has been snapped up by Sheffield United.
Preston North End
I’ve never warmed to Alex Neil, but he is an effective manager. Star forward Callum Robinson has gone to Sheffield United, but they still have some good players – not least in midfield, with that nice Ben Pearson complemented by veteran Paul Gallagher, goalscorer Alan Browne and much-hyped new signing Tom Bayliss – it’s not impossible to see them cracking the play-offs, although their move for the veteran David Nugent does make me wonder whether they will have enough quality. At the very least, they will continue to be really awkward opponents.
Queens Park Rangers
It would be unkind to base my prediction for QPR on Bob Mortimer’s Athletico Mince podcast, but really, Bob’s wicked joke that Steve McClaren was sacked for failing to meet Tony Fernandes’ target of finishing 15th was perfect. Star midfielder Luke Freeman left for Sheffield United, while in a gently surreal twist that Mortimer would doubtless appreciate, giant striker Matt Smith left for his spiritual home of Millwall, only for another Matt Smith – a 19 year-old midfielder – to promptly join on loan from Manchester City. Jordan Hugill is a potentially decent signing on loan from West Ham, but there are concerns over their ability to keep the ball out of the net and “Mr Fernandes” would probably be happy if Mark Warburton steered them to the calm waters of lower mid-table.
An encouraging campaign under Graham Potter only led to the Englishman being poached by Brighton and so the Swans go back to square one, under former England youth coach Steve Cooper. They have the benefit of a consistent club philosophy of playing attractive passing football to guide their recruitment policy, but under the chairmanship of financial troubleshooter Trevor Birch (who had a brief spell at Derby when we were in a spot of bother years ago), they have sold off their stars – winger Dan James to Manchester United and star striker Oli McBurnie to Sheffield United.
Under arespected manager in Paul Cook, the Latics will look to build on their solid survival total of 52 points last season. Everton loanee Antonee Robinson has signed permanently and Nigel Clough-era Ram Michael Jacobs is still on the books, but Nick Powell departed on a free transfer and Reece James, an outstanding loanee from Chelsea, has returned to Frank Lampard’s care.
Daniel Stendel’s successful season at Oakwell has seen him linked to bigger jobs, but Barnsley’s success was as much due to clever recruitment as the abilities of their German coach. Unfortunately, they will have to do the trick again, as several of their promotion-winning players were quickly snapped up by bigger clubs (most notably Stoke). Moneyball legend Billy Beane is a minority owner and so it feels safe to assume that the club has been taking advantage of all the analytics they can get their hands on. Having signed a disparate group of new players, including several from Europe, the Tykes will now hope Stendel is able to mesh them into another successful side.
Brum are struggling with the hangover from the monumental binge of overspending under Harry Redknapp. The pressure may have been eased through the sale of ex-Ilkeston striker Che Adams to Southampton, but with Garry Monk replaced by his former assistant – Oxford United reject Pep Clotet – trouble could still be brewing at St Andrew’s. On the bright side, they still have Lukas Jutkiewicz and picked up ex-Arsenal midfielder Dan Crowley for a bargain fee from Dutch football. There is also a potentially special player emerging from their youth set-up in Jude Bellingham, who was picked out as a future star in Michael Calvin’s excellent book The Nowhere Men when he was still practically a babe in arms.
Lee Bowyer’s achievement of promotion was quickly overshadowed by a bizarre public contract row started by the Addicks’ deeply-unpopular owner, Roland Duchatelet. With rumours of Derby County interest swirling, the manager did get the new deal he deserved in the end, but with Duchatelet not interested in investing in the squad and players including young stars Krystian Bielik (on loan from Arsenal) and Joe Aribo (lost to Rangers for a compensation fee) leaving, Bowyer will have a big job on his hands competing at this level.
Hull will be cutting their wage bill this season under Grant McCann, who earned the promotion to the Championship that his Doncaster Rovers side couldn’t quite achieve. With star midfield Jarred Bowen likely on the move and a thin-looking squad, McCann has a job on his hands to stabilise the Tigers at this level.
They are what they are – old-fashioned lump ball, with very little quality, but awkward customers on their day. Embarrassed Derby home and away last season, making it galling to see them scrape to safety on 44 points. Whether they have enough to repeat the trick of survival is another question. Lee Gregory has gone, but his replacement, the enormous Matt Smith, was at least a logical pick-up.
Reading seem to be going nowhere but into a downward spiral. Under a ‘soft’ transfer embargo for breaching financial rules, the Royals have little opportunity to strengthen, little connection with their Chinese owners and every chance of getting relegated. Experienced pros Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Chris Gunter and Sam Baldock were excluded from the club’s pre-season training camp and asked to find new clubs – a distress signal from a club which is in difficult straits. The one-year signing of Scottish veteran Charlie Adam was met with bafflement by neutral observers. On the plus side however, Portuguese manager José Gomes seems to be well liked and to have secured the fans’ backing.
Financial woes and the stagnation this caused prevented Steve Bruce from pulling his usual promotion trick – so he pulled a McClaren, by leaving the club in the lurch to sip from the poisoned chalice at Newcastle United. With the Owls continue to struggle financially from the legacy of previous overspending and with Lee Bullen left to act as caretaker manager for the start of the season, they cannot expect to do much this season other than survive.
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With the season only a couple of weeks away, it’s time to get the band back together – or at least, three bass players – to discuss where Derby are up to, what they still need to do in the transfer market to be ready for another crack at the top six and our initial take on the appointment of Phillip Cocu to replace Frank Lampard.
Chris and I were joined on this occasion by Ram Srinivas, who has the distinction of being the first international guest on the pod, the first non-Derby fan (like Lampard and Jody Morris, he is a Chelsea man) and also the first touring musician. He has also written a brilliant analysis of Lampard’s Derby last season, which I encourage everyone to read.
In the pod, we have a quick look back at last season, before moving onto the pressing business of potential transfer targets and a scan of the rest of the competition’s runners and riders.
Ram has produced some cracking player visuals for some of Derby’s players and also for some of the transfer targets he has identified:-
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So that’s it, then – he’s gone. A brief, entertaining cameo in the history of Derby County is over, the first Rams manager of the modern era with true celebrity status has moved on, to a stage which he feels is more fitting for his talents. We were only ever a stepping stone for him to get to where he wanted to be and in the end, it was a gamble that paid off for Mel Morris, in the literal sense – generating at least £4m of profit in compensation, plus £1m in gate receipts from defeat in the Wembley play-off final. That’s nothing compared to what the club would have earned from promotion, but it is also much better than a kick in the backside for a club that needs every penny it can get.
There’s no doubt that Frank Lampard had a genuinely positive effect on the club during his brief tenure. He brought near enough everyone together behind him and news of his departure, which dripped steadily, agonisingly out through the summer, proved hard to take for many Rams fans, who bought into and became much too attached to a man whose ambitions were never likely to be sated by our club for very long.
Lampard left a void to fill. But if a report in the very dishonest fake news media was to be believed, Morris was prepared to offer his former manager as much as £2.5m per year to stay – a fair chunk of the club’s turnover and much more than any Derby player would earn in the second tier. At the time, I wrote this off as nothing more than a gesture designed to appease fans who were worried that Mel wasn’t trying to keep Frank – after all, there’s no winning a financial war with Roman Abramovich and his Premier League behemoth.
But what that leak may also have been designed to do was to remind higher-profile candidates of the fact that there is money to be made at Derby, should they fancy the job. Which is a huge opportunity for the right person to grasp, as always, but comes, as always, in circumstances which mean that the ultimate aim of promotion will be as difficult to achieve as it has ever been.
Into the breach steps Phillip Cocu. The first foreign manager in Derby County’s history, the 48 year-old Dutchman was a revered player for both his country (for whom he earned 101 caps) and Barcelona. Having served his apprenticeship as a youth coach at PSV Eindhoven and as assistant coach for the Netherlands side which reached the 2010 World Cup final (don’t mention Nigel de Jong), Cocu graduated to the top job at PSV and brought the club three Eredivisie titles. In short, he is a much more experienced coach than Lampard and as a fellow international centurion and legendary figure at an elite European club, there’s also little difference in stature to Lampard (albeit Cocu is from a previous generation of stars).
All things considered, this surprise appointment feels like a genuine rabbit out of the hat from Mel Morris, when you compare Cocu’s track record to the uninspiring list of British options which were on the table. That in itself is a similar story to the one we had last summer, when Morris gambled on Lampard instead of going for a “safe” option. Indeed, when you think back, he has always gone for an ambitious, eye-catching appointment where possible (Paul Clement was the much-hyped “coming man” of British coaching at the time, Nigel Pearson had been relatively successful at Leicester and was expected by many observers to get the job done, Gary Rowett had a good reputation and was widely perceived to be a sound appointment).
Clearly, not all of Cocu’s coaching experience has been good – his move from PSV to Fenerbahce ended in disaster after only a few months of last season. However, I was told by the Dutch football reporter Chaka Simbeye that Cocu was ‘undermined’ in Turkey by assistants who were the club’s own appointments, a charge which was repeated to Sky Sports by Marcel van Der Kraan. Cocu will be accompanied by his own trusted lieutenants at Derby and reportedly given the security of a four-year contract.
I just hope that once the deal is finally confirmed, Cocu will be patiently supported by the club right through from boardroom to stands, because the transformation of the playing squad is a job which Lampard made a start on, but has left very much unfinished. I think the poll I did this week – which found that only 57 per cent of 778 Derby fans responding expected a top six finish – is encouraging, as it suggests that we are wise enough now not to demand too much, too soon in the quagmire of the Championship.
First and foremost, Cocu urgently needs new players. Pre-season is upon us and the squad looks short of depth in key areas, with only two centre backs on the books, for example, while also lacking the sheer match-winning quality of Mason Mount and Harry Wilson, respectively Derby’s chief providers of creativity and goals last season.
The new boss will inherit two excellent Championship strikers in Jack Marriott and Martyn Waghorn, plus experienced midfielders Graeme Shinnie, Tom Huddlestone and Bradley Johnson. Duane Holmes aside, however, the squad he takes on will be short of the type of attacking midfielder who can change a match through a moment of creativity. Derby will be scouring the market to do what they can to replace Mount and Wilson, but expectations should be tempered – it will be very, very difficult to recruit players of the same calibre.
Unless the new boss can find some serious attacking midfield gems in the market, a system which pairs Marriott and Waghorn could be a good bet for the new season. We need to replace Wilson’s 19 goals somehow and the most obvious way of doing that without spending the proverbial £50m seems to be to pick two strikers, both of whom are proven at this level (even though Marriott was seemingly not trusted by Lampard, for whatever reason).
These graphics by the football analyst (and bassist) Ram Srinivas demonstrate the characteristics of Marriott and Waghorn and give a flavour of how they might mesh together.
A gifted finisher, Super Jack does much of his work in the box and looks to get on the end of things, rather than regularly providing the killer pass, or winning the ball for the team. Waghorn is more of an all-rounder, who does a bit of everything – strong defensive contribution, plenty of involvement in build-up play, successful passes into the penalty area and also what Ram describes as a “sublime” finishing performance last season.
A criticism levelled at Lampard’s Derby by the stattos I follow on social media was that they didn’t create enough high-quality chances last season. Waghorn and Marriott snaffled the ones that came their way, while Wilson just smashed the ball in from wherever he liked. Pairing Waghorn, who is able to hold the ball up and link play, with Marriott, who doesn’t really do that, but has an amazing finishing instinct, would hopefully help us to be more penetrative and dangerous.
However, any thoughts of a two-striker system were dampened by my initial assumption when hearing Cocu linked that he would be wedded to the classic Dutch 4-3-3 and keep-ball system (as favoured by Steve McClaren, for example) and unlikely to deviate much from that formula. However, his tactics are actually more flexible and reactive to circumstances than that.
After his PSV side finished 2016/7 in a disappointing third place, he reviewed the team’s measured possession approach and changed to a more counter-attacking, direct style (one reporter referred to the new approach as ‘run-and-gun’). This may have been ‘direct’ relative to Dutch football – his 2017/8 PSV still averaged 50.5% possession, so do not expect him to turn out to be an orange-hued equivalent to Messrs Warnock and Pulis. But an analysis completed by Opta Pro’s Michiel Jongsma showed that the speed of his team’s attacking play became notably faster in 2017/8, after being assessed as having been too one-paced the previous season. Cocu replaced the target man Luuk de Jong, who had failed to convert enough of the chances created for him from regular crosses in 2016/7, with a less aerially dominant striker in Jürgen Locadia and despite having lost four key players the previous summer, the new style of play helped to deliver the Eredivisie title to Eindhoven.
Whatever system the new coach wants to use, he will need better quality and greater strength-in-depth to succeed in another gruelling season. Getting the recruitment right is always essential, but never more so than this summer. Arguably Derby’s three best players have left and any club would struggle to cope with that, while continue to perform at the same level.
While it’s improbable that Mel will go completely crazy again this summer, I don’t think there’s a need for further austerity cuts on top of releasing the likes of Bryson, Nugent, Olsson and Pearce, not now that the stadium has been sold. Indeed, Morris seems optimistic that sweating Pride Park as an event space will help to generate profits to be reinvested back into the club (and presumably also to refund some cash to him, to make him feel better about the £200m which has disappeared from his fortune and into the trouser pockets of Anya, Blackman, Butterfield and other assorted winners).
So there should be some limited budget available – it feels implausible that Cocu would have agreed to sign up without assurances that he would receive at least some backing in the transfer market – but whatever cash the new boss is allowed to spend will have to be spent carefully, wisely and quickly, with the start of the season and the end of this transfer window already only a month away.
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