On Spygate

By now, you will have read an awful lot, probably even too much, about ‘Spygate’, the story which unfolded after a Leeds United employee was caught spying on a Derby County training session ahead of the Championship fixture between the two sides at Elland Road.   Every pundit and his dog issued a verdict on the incident, with opinions ranging from the reliably cantankerous Guardian scribe Barry Glendenning declaring that Leeds had done ‘nothing wrong’ to – of all people – Stuart Pearce claiming that the result of the game should be reversed and the points awarded to Derby.

It was interesting and actually quite dizzying to follow the national media as they sank their teeth into a story emanating from Moor Farm.  Football’s journalism establishment, like the New York Times‘ Rory Smith and the Times of London‘s Henry Winter, tweeted their two-pennorth.  Managers from Pep to Pulis were asked about it in press conferences.  And as far as I can tell, your take on the seriousness of the incident really came down to your existing biases.

The incident was confirmed when Derby issued a terse statement stating that a man working for Leeds had been acting suspiciously outside their training ground, that Derbyshire Police had been called and that the two clubs were in contact to discuss what had happened.  Next out of the traps was the Telegraph’s John Percy, who reported that the man had been carrying a change of clothes and a pair of pliers, which he had used to cut through wires and make his way inside the training ground, in order to watch what Lampard’s squad were doing.

Since the initially sensational report of wrong-doing, the details of what actually happened have become blurred.   We now know for a fact that the Leeds employee was not arrested and was merely sent on his way.  A Derbyshire Police Twitter account sent out a picture of the man in their van, with a comment ending “#spyingischeating“, but after heavy shelling from Leeds Twitter, rowed back from this and sought to make nice, saying that the comment had been meant in jest.

Regardless of the fact that no arrest was made – which has led many Leeds fans and even some pundits to declare that the club are in the clear – Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani formally apologised to Mel Morris.  Based on Leeds’ official statement, which acknowledged that the actions of their coach had lacked “integrity and honesty”, we can assume (or at least hope) that there will be no more spying from now on.

More importantly, the FA and EFL both confirmed that they would be launching investigations into the incident and 11 Championship clubs wrote to the EFL to formally register their displeasure at what happened.

In the face of all this, Bielsa did the precise opposite of what any orthodox public figure would do.  He not only fessed up, he laid all of his cards on the table.  Yes, he sent the spy – and he’d been doing the same thing all season, to all Championship clubs.  It was part of his standard working practice, it wasn’t illegal and he had no idea that it was frowned upon here in England, he said.  Bafflingly, he claimed that doing so gave him no advantage, but was simply something he felt obligated to do because of his extreme need to analyse the opposition as thoroughly as possible.  A presentation he gave to journalists, at which he invited them to have a peek at his full analysis package of Derby County, swiftly became the stuff of legend.  The media (at least those parts of it that I tend to read) swooned.

Suddenly, the narrative was not that Leeds had done something very out of the ordinary at best, completely unacceptable at worst, had changed.  Bielsa was a hero and was simply ‘owning’ the Championship by being much more professional, diligent and hard-working than everyone else – without breaking any laws of the land.  Some reporters, like the Guardian’s Paul Wilson and Jonathan Wilson, even sniffed at Lampard for having had the temerity to complain about the incident.  Paul Wilson praised Bielsa for his “disarming frankness”, while sneering at Lampard’s “attempts to gain the moral high ground”, given that that José Mourinho, he said, would have been up to much the same tricks during his tenure at Chelsea, while Lampard was on the playing staff (this ridiculous accusation is akin to blaming a son for his father’s indiscretions.  It’s not as if Lampard would have had any say or influence on how Mourinho chose to operate and there is absolutely no suggestion that Derby under Lampard have behaved in a remotely comparable way to Leeds under Bielsa.)

It’s unsurprising that reporters with a keen interest in global football – the best example probably being Jonathan Wilson, author of “Inverting the Pyramid”, a history of football tactics – have a deep and abiding respect for Bielsa and were keen to defend him from what is perceived as an English media mob keen to jump on a ludicrous moral high horse against what they perceive as foreign ‘cheating’.

As with any story, there are elements of truth to both sides.

Firstly, nobody questions Bielsa’s reputation as a coach.  Pep Guardiola has always sung his praises and he has clearly done more than his due diligence on the Championship, adjusting to this league without any problems and very rapidly creating an impressive team.  Pretty much any coach in world football could learn a lot from Bielsa.  Lampard was clear before the first home game of the season that he considered it an honour to be up against him.  The respect he feels for this legendary “coach’s coach” surely accentuated his disappointment over what transpired at Moor Farm.

There’s no doubt that Derby’s preparation for the game was interrupted by the spy and also no doubt that he gained valuable information that Leeds had no right to be privy to.  Learning that Harry Wilson, one of Derby’s key players, was not involved in training would have been a very nice tip, for starters.  So when Bielsa claimed that there is actually nothing to gain from doing these surreptitious missions – that he only orders them out of some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder, effectively – he is being economical with the truth, to put it politely.

Because Bielsa admits that he has had clubs watched covertly all season, the EFL now have a job on their hands.  If it can be demonstrated by any club that their grounds are not publicly accessible, for example, then it’s perfectly possible that Leeds’ staffer would have had to trespass to gain the views he needed.  If it can be proved that the man went out equipped to trespass – which some reports maintain he was when he was caught at Derby – then that is a much more serious matter than simply poking your head over the fence, which, while, unsporting, is harder to object to.  Guardiola, a huge Bielsa fan, was completely unfazed by the incident, but then, he is sitting pretty in a private training compound these days and cannot be spied on.  If no further action is taken by the powers that be, then sadly, maybe Mel Morris will just have to dip back into his pocket and build walls around Moor Farm, assuming planning permission for such a change could be sought.

English football has undoubtedly been caught off-beam by this incident.  There is no formal rule that dictates that clubs cannot observe their opposition in training – the nearest edict to it is the EFL rule which says that clubs should behave towards each other in the utmost good faith, a vague catch-all which could be interpreted as relevant to any shady activity, or none.  From the general bemusement this story has been met with, it feels that there has been a sort of unspoken “gentlemen’s agreement” on the subject.   But Bielsa either didn’t know or didn’t care about that.

With half of the Championship having now written to the EFL demanding a proper investigation, it’s pretty clear that from next season, we will have one rule for everyone to adhere to in future.  Given the widespread disgruntlement which has been expressed, it feels impossible that nothing will happen as a result.

As a coach with a wealth of experience and passion for the game, Bielsa clearly has a lot of wisdom to pass on.  English football could learn a lot from him and it will be very interesting to see how he does in the Premier League, if he completes the job this season and wins promotion.

Would he be happy to invite the rest of the Championship’s coaches to an analysis masterclass, so that they can all benefit from his wisdom?  How about inviting them in one by one to watch Leeds train on the eve of their games, so that they can understand his approach and how he is planning to set up his teams?  Such insight into his methods and specific information about his gameplan for the coming match would be hugely appreciated by any coach, from a Nathan Jones who is just stepping up to Championship level, to the grizzled Pulis, who is in his umpteenth season (Pulis, when asked, was scathing about the spying, while Jones took the precaution of moving Stoke’s final training session before their game against Leeds to the Potters’ stadium, to foil any spies.  Stoke won 2-1).

Of course, in the aftermath of all this, Leeds’ vociferous fanbase have done everything from carrying out their own quasi-judicial cross-examination of our local constabulary to calling me a bellend (and every other name under the sun).  As Jonathan Wilson rightly pointed out: “Leeds fans who hark back to the glory days of skulduggery and dossiers will feel they have their club back.”

We’re all tribal and we all rally to defend our clubs or causes when we perceive them to be under attack, but as a group, the Leeds lot do seem to relish the feeling that there is a global conspiracy against them and will only have taken this incident as further proof that everyone from the EFL to the FA to the FBI to the Illuminati are plotting their downfall.  Should any punishment be handed down, they will only take this as further confirmation that “the Football League’s corrupt”.

Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United.   A match made in – well, not in heaven, exactly.  Brian Clough’s nemesis Don Revie must be chuckling happily in his grave.

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The Derby County BlogCast, episode #6 – Mid-January update

I pencilled this in for the next podcast weeks ago and it turns out to have been the perfect time for a new episode, with the Championship fully in the grips of January madness.  With Leeds sending spies ferreting around in the bushes, Forest finally removing Aitor Karanka (this was recorded before the announcement of Martin O’Neill as his replacement), plus the sacking of Gary Rowett, which feels like it happened a long time ago now!

Chris and I are joined by Derby’s Mememeister General, Ryan O’Meara, for a look at whether this graphic is likely to apply yet again this season, or whether Frank Lampard is ready and able to rip up the script.

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Derby County 0 Nottingham Forest 0

It’s entirely possible.  It also made me started idly thinking about the maximum total number of East Midlands Derbies that could theoretically happen in a single season. Home and away league fixtures, a two-legged League Cup semi-final, an FA Cup tie and replay, then promotion play-off semi-final to top it off would add up to eight.

In reality, 2008/9 where we played them four times and didn’t lose any of them is probably as good as it will ever get.  I wrote a story about the home FA Cup tie, which I watched in a pub in London…

Anyway.  Thankfully, this instalment of the ongoing psychodrama is over and the Brian Clough Trophy remains in Derby where it belongs until at least the end of February.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, it is now more than three years since the Rams lost to Nottingham Forest (seven games ago)…

In that time, Forest have only scored two goals, both of which came in the annoying 2-2 draw at the City Ground in 2017.

However, as pleasing as those records are, in reality the two sides are very evenly matched now.   Last night, Aitor Karanka’s double defensive midfield shield cancelled out Derby’s bright young attacking things very well and at the other end, a counter-attacking guerrilla cell led by Lewis Grabban kept the Rams’ rearguard occupied in sporadic, but occasionally deeply worrying bursts.

For the first half an hour, Forest pretty much just hung in there and I felt confident that Derby would go on to score the opening goal.  From there on in though, the balance of the game changed considerably and there was never really a comfortable moment.

I felt instinctively that a long 45 minutes was ahead when the second half kicked off and so it proved, with the Red Dogs a lick of paint away from executing the perfect away performance.  Stifle, frustrate, break – but luckily, not quite score.  The much-hyped Joe Lolley was kept quiet for long spells, but still eventually wriggled away from Tom Huddlestone too easily and almost nearly nicked it.

But in the end, possession was 51%/49% and Forest shaded the shot count (12-13 in total, 3-4 on target).  The numbers tell the tale – a game of only occasional chances between two teams who eventually boxed each other to a standstill and withdrew, happy with a point each.  Either side could have edged it and if they had, the other couldn’t have complained.  Both sides had players with the quality to turn a game, but nobody could quite manage it.

Derby were wrongly denied a penalty for the clumsy Tendayi Darikwa’s bizarre chest-kick on Tom Lawrence, but on the other hand, another referee might have seen fit to dismiss either Jayden Bogle, who should not have charged into an aerial challenge he was unlikely to win without catching his man, or Fikayo Tomori, whose two-footed sliding tackle was actually as clean as a whistle and, in the context of a tense derby game, a thing of ugly beauty, or beautiful ugliness – but is also the kind of thing I thought they were trying to do away with.  That high-risk, flying tackle was emblematic of what had become a heated, frantic scramble of a game, with nobody able to bring it under control and the referee doing his best to keep his cards in his pocket.

Derby under Frank Lampard are undoubtedly more of a passing side than they were under Gary Rowett, but my perception was that they went considerably more direct than usual for this game.  Their pass success dropped to 69 per cent, well below their usual average.  There were a lot of long clearances from Scott Carson, who even waved Richard Keogh away to take a long free kick from outside of his box on one occasion, something he doesn’t usually do.  The idea was to allow Jack Marriott to charge around and worry Michael Hefele and the German felt it necessary to rugby tackle Jack to the ground at one stage, earning a caution.

But the relentlessness of the forward balls meant that possession was often squandered unnecessarily.  Annoyingly, there were plenty of presentable opportunities for the defenders or central midfielders to pick out a pass, only for them to sling it straight out of play, or into the clutches of the beartrap midfield of Claudio Yacob and Jack Colback, who acted as a robust barrier in front of a makeshift-looking visiting back four – which creaked under pressure, but didn’t get pushed enough to cave.

Mason Mount, who hasn’t scored since September and has been subbed three times in the last five games, couldn’t find any room to operate and was worryingly quiet, other than smashing a decent chance well over the bar on the volley.  Tom Huddlestone’s passing started to fail him and, unable to calm down and control the game, Derby played into Forest’s hands.  They became bogged down in a second half which was more like trench warfare than a game.  There was no flow or momentum, not least because Derby conceded a free kick pretty much every time they conceded possession – 21, in total, with every outfield player fouling at least once.

Nevertheless, for all that the game became bitty and formless, there were moments which could have swung it decisively towards the home side, with a bit more luck or a better decision.  Firstly, Tom Lawrence burst through a challenge and reached the D, where he went for glory, smashing the ball wide when he could have released Marriott clean through on goal.  It looked an awful decision, but one entirely typical of a player whose first and only thought is for how he can score himself and never to check whether a teammate is in a better position.

Next came a beautifully struck volley from Harry Wilson – perhaps he hit it too purely when a slight scuff might have sent it trickling past the keeper.  Jayden Bogle had earlier caught a rasper absolutely wonderfully, only for it to land directly in Costel Pantilimon’s midriff.  And of course, also in the first half, Tom Huddlestone had been just an inch away from converting a nod-down from a corner; having cleverly stayed onside, he wasn’t quite athletic enough to make the connection he needed.

At the other end, Grabban, apparently played onside by Bogle, went clean through and forced a save from Carson when the goal looked very much to be gaping.  The fine margins which could easily have tipped the balance in either direction ultimately conspired to keep both sides in a grim deadlock.

Taking the local hoo-ha out of it, this was a clash between two serious play-off candidates and was therefore predictably tough, tight and gruelling.  I half-wondered beforehand if it might be akin to October’s difficult Sheffield United game – the return leg of that is coming soon, by the way – which ultimately swung our way and it was certainly nearer to that match in terms of being evenly poised throughout.  In this case, however, there was to be no breakthrough.

In a way, it’s good that Forest are good again and that the next City Ground game is likely to be one freighted with plenty more meaning than just the destiny of the Brian Clough Trophy.  We need these matches, even if they always have the potential to turn into sour, grim slugfests – particularly when they stay goalless for a long time.

Saturday 23 February – or whatever date Sky Sports decide it needs to be moved to for the sake of their ratings – will be not be a day for the faint-hearted.

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Derby County’s season in numbers

I was really pleased to be asked to contribute to this year’s Ramspace festival ‘advent calendar’ of DCFC posts. Chris asked me to produce ‘stats Valhalla’, so I did my best!

Here’s my long read looking at the bigger picture, ahead of the big one tomorrow…


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The Derby County BlogCast, #5 – November recap, plus East Midlands Derby preview and transfer talk

The latest monthly Derby County BlogCast has landed, with my regular amigo Chris Smith on board, plus a special cameo appearance from Joel Clyne, the man who set up the original Derby County Podcast, before moving on to pastures new.

I’m really pleased with how this month’s episode came out – there was a lot to talk about, with two losses and two defeats in the period, one of which was at Gary Rowett’s Stoke.  Also, there was richly deserved praise for Harry Wilson, the opposite of that Bradley Johnson, a look ahead to what could be a very closely fought East Midlands Derby and the first glance forward to the January transfer window. 

Enjoy and let us know your thoughts.

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