Since the end of 2012/3, the positive way in which this summer has developed has marked another stage in the gradual rehabilitation of Derby County. What was for years a club doing little more than just about get by, is starting to look suspiciously like a healthy, competitive beast capable of punching its weight and winning promotion to the Premier League.
As we bask in the feelgood factor of a pre-season that is actually resulting in a stronger squad, with transfers being concluded rather than just promised, think back (only briefly, I promise) to the gloomier days of September 2009.
When the proposed sale of Rob Hulse to Middlesbrough fell through, it came to light via the Wolves website that his replacement would have been an untested youngster, Sam Vokes – on loan, despite the fact that the Hulse deal was being touted as a sale in the region of £3,000,000. This was a bit reminiscent of the Amigos nightmare and the owners GSE were not popular at the time, as a patched-up, loan-heavy team failed to meet supporters’ expectations of success.
A year later, in August 2010, a rattled chief exec, Tom Glick, under pressure to explain what on earth was going on, was telling the media that an 18-year old striker named Chris Wood was our top target, on loan from West Brom. Wood never arrived – embarrassingly, he decided to join Barnsley instead – and besides, he didn’t make an impact at Championship level until a full two years later, when a goal-heavy loan spell at Millwall propelled him to prominence.
Fast forward three years to June 2013 and Nigel Clough’s top attacking target is Dundee United’s Johnny Russell – available for around £750,000. While all and sundry were running their mouths about the deal, with rumours of a rival bid from Celtic repeated ad infinitum on social media, Glick’s replacement as chief executive, Sam Rush, kept schtum and quietly, efficiently got the transfer done.
In addition to Russell, Lee Grant was brought in with a minimum of fuss, not least because Derby were able to offer better wages than Burnley, a club in decline after their brief flirtation with the Premier League.
Chris Martin, whether you agree with his signing or not, was a player the manager was able to assess for himself during an extended loan spell – and was happy to bring to the Rams on a permanent basis.
Craig Forsyth, another ‘try before you buy’ player from last season, has since joined from Watford. These days, loanees are brought in with a view to a longer stay, rather than just being used as short-term sticking plasters over gaping holes in the squad, as was the case in days gone by.
In the past, there was no discernible conveyor belt of young players coming through our system, but there is now a robust academy, bringing through good local talent, as well as casting the net wider to develop prospects from further afield. This is working a treat – and when Daily Telegraph writer John Percy produced scare stories about a fire sale at Derby last January, with Clough allegedly ordered to sell to balance the books, rumours of big-money bids for the scarily gifted Will Hughes abounded.
But with the club on a surer footing than in the past, there was to be no Tom Huddlestone-like travesty this time. Not only are the Rams producing quality players like Hughes and Jeff Hendrick, they are apparently also in a position to hang onto them, until the bid becomes too good to turn down.
I was worried that Craig Bryson would be leaving this summer. He was down to the last twelve months of his contract and Clough had said that players would not be allowed to go into their final year, before leaving for free. I therefore assumed that Bryson would go, with Hendrick and Hughes becoming our first-choice central midfielders by default.
Instead, Bryson agreed a new three-year deal before going off on his summer holiday. Not only that, Bryson also played a major part in persuading his fellow Scot Johnny Russell to move to Pride Park.
The decision to publicly credit Bryson with his role in selling life at Derby to Russell was a good one – the player deserves praise for going far beyond the minimum for the good of his club. PR man Tom Loakes also received recognition for his role from Rush – all of which strengthens the impression of a happy, united ship.
In another positive development, despite his years of experience in the role, Clough has been studying for his A Licence coaching badge – a stepping stone to the UEFA Pro Licence, which is a prerequisite for managers wanting to work in the Premier League. Sir Alex Ferguson was a notable exception to this rule (I would have loved to have been in the meeting when the FA told him he had to take a course on how to manage).
Elsewhere, Conor Sammon, Jeff Hendrick and Richard Keogh playing for Ireland has been another part of what I consider to be the rehabilitation of Derby County. After a dismal decade of almost constant failure, suddenly, we are a club who attracts, signs and even produces internationals.
Giovanni Trapattoni, while particularly pleased with the contribution of Sammon and Hendrick to the Irish set-up, introduced a slightly sour note when he told the press that he had been asking the guys why they don’t play in the Premier League. It wasn’t pleasing to read the following quote from Trap’s pre-match conference against Spain: –
“If they [the Ireland squad members playing in the Championship] were playing for better sides, they would have more of the ball and be more confident when they come with us.
“It is easier for them to leave when their contract is over because they can go for free.
“It’s more difficult when the club must pay but I have asked the players which agents they have because it is important for them to see if there are possibilities for them to leave.”
Derby averaged 52.7% possession across last season’s Championship games and had more of the ball in the vast majority of the games. However, BBC Radio Derby’s Owen Bradley has assured me that it’s true that players have more time on the ball in the Premier League – and it’s certainly true that Hendrick looked out of his depth while playing in the recent friendly against England. His performance reminded me somewhat of a palpably not-ready Jordan Henderson’s debut for England against France in November 2010.
Nevertheless, Trapattoni’s comments chafe. We know that Hendrick’s representatives agitated over his current contract, much to Clough’s disgust at the time – and with his current deal expiring in 2015, you get the feeling that if we aren’t promoted this season, Jeff will be moved on.
But let’s not dwell on a hypothetical negative at what should feel like a positive time for anybody with Derby County at heart.
Ever since the Season of Doom, the club has not been remotely ready for promotion. After Clough rescued from the ruinous mismanagement of Paul Jewell, we listened impatiently to Glick’s depressing mantra of prudence, Financial Fair Play and better times just around the corner.
Rush has clearly realised that Glick’s business-speak was a huge turn-off for Derby fans and steered mercifully clear of it. His comments after the signing of Russell were probably the most bullish to come out of Derby County since the Billy Davies days. Rush spoke of a club ready for a dart at promotion and the current vibe around the place genuinely seems to back that optimism up.
Last season marked the start of a genuine upturn in the club’s fortunes and while Rush can’t take all of the credit for that – he only started in post this January and not much happened in that transfer window – he has certainly grabbed this summer by the balls.
There is genuine excitement about the Russell deal – he could finally be the talismanic striker everybody has been craving – and to get it done so early on, allowing the player to start pre-season with his new team-mates, earns top marks for the chief exec.
At this rate, you wouldn’t bank on John Brayford realising that the grass ain’t necessarily greener and pitching in with us for another couple of seasons. Hopefully, he will now see that his best chance of a stab at the Premier League may actually come by helping the Rams get promoted, rather than hitching a ride with a promoted side like Cardiff, or trying his luck with a parachuting relegated team like Wigan Athletic.
Even the fact that Wigan’s initial bid in the region of £1,000,000 for Brayford was confidently rebuffed is a positive in itself. A player brought from the lower leagues by ‘Non-league Nigel’, Brayford is now generally regarded as one of the best defenders outside the Premier League and there is no desperate need to cash in on him, even though four players have already signed for a total of around a million pounds, with only around £200,000 recouped to date.
As Clough recently told the Burton Mail: –
“We know we’ve got assets on the pitch, so we’re under no pressure [to sell]. That’s the lovely thing about the Brayford situation – maybe in past seasons, we would have taken the offer (from Wigan Athletic). We don’t need to now – we don’t need to take an offer for Will [Hughes] or anybody. We’re not too far away, financially, from where we want to be this season.”
If Brayford stays and we sign another good centre back, I might well have a little wager on us making the play-offs this year.