Theo who? Mining for gems in the era of Financial Fair Play

With the 2011/2 season finally over, it’s time for a summer of transfer tittle-tattle, erroneous Sky Sports reports, kids confusing their game of Football Manager with reality and #dcfcfans claiming to have seen Glick in a hotel lobby with Kevin Davies / Michael Owen / Alessandro del Piero.

Oh and today, we’ve signed a kid called James Caton from Bolton – his agent told Sky Sports, so it must be true…

I love it, every last minute of it.  Transfer transfer transfer!

I have no idea at this stage which players Derby County will end up signing, but am confident in making the following prediction – you probably won’t have seen them play before, or maybe even heard of them (and neither will I).

Theo Who?

I had a serious ‘who?’ moment when the club announced the loan-with-view-to-perm signing of Theo Robinson last season.  It had been kept under the radar and my initial reaction was one of major underwhelm.  Is this what it’s come to?  Picking up cast-offs from Millwall?

As it turned out, we had found something of a bargain.  For (a reported) £140,000, we got a return of 12 goals in Theo’s first full season at the club and although he can drive you mad with some of his play, it’s now clear why Clough thought him worth a punt.  His pace and poaching instincts were the positives to be weighed in the scales against his undeniable technical deficiencies.  He didn’t have the whole package, but then, if he did, he wouldn’t have been available so cheaply.

I keep coming back to Moneyball, the marvellous book by Michael Lewis, in which the protagonist, Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane, is described by scouts as a ‘five-tool player‘, while still in school.  Five-tool players are the star athletes, like Gareth Bale, say, who have physical prowess and the sporting aptitude to match and are obviously cut out for the highest level.

It goes without saying that, like Beane’s Oakland, Derby can’t afford to buy this kind of guy, although we could develop them through our academy (the prodigious Mason Bennett will doubtless be looming very large on Premier League scouting radars already).  So we have to be a bit more creative when it comes to signing new players.

Take the example of Ben Davies.  Slow and lacking the skill to beat a man, Davies was not a Championship-standard wide midfielder in the most obvious respects and as he was 29 when he joined, is unlikely to have any resale value.  However, he possessed a certain ‘tool’ which Clough desperately wanted – the ability to cross the ball and take free kicks.

Davies initially seemed rather self-conscious about his set pieces, knowing that he was under serious scrutiny every time he sent one into the box or towards goal.  However, once he finally got settled, without ever dazzling anybody, Davies became one of the most prolific assist providers in the Championship last season – up there with the much more highly-rated (and doubtless much better paid) likes of Adam Lallana, Jimmy Kébé and Mark Noble.

Craig Bryson is perhaps another good example.  Whilst he can pass, his key virtues are his stamina and workrate, which allow him to scurry from box-to-box all game long.  His midfield partnership with the more studied Jeff Hendrick seems to be developing very nicely, to the point where James Bailey, a good talent in his own right, is now considered a reserve player (and probably won’t be with us for very much longer).

Interestingly, Bryson is only 5’7″ tall and his lack of height and heft could have counted against him in some scouting reports.  But Clough wanted the wispy Scot’s sheer energy and would also have taken into consideration his professionalism, commitment and selflessness.  At £450,000, he has proved to be an absolute steal and has earned his slot in the latest Scotland squad.

El-Hadji Goof

With our budget limited, for now by owner policy but eventually formally, by the constrictions of Financial Fair Play, our recruitment focus has largely (though not exclusively) shifted to younger prospects with the potential to shine in our first team eventually, rather than battle-hardened, Championship-ready pros.

The first report of potential transfer activity for next season has already appeared, with a bid of Northampton Town midfielder Michael Jacobs allegedly lodged and rejected.   Nigel Clough has confirmed to Radio Derby that he is interested in the player – while denying that we’d bid yet – and added that teenage Liverpool left back Jack Robinson is on a list of potential loanees for next season.

Jacobs certainly fits into the overall recruitment pattern.  He is only 20 years old, but has won the Cobblers’ player of the year award in his first two seasons as a first-team pro.

Clough apparently maintains a policy of collecting captains and/or players of the year from other clubs – Shaun Barker, Jason Shackell, Bryson, Ben Davies and John Brayford are examples of this and even Lee Croft had been Norwich’s POTY the season before joining Derby (albeit in a relegated team).  Marc Pugh, a wide midfielder linked with the Rams since January, was voted Bournemouth’s player of the year this season – and so it goes on.

Captaincy is usually a guarantee of a trustworthy character. However, it’s safe to say that  El-Hadji Diouf, fresh from his bizarre spell as the skipper of relegation-bound Doncaster Rovers, will not be parking his gold-plated Range Rover in the Pride Park lot any time soon.

For this, we should all be very thankful indeed.

Not only would this sort of player demand ridiculous wages, his swaggering, bling-led attitude makes him a sort of anti-Clough figure.  Nigel’s pet values – the consistently-referenced ‘honesty’, ‘endeavour’ and ‘unity’ (commitment to the team) – do not seem to apply to the somewhat individualistic Senegalese forward, recently arrested after a brawl in a Manchester nightclub, hours after Donny’s relegation to League One had been confirmed.

In the immediate future, Derby County will be a ‘manufacturing’ club with a production line, not a plutocrat club that swaggers onto the forecourt with chequebook in hand and a Made in Chelsea ‘actress’ in tow.  Let’s hope we can turn out a few Rolls Royces – Jeff Hendrick is a very good start and by the looks of things, in Hughes, O’Brien and Bennett, we already have a few more who don’t look too shabby either.

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