It’s hard to know where to begin.
If you’d told me as I walked through the grim, damp streets of Leeds, trying to hide my delight at Derby’s opening day win at Elland Road, that five games later, we’d only have got one more point, I’d have laughed at you.
True, it was a fiendishly tricky run of fixtures. QPR and Cardiff are now the top two, newly relegated Hull still have some quality players (not least Jimmy Bullard), Sheffield United are never a pushover – but we were so impressive against Leeds. Whereas the Whites resorted to aerial bombardment, we cut them open by keeping it on the deck. It was refreshing, it was easy on the eye, it was good.
I was cross when we lost at Crewe in the League Cup, but I still wasn’t really worried when I saw us lose narrowly, undeservedly, to Cardiff. I was upset when we lost at Coventry, but more because it was such an injustice.
Even though we threw away two points against QPR, I felt OK – we’d scored two lovely goals – but I grimaced when Rob Hulse was sold, gnashed my teeth awaiting a replacement, then listened on the Rams Player as Matt McCann, the club’s press officer, attempted to paint a picture of the awful home defeat against Sheffield United that was so palpably false, it threatened to make the club a laughing stock.
And I won’t deny that I was underwhelmed by last week’s loan signing of Shefki Kuqi as a target man, even though we are told he won’t be the only signing. Apparently, New Zealand striker Chris Wood of West Brom is still a loan target – but then again, we’ve been told things before.
Then the loss at Hull had the numbing feel of a ‘routine away defeat’, already, so early in the season – and it set the alarm bells clanging. I sincerely hope they get Wood in, because I have a horrible feeling that Kuqi could turn out to be the Nigel Clough-era version of Stern John.
(For the uninitiated, John was signed whilst Derby County was in the clutches of now-convicted fraudsters, ‘The Three Amigos’, who had just sold our top scorer – a lanky Pole named Rasiak – to give £1m to the Co-op Bank, thus preventing them from calling in the receivers. John, a journeyman striker who had played for Forest, was perceived as being massively inferior to Rasiak and was roundly, vindictively booed until the then manager, Phil Brown, simply couldn’t pick him anymore. The crisis around the club escalated, with awful result following awful result, until Derby were booted out of the FA Cup by Colchester United and Brown was sacked. The Amigos, thanks to determined campaigning from supporters’ groups, were finally forced out of the club later in the season and a local consortium headed by Peter Gadsby came in, to prevent Derby from going to the wall.)
I hope the big Finn proves me wrong and scores a few before he leaves in December, but I have a horrible feeling that if he doesn’t get off to a flyer in his first home game, against Crystal Palace on the 25th, he might be on the end of a backlash, just like John was – unless, of course, Derby have recruited another striker by then.
In a pre-match interview with Radio Derby, Adam Pearson, now working for Hull after selling Derby to the American GSE group, stated that the new owners have invested £30m cash into the Rams. He also said that the club’s debt had been cut to ‘single figure’ millions and it was now ‘all about making money for Derby’. Yet there is still huge mistrust and massive paranoia amongst the supporters, as Hulse’s sale on transfer deadline day brought back so many bad memories.
To me, it makes no sense to put £30m into a club, cut its debts right down, but then allow the team to suffer by not loosening the pursestrings just a little bit to bring in two or three more players, which would make a massive difference.
Derby have been so bad for so long that it simply can’t be sorted out overnight – and by overnight, I mean a couple of seasons.
Consider the fact that Robbie Savage is still taking £15,000 a week out of the club – once he goes, Clough can bring in one, two or even three younger, better players. I’m not blaming Sav, who took a wage cut in return for a one-year extension to his contract, but frankly, he is clogging up the wage bill and is the one high earner we can’t shift. Young Conor Doyle, the Texan forward recruited from an American university, disclosed last week that he earns about £34,000 a year – therefore, one Savage (at £780,000 per annum) would fund around 23 Doyles.
But a lot of Derby fans see things very much in black and white, in more than one sense of the word – and all they see is Hulse gone, replaced by an even older player who couldn’t get a game at Swansea. And this makes them angry. All it would take is for James Vaughan - who Clough wanted to sign, who has gone to Palace instead – to score the first goal when the Eagles come to town and the howls of rage could start in earnest.
I think the board are sailing quite close to the wind at the moment and a recent tweet from one of our reported investors, the Canadian gazillionaire W. Brett Wilson, was quite galling, for its timing.
Whilst Derby were losing at Hull, Wilson tweeted that he was in London, having a wonderful meal with Michael Palin and “Freud’s grandson”. I can only assume that as he took time out from enjoying the fruits of his success to update the Twitterverse about his huge happiness, he wasn’t casting an eye on the scores in the English 2nd Division, where one of his lesser playthings, a regional football team named Derby County, are struggling and in need of some help. The squad – threadbare. The fans – restless. The manager – under pressure. The chief executive – constantly promising things he seems unable to deliver.
There was a day, recently, when all my optimism about how the team were doing simply vanished – emotionally, I think we paid a higher price for the QPR disaster than was immediately apparent – and it will take more than a couple of positive results to change my mood. And worst of all, I know that there’s nothing I can do, except for go to the games and cheer, rather than boo. The cost of my match ticket makes no difference at all – only the whim of multi-millionaire investors can genuinely make a difference.
The gulf between the Premier League and everybody else is now so monstrous that even a £30m cash investment is a drop in the ocean. Think of how Lionel Pickering sent Derby roaring into the top tier with an eye-watering £15m splurge on players. £15m! Derby spent that on players last time they got promoted and came back down humiliated – the ‘worst team in history’. Yes, Billy Davies had wasted it all on disasters like Claude Davis and Benny Feilhaber, but that’s not the point. The point is that it takes huge, sustained investment to get anywhere close to stability in the Premier League.
Johnny Metgod, massively off-message, said after the Hull defeat that ‘this squad isn’t good enough for the top half, let alone promotion, so what do you expect?’ This stark analysis of our current situation – “we’ve got to be realistic” – is something fans won’t accept for long without demanding change. Because everyone is, at root, concerned that the club, by not moving forward with an increasingly competitive Championship, might slide inexorably towards the wasteland of League One. Just like Forest, just like Leeds, just like Sheffield Wednesday, or Southampton, or any of the other faded hasbeens of the English game.
For me, it still isn’t Clough’s fault. He’s brought in the best players he could on the budget
he’s been given. He’s done what he was told to do, which was to cut the wage bill. He’s tried to get his young lads playing good football. He’s been forced to deal with a load of permanently injured players his predecessors signed. But none of this registers with the blowhards who want his blood.
I think these people need to think very seriously about who they would have to replace Clough. Do they expect Alan Curbishley? Because they won’t get him. The only managers who would be interested would be the ‘young and hungry’ – think Phil Brown, when he took the reins from George Burley under the ‘Three Amigos’ – or the old and jaded. Paul Hart was on Sky Sports News the other day, touting himself for work. Any takers?!
Last season, Clough was on a knife-edge after we got thrashed by Scunthorpe and I’m not sure he could get away with another such disaster. He kept the wolves at bay by pulling off a few big results when he needed them – the defeat of Forest, especially, was absolutely vital. With the current squad, can he do it again this season?
The bottom line is, we need new players. And we need to not be depressed by constant home defeats. Or a lot of people will simply stop going - and the ones who would never, ever stop going, will start protesting. Peter Gadsby, who wants the land around Pride Park, is watching and waiting. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t think it will take many more defeats before the calls for both manager and board to go start in earnest.