Mel Morris has sacked Paul Clement and invoked something called ‘The Derby County Way’. He says he explained ‘The Derby County Way’ in the summer. Whatever it is, clearly he thinks that he understands it and thinks that Clement did not.
Mel is our steward. A ‘fan-in-chief’, if you will, he has the huge responsibility of leading the club in a way which does not threaten its long-term future.
I agree absolutely that there should be a core philosophy at the heart of any club. Guiding principles. Fundamentals that are right. So I’m pleased that it’s been floated and I think it’s something we should all think about, especially as we consider who the next manager of the club should be.
Here is my understanding of the ‘Derby County Way’ – or at least, an outline sketch of what it might look like in an ideal world.
Morris must deliver long-term stability, first and foremost. Financially, the club must be run in a realistic way, comply with Financial Fair Play regulations for as long as we’re in the Championship and not throw money around recklessly.
This means that, whoever the next manager is, he should not have a further £25m to spend net, because that could jeopardise the club’s sustainability, bringing the spectre of transfer embargos, stagnation and the misery of declining standards.
The club is big enough and has sufficient resources, if properly run, to compete in the Premier League. Now, the television cash bonanza has slightly changed this, because even a small club such as Bournemouth can find itself punching its weight if they can just get out of the Championship. But Derby has such big potential and can call upon the whole county for support (except for the funny bit up at the top with the Crooked Spire).
Next is playing style. Now this is deeply subjective, but for me, I want to see passing football, on the grass, intelligent players with quick minds, who can spot the right ball and have the technique to deliver it. Bravery, for me, is not about charging around and roughing people up – it’s about wanting the ball, demanding the ball, accepting the ball even under pressure, even when it’s going badly and when the fans are on your back, or some horrible, hairy-arsed bastard slid through the back of you two minutes ago and didn’t get booked.
I think, broadly, that this is the sort of football that the club want to see played at the iPro. It was starting to come together under Clough, it blossomed all too briefly under McClaren, it probably stalled under Clement. But then, two of the key players who made the Clough / McClaren teams tick, Will Hughes and Craig Bryson, have been missing for the whole season through injury. Had they both been fit, then £10m would never had been splurged on Bradley Johnson and Jacob Butterfield. Neither of whom are better than Hughes and Bryson. Had they not been badly injured in the first half of the first game of Clement’s reign, then maybe he could have spent that cash on strengthening a different part of the team (or it could have been kept in Mel’s account for a later date).
Playing style is something that must be coached into young players developed through the academy, which is absolutely vital for the long-term future. That’s if you can’t constantly throw money at new players every season – or if you genuinely want to have a deep-rooted club philosophy that doesn’t have to constantly change to suit whichever group of players you happen to be employing at the time.
If you want to point to a club which genuinely has a ‘Way’, then look at Arsenal. You know exactly what to expect from an Arsenal academy product. Technique, first and foremost. That has come from clarity of vision, from a great manager – perhaps the last of the great managers, a throwback to the era when you didn’t sack the boss every time things started to look a bit difficult.
Morris has said there should be a clear pathway to the first team and that he wants half of the first-team squad to be homegrown by 2020. However, Morris also sanctioned an enormous transfer splurge on a load of grizzled senior pros this summer, which you could argue is completely inconsistent with that stated goal and blocks the pathway of any youth-teamers (and has even threatened the future development of the established Derby products, Hendrick and Hughes).
So, the Derby County Way, then. Boiled down to its essentials…
Premier League mentality
The job of the board is to make sure the right people are in place to deliver on these objectives. The job of the manager / head coach should be to implement the guiding principles, ensure that ‘The Derby County Way’ is delivered on the pitch and that the recruitment of players, senior and youth, will help the stylish football to continue to flow in future.
Unless, of course, it’s all junk and in reality, the goal is just to get promoted as rapidly as possible and gather a share of the latest jumbo TV rights deal.
But I’m not as cynical as that. Morris has invested big time in the club’s youth infrastructure and facilities. Derby County is not some status symbol to him – it is a passion and I genuinely believe that he wants to leave it in a far better place than he found it.
Morris has made a huge call. There are significant risks involved with this decision – what does it say to other potential candidates, first and foremost? Can they walk into this job and expect to be given time to get up to speed, any margin of error whatsoever? Clearly not.
Morris had said that he did not expect instant results, or promotion, but what he clearly does expect is good ‘performances’. To be honest, I’m not sure how you divide the two. Or how realistic it is to expect the team to look like world-beaters week-in, week-out. They are human beings and second division footballers. The differences between the top and the bottom, in wagebill, in talent, are widening, but not as stark at this level as they are in the Premier League.
The new man will have to be an experienced coach. Somebody who knows and understands the Championship and is used to handling big egos. Not least Morris’ ego. A manager, finally, who understands what he is dealing with – which is a club with the potential to walk with the elite – and can unite everybody behind him in the common goal of getting back to the top flight.
The biggest risk of all, the thing I dread, is that the Morris story – the local boy made good, the dream owner – turns into a Fawaz-shaped nightmare of instability and kneejerk headloss. When one man has all the power, he can become capricious.
Whatever your conception of the ‘Derby County Way’, one thing we can all agree on is this – it is bigger than one man.