I took a friend who follows Liverpool to the Valley on Saturday. The game must have felt like a bit of a kickabout in the park to him, after the drama of Thursday night’s victory over Dortmund, but he enjoyed it.
That said, he did spend much of the first half chewing out Russell for not doing enough to get at the Charlton left back, who was constantly isolated and didn’t look the most solid of defenders anyway.
I could see what he meant and to be fair to Wassall, he presumably saw a similar picture, because Ince and Russell were switched for the second half, with Ince becoming much more influential as a result. It was Ince’s blocked cross which led to the corner which Ince took and George headed and Johnny headed and boom.
With the game won, we were filing out when I heard a big cheer and looked around to see Wassall making his way steadily, inexorably towards the stand, bellowing his heart out and waving both fists in raw celebration.
The fans were cheering back.
I heard one guy say: “He’s gonna get it.”
My friend turned to me and asked: “Is that your manager?”
To be Derby County’s next permanent head coach, or not to be Derby County’s next permanent head coach. That is the question. Wassall has certainly suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – and for me, Clive, he has taken arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing… not exactly ended them, but at least got a t’riffic result against Hull.
I hammered him on Twitter during his first few weeks in post. The Paul Clement dismissal made no sense to me, for a start. Then I assumed that Wassall was really only a short-term stopgap while somebody more ‘suitable’ was identified and approached. When it dawned on me that Mel Morris had meant what he said and that Wassall really would be in charge until the end of the season, it infuriated me. Like Clement’s dismissal, I couldn’t understand the decision – and some of the disasters that Wassall endured in his first six games only backed up that impression.
I was angry. Angry with Mel for upsetting the applecart, really. But how do you criticise a man who has lavished millions on the club’s infrastructure, plus repeatedly breaking the club’s record transfer fee for new players?
So Wassall got the brunt of it instead.
With all this unfolding in the background, I was reading ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed‘, by Jon Ronson. I’d recommend this book to anybody who uses Twitter.
Reading the book, I worried that what I was doing, with my polls asking whether Wassall should be replaced before Forest and all the other negative tweets (#wassallout), was exactly what Ronson was talking about in the book. Holding somebody up for ridicule – it’s a bit like the way that petty criminals were put in the stocks in previous centuries. And the more RTs you get, the more the echoes come back to you in a perfect feedback loop, the more fervently you believe that you are right.
Wassall was NOT acceptable. If only Wassall could be replaced, then everything would be fine. The question ‘who by?’ was not coming up. Just not Wassall – not him.
But I don’t feel too bad about it – not when even the famously measured and professional Steve Nicholson sends a tweet like this about Roberto Martínez:-
This is embarrassing. Never mind Saturday, it’s tIme to go … #taxi
Towards the end of his book, Ronson interviews a psychiatrist who tells him that “all violence [is] a person’s attempt to replace shame with self-esteem”. The quote made total sense to me. My tweets, like those of many others, were a violent reaction to my anger and embarrassment about what was happening on the pitch. And I do suspect that the decision to bring in Harry Redknapp was in part due to the club’s fear of what might happen around the ground in the event of a defeat to Nottingham Forest. Personally, I had no faith in Wassall’s ability to handle that powderkeg of an occasion on his own.
When I think about Wassall’s situation, especially now that he’s met his target for the season and secured a top six finish, I think about when Roberto Di Matteo, as interim manager, won the Champions League at Chelsea. He didn’t have the experience you’d expect of a Chelsea manager – a play-off defeat with Milton Keynes and promotion to the Premier League with West Brom was not exactly the most glittering of track records – but by all accounts, the players liked him and of course, once Di Matteo lifted the biggest cup of all, he had to be appointed as permanent manager.
Four months into the next season, he was sacked.
I can’t help wondering if there are parallels with that situation here. If Wassall does get Derby promoted, how could he not be given the job? But on the other hand, would he actually be able to cope with managing in the Premier League?
I can’t see any obvious reason to believe that he would. Leaving aside the question of whether players of any pedigree could be attracted to play in a newly-promoted team, which broke records for shitness when last in the top flight and with a coach without any meaningful track record, there’s also the question of whether Wassall would have the sort of knowledge of European (and world) football needed to add into the recruitment machine – a machine, which, in these past couple of seasons, has not been firing on all cylinders.
Tactically, I am still very much to be convinced. We’ve been winning of late, but the team seems a bit too open and ‘get-at-able’ to me. We got away with it against Charlton and Bristol City, but Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton will provide a sterner examination of how good Derby really are.
A journalist asked me that very question last week – and I wasn’t sure how to answer. On reflection, I think it’s as simple as saying that the league table doesn’t lie. We’re not quite as good as Burnley or Middlesbrough, as much as it hurts me to say that – so we go into the scramble to escape Division Two as ‘best of the rest’.
And it doesn’t come down to the budget for players, so perhaps it comes down to the calibre of manager.
Wassall inherited a squad that is lightyears better than most of the Championship and eventually realised that all he had to do was put them out in the formation they were used to – rather than dicking around with 4-4-2, or playing Bradley Johnson as a wide forward – and they would win more than they would lose. I’m sure he found the Rotherham experience humiliating and it does seem that he has learned from it. But at this stage in Derby’s development, do we want a head coach who is even more of a rookie than the man he replaced? I would argue not.
My poll of 391 Derby fans on April 11 resulted in only five per cent voting for Wassall as next permanent Rams manager / head coach, from a choice of the four bookies’ favourites – and that was after a week in which Derby had won two home games and scored eight goals (and after we’d beaten Forest).
I repeated the poll last night, with a play-off berth secured – and found that Wassall’s support had risen to ten per cent of 341 votes, with the majority still in favour of Brendan Rodgers (63%) and Gary Rowett in second place (22%).
But Mel is the only man whose opinion really counts.
So, could Wassall stay on as head coach? It’s plausible. I’d suggest that if he did, a director of football would be brought in to oversee transfers, with the ‘senior coaching advisor’ role continuing, whether by retaining Redknapp or recruiting someone else, to reassure supporters.
So, I’ve taken an initial look at the bookmakers’ favourites and devoted a piece to the incumbent (and ‘live contender’, according to Sam Rush). All have their merits and drawbacks. But could Mel have a curveball lined up for his next pitch?
To be continued…