Front Row View: Outside - Looking In!
Sunday, 19th May 2013 12:48 by Paul Mortimer
The final weeks of the 2012-13 campaign saw Derby ease to safety and claim a top 10 finish. Fans and club now look to a summer of strengthening before the usual optimistic noises from staff and players once again herald the dawn of a new season. Only three months to go...
So: another season of ‘outside - looking in’ for Derby County; as a dramatic conclusion to the season unfolded at the top of the table, the Rams trundled to a closing home win over Millwall’s Lions.
A comprehensive 3-0 win over in-form Peterborough United had vanquished the spectre of a relegation dogfight for Derby County, even though Championship safety was secured with just two fixtures remaining.
The away schedule ended a week later with a whimper in defeat at Blackpool.
Derby polished off Posh in style in the penultimate home game of the season but then handed Blackpool a last-minute lifeline. The seaside club were still striving to seal their own Championship safety - and it looked like being a closely-fought 1-1 draw until ‘Pool’s late, late winner.
The Tangerine victory no doubt left Derby relieved to have completed their away fixtures. The dreadful pitch stalled the Rams’ passing game and again, much wasted possession and the inability to repel Blackpool’s late assault through mediocre defending cost Derby the game.
The post-mortem on another needless, narrow defeat was laced with the usual hard-luck stories, comments about the variable quality of the match officials and so on - but it epitomised Derby’s season on the road and left the loyal ‘barmy army’ with little to cheer until they spilled out back onto The Golden Mile for their consolation pint at the seaside.
The Rams’ shocking away form has been as poor as that of the relegated clubs - it has to improve next season if the promised impact is to be made on the ‘business end’ of the table.
Message to club: fans want something tangible to celebrate from their loyalty ‘on the road’ next term; the ‘pretty’ football has been largely ineffectual and but for the splendid wins at The City Ground and Elland Road, the return would have been dire indeed. The solid home form proved Derby’s salvation, given that dreadful away points’ tally.
Though the Rams finished with a lower points’ total that the 64 gained last season (when they finished 12th in the Championship table), Clough maintains that the team has improved the level of performance over 2011-12.
Before the Millwall game, Rams’ captain Richard Keogh was awarded the Sammy Crooks Player of the Year Trophy (in a season where there weren’t too many outstanding candidates, I’d say), whilst the obvious choice - Will Hughes - took the Young PoTY award.
The 1-0 home win over the Lions, coming during that topsy-turvy last day of the Championship season, enabled the Rams to record a top 10 finish in the Championship table.
As the Trees and Foxes fought for a play-off spot, and Watford and Hull battled for the right to accompany champions Cardiff City in automatic promotion to the Premier League, Derby inched ahead of their lowly south London rivals by virtue of a late Conor Sammon goal to close down another rather inconsequential season.
Derby’s 10th-place finish was two places ahead of last season but there has been progress in some measure, in terms of performances and Derby’s general quality of play. Of course, there have been several emergent players brought in or blooded by Clough during the campaign.
The level of consistency, lack of ruthlessness in either penalty area and of course the feeble away record are all areas which the management must now address if the Rams are to achieve Sam Rush’s declaration that the play-offs are ‘the absolute minimum’ for next season.
The feeling remains that, in a Championship season of few outstanding teams, Derby missed their best opportunity for further progress this season - in this increasingly tedious five-year residency back in the Championship - to fight for a top-six finish.
Will things change? Manager Clough says he knows how to get closer to a top-six challenge: “cut out the mistakes, individually and as a team, and add a little bit more experience to the side.”
Mr Rush is aware that Derby County must break out of the moribund, anonymous status level into which the club has gravitated during this decade. 14,000 season-ticket sales to date might be impressive for many clubs at our level but it only registers the dwindling faith of the disappointed Derby fanbase overall. Gates have gradually dropped by virtue of economic factors, interest levels and entertainment value.
It will comfort Mr Rush to know that there will be packed-out games again next season against the Trees and DirtyLeeds (plus the Foxes’ ‘derby’) but fans no longer want victories over old enemies to be the main measure of the season’s achievements. No; they want Derby to push Forest and Leicester all the way to the season’s climax. Nothing is guaranteed when you spend money on so-called better players but (like it or not, GSE) greater squad investment is now needed.
Will Derby pay ‘the going rate’ for good players of proven quality? Is the club attractive enough to agents and players, given the ever-more competitive nature of the scramble (or gamble) for a place in the top-flight? Championship players collect average wages of some £320,000 p.a. (£6,000 per week) according to published statistics, so the level of investor (and supporter) commitment on wages alone at this level can typically approach £10m per annum.
That looks like chicken-feed when compared to Premier League wage expenditures but it’s more than most 2nd-tier clubs (including Derby) can afford - or wish to commit - without ongoing injections of funds. That’s without adding a transfer fee budget on top to secure players that can actually perform consistently and lift the club towards the Holy Grail of Premier League revenues.
Retaining our best players, whilst adding in more experience, greater defensive solidity and some genuine strike-power are the priorities for Clough and Rush during the summer.
Derby’s squad has improved by degrees over the past two years and this was again reflected with international selections this month for Richard Keogh, Hendrick and Conor Sammon being called up to the Republic of Ireland squad to face England in the upcoming friendly match at Wembley.
Rumours and reports of widespread interest in our best players - Hughes, Brayford, Hendrick, and Bryson - will no doubt persist and fans will accept some departures as long as the funds are re-invested (and wisely spent) in creating a better team.
As well as releasing veteran full-back Gareth Roberts, Clough has transfer-listed 7 players and already brought in two new faces. Experienced goalkeeper Lee Grant has returned to the fold, spelling the end of the contest between Fielding and Legzdins for Derby’s No. 1 jersey.
Neither keeper really convinced us that they are an automatic choice, though it seemed, in patches, that each of them had in turn staked their claim. Clough may also seek a Number 2 keeper to understudy Lee Grant.
Forward Chris Martin has completed a permanent move to Derby from Norwich City. He has shown some skill and presence in his loan spell, though it would be good if he could stay upright a bit longer when defenders cluster around him. He’s certainly not our 20-goal-a-season man, however!
Leaving Pride Park, along with the two goalkeepers will be the mercurial Theo Robinson, the virtually invisible Nathan Tyson, James Bailey and defenders James O’Connor and Tom Naylor. It’s apparent that some of Nigel Clough’s young prospects haven’t matched up to the manager’s expectations after all.
Quite how the superfluous and marginal Connor Doyle avoided the cut baffles me completely, however, though it seems that (at present, anyway) young Callum Ball could also remain in Clough’s plans after an extended loan stay at troubled Coventry City.
The versatile Ben Davies has signed a one-year deal and Mr Clough is striving to keep hold of Craig Bryson by renegotiating his contract. Buxton, Hughes and Hoganson have also benefitted from improved deals recently.
So, at least 8 players are on their way out, two newcomers have joined the club. Adding in recuperating defenders Mark O’Brien and Shaun Barker after these planned departures, the Rams have a first team squad of fewer than 20 players.
There’s a fair bit more squad-building for Messrs Clough and Rush to do over the next few weeks, then, notwithstanding fighting off the agents and clubs reportedly hovering for our starlets, who might also desire change for a more lucrative and successful future.
Millwall’s Kenny Jackett left The New Den shortly after Millwall’s game at Derby, probably looking towards bigger ambitions and that signalled to all that football’s managerial merry-go-round is once again in full swing.
Ex-Ram Dean Saunders suffered the consequences of Wolves’ shocking relegation; who will replace him? Jackett? McLaren? Like the under-achieving Blackburn Rovers, the once-great Wolves are now mired in confusion, decline and instability.
Fergie is gone from the Old Trafford hot seat, as Everton’s David Moyes is charged with initiating a new era for Manchester United; Abramovich likes a new manager every year at Chelsea, so the top three Premier League teams will all have changed managers before very much longer
Roberto Mancini has paid for his ‘failure’ at Manchester City and his successor, the Chilean Manuel Pellegrini, must ‘engineer’ a squad that can win trophies at Eastlands soon to establish his Premier League credibility.
Chelsea, whose ungrateful fans have tainted Rafa Benitez’s excellent ‘interim’ role at Stamford Bridge, also must recruit when the Spaniard leaves in a short while.
The departures of Jackett, Moyes and Ferguson moved Nigel Clough even higher up the ladder of longest-serving managers in English football. Stability has led to a measure of mediocrity and sterility in terms of the Rams’ league status and after all this time, we’ve still no real idea whether Clough Junior could handle a large transfer budget successfully or manage top players effectively, should he get the chance at Derby County.
We’re all accustomed to the stated philosophy of a ‘slow build’ evolutionary culture at Pride Park Stadium and it has been an up-an-down period for Nigel Clough, shackled as he is with the millstone of his illustrious father’s managerial achievements. Nigel cannot bring back the real ‘Glory Days’ to Derby, but significant, definite progress - play-offs and promotion, with a determined attempt at Premier League consolidation - will see Pride Park Stadium full again on a consistent basis.
Sam Rush declared that ‘fans are going to be very excited’ with the summer activity. Thus far, Lee Grant and Chris Martin are necessary, pragmatic signings. Sam recently contrasted Rams fans’ expectations with those of Brighton & Hove Albion supporters, implying that we are over-expectant. Seagulls’ fans, he claimed, are ‘overjoyed’ to be well-placed in the Championship, as if pinching themselves that they have already challenged for promotion to the Premier League twice.
B & HA however used to be the kind of team that that Derby would defeat in routine fashion. Recently, Brighton has risen from the ashes of lower-league hand-to-mouth existence and ground-sharing many miles from their old, defunct Goldstone Ground.
Manager Gus Poyet has been in charge of the Seagulls for three years and has achieved promotion from League One and two Championship play-offs finishes. Brighton fans have enjoyed tangible success and achievement - but the main difference, Mr Rush, is Brighton’s exciting and sustained momentum, as the club has not only relocated but has been rejuvenated on the pitch; not always the case with a stadium move or regime change.
I’m not sure that it is simply that Seagulls’ fans are just thrilled to be consistently well-placed in the Championship table, established as a top-six second-tier team. I’d say that the near-capacity gates (which are not inflated by cheap tickets!) are the result of having a more successful and consistent football team to watch, breeding excitement and anticipation within the fanbase after such rapid and tangible progress of inevitable movement towards a Premier League berth.
There has been no such remorseless progress at Pride Park Stadium and we’ve fallen into a cynical mind-set over the past decade. The brief glimmer of Jim Smith’s cosmopolitan top-flight entertainers was all too soon doused in decline, financial difficulty and the disguised disarray of inadequate regimes.
During Albion’s rise from the ashes during this time, the Rams were defrauded, rescued then rapidly revived but instantly relegated in dire humiliation from the top-flight.
Billy Davies and Paul Jewell squandered all the Premier income and ‘parachute’ money through awful transfer decisions. Failed regimes and useless, expensive players all have combined and conspired to consign Derby’s custodians to cut their budgets and see the team tread water in the Championship.
To hell with comparisons of Derby to Brighton! We want to be proven better than Forest, Leeds or Leicester over a season - not just a single ‘derby’ game. There are also a clutch of top-flight clubs ostensibly smaller than Derby County, which the Rams could and should emulate within a reasonable (and not interminable) time-scale, to re-establish the club as a Premier League outfit.
Fans more likely want Derby to emulate Swansea or WBA than Brighton; the Baggies are certain of a top 8 finish and haven’t been out of the top half all season. The Swans have burst onto the top-flight scheme with compelling football that belied their long absence from the elite league.
Rams fans DO ‘expect’. We’ve had to settle for mediocrity for a very long time but the loyalty has been sustained despite poor showings throughout our current Championship residence. We don’t want be to ‘outside - looking in’ any longer when the season’s spoils are shared out.
Sam Rush’s first year at Derby County, his first in a capacity of leadership within a football club, will be a critical one for himself, for manager Nigel Clough and the ownership group. Some P. R. reparation has been required after clobbering the disabled and long-serving ‘senior’ fans in his targeted season-ticket price increases.
Here’s hoping for some ‘excitement’ and imagination in some hopefully inspiring transfer signings very soon. Sam’s actions over the next few weeks will surely condition what happens in the following nine months at Pride Park Stadium
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