Deja vu for Derby County as stability comes at a cost
After making their best start to a league season in 106 years by winning their opening four matches, Derby County are once again staring a relegation battle in the face. Joel Clyne balances the long-term stability of the club with a nagging desire to climb the table as soon as possible.
Despite a terrific start to the season, in which Derby gained 18 points from the first eight games, they have since gone on to win just one other game and have dropped alarmingly down the table to a position to which they have become much more accustomed in their recent history.
With the exception of that fine start to the current campaign, Derby have encountered a tough twelve months in which the team has won 24% of its matches, gaining a paltry 43 points. It is a total which would have seen them relegated in 14 of the previous 17 seasons and only maintaining their status as a Championship club by one point in the other three.
It is difficult to write about Derby’s current plight without noting the disastrous season spent in the Premier League. At that time, it was said that the club could take five years to recover from such an experience. That part of the club’s recent history has been done to death and without going over old ground, the current predicament appears to stem entirely from that era. Nigel Clough was installed as manager after Paul Jewell had left the club and was tasked with trimming the wage bill significantly whilst maintaining Derby’s status as a Championship club. In that respect, Clough has succeeded.
There are many reasons for the recent struggles, one being the crippling injury lists that Clough has had to face. This season alone, club captain Shaun Barker has only just returned following knee surgery and a seven-month lay-off, Paul Green has missed a prolonged period due to knee ligament damage, last season’s Player of the Year John Brayford has missed six weeks of action, the first time he has missed matches in close to 100 games, and James Bailey has recently returned to the side following an ankle injury which kept him out for close to three months.
And after he scored just 21 goals from January 2007 through to the end of the 2010/11 season, Derby signed striker Nathan Tyson in the summer. Tyson has since played just 24 minutes of football after picking up a groin injury in a friendly arranged, rather ludicrously, three days before the start of the new season. Joint top scorer Theo Robinson has missed out recently too due to a hamstring injury. Steve Davies, another striker, fractured his skull, which led to ten plates and 22 pins being inserted into the front of his head. That’s without mentioning Russell Anderson, Jake Buxton, Lee Croft, Kevin Kilbane and Gareth Roberts.
Even without the injuries, the current squad – with the exception of Jamie Ward – is hopelessly devoid of any creativity. The quality of players is low too. When appointed, Clough spoke of making signings from the lower leagues with the aim of developing them into Championship players. While this is a sound model to follow and one with which many sides have enjoyed success, these players need to be surrounded by others of a higher quality and, unfortunately for Derby, quality players cost money – something that the board either don’t have or aren’t willing to invest.
This is where the real problems lie. Derby’s American owners should be applauded for running the club so excellently off the field, but they also deserve the flak they receive for their lack of investment.
Clough is not blameless either. Of course it has been difficult and any club with such an injury list would struggle to pick up points but his win percentage as Derby manager is terrible. Some of his decisions, or lack thereof, during matches are increasingly infuriating. Rarely do fans see substitutions early enough. Even rarer is a plan B. He does deserve praise, however, for the way that he has handled a tough job and significant improvement in graduates from the club’s academy will be his legacy, at least in part.
The academy is Derby’s shining light, finally producing talent after years of inactivity. Mark O’Brien and Jeff Hendrick have played for the majority of the season and look like players that will comfortably develop into key squad members for years to come. There have also been appearances from Callum Ball, 19, and a brief substitute appearance from Will Hughes. Then there is Mason Bennett, who this season became the Football League’s second youngest-ever player at 15 years and 99 days. He has already scored for the England Under-16 and Under-17 sides.
The long-term future is bright for Derby but after a decade of relative nothingness, it is difficult to see even three years ahead at present. There probably won’t be any short-term success ahead unless the owners invest significantly in the playing side. With the Football League’s version of Financial Fair Play around the corner, however, supporters are not holding their breath.
When appointed, Clough spoke of year-on-year improvement. With the club in a sound position off the field and with the academy finally bearing fruit, the time has come for fans to see this become reality.