Derby County's Sustainable Progress Under Nigel Clough
One of our favourite club blogs in the Football League is Ollie Wright’s devoted to Derby County. In many ways, this excellent site’s rise to prominence has mirrored that of the football club with which it is concerned – steady and methodical with opinions and actions grounded in reality. We thought it high time that a light be cast on the Rams’ quietly impressive progress under Nigel Clough and are delighted that Ollie has stepped in with an authoritative summary. You can follow Ollie on twitter here.
On Saturday, Nigel Clough faces his eleventh East Midlands Derby against Nottingham Forest. The winner of the game will lift the Brian Clough Trophy, a cup Nigel has clearly grown attached to, with six wins and a draw from his ten derbies since taking over at Derby County four years ago.
But while Nigel can win a trophy bearing Brian’s name, it’s impossible for the son to replicate the greatest achievements of the father. The idea of second division Derby County signing an international of the stature of Dave Mackay is now unthinkable and as football finance blogger Andy Green has sadly pointed out, unless there is some sort of wholesale change to the way it is run, the Rams, like the vast majority of clubs, will never win the league again.
Since the heady days when local media magnate Lionel Pickering bought a splendid group of foreign players to grace the new Pride Park stadium, there have been many more lows than highs, but this season, for the first time in years, it’s exciting to be a Derby fan again. We have a fine home record, a neat passing side capable of scoring freely and a productive youth development policy, best exemplified by the truly gifted 17-year old midfielder Will Hughes. We may not make the top six this year, but next year, with or without Hughes, I genuinely believe that we will be in with a chance of promotion.
Daily Telegraph journalist and Forest fan John Percy recently claimed that Clough has been ordered to sell a player this month to balance the books, but these reports were swiftly rubbished by new chief executive Sam Rush and things actually seem to be OK off the field. The Rams’ debt was last reported at around £25 million and will probably be a bit higher when the next set of accounts are released, but £15 million of that amount – the mortgage on Pride Park – is repayable over several years, with most of the rest made up by a loan from the American owners, GSE.
To put this into context, when Derby were relegated from the Premier League in 2008, the club was about £29 million in the red. Despite the fact that turnover has plummeted from £48.5 million that year to £18.1 million in the 2010-11 figures, the debt pile has remained stable.
This is not the sort of thing to have fans dancing in the streets and has involved the wagebill dropping from almost £30 million to just over a third of that, but with the team competing so well in the Championship this season, it has to be regarded as quite an achievement by Clough and those working behind the scenes. As Billy Beane has pointed out, nobody wants to hear about the business being run well until the business isn’t being run well. It’s also worth mentioning that the loan made to Derby by GSE in the 2010-11 accounting period was interest-free, unlike the 7% interest charged for funds lent to Cardiff City by Vincent Tan, or the 8% interest levied by Vichai Raksriaksorn on his latest loan to Leicester City.
Of course, cutting the wagebill so drastically has brought some serious bumps in form and less temperate fans have periodically screamed for more investment, or for GSE and Clough to go – especially in the dark winter of 2010-11, when our form flatlined and at least one report claimed that Clough had been sacked after the embarrassing FA Cup exit at Crawley. However, the board stuck with the manager, providing funds for him to strengthen the squad ahead of 2011-12. And barring real disaster between now and May, Derby finally look set to turn the corner this season.
In his ten years at Burton Albion, Clough took the Brewers from Eton Park and the Northern Premier League to the brand new Pirelli Stadium and the verge of the Football League for the first time in the club’s history. In sticking with Clough through thin and thin for a couple of transitional seasons, GSE presumably decided to hold to their belief that Clough could have a similarly transformational effect on Derby – from Championship also-rans to Premier League stability – in the long-term.
In the last four meetings of the Rams and Forest, Clough has faced a different manager – Davies, Cotterill, McClaren, O’Driscoll. Remarkably, a fifth manager, Alex McLeish, will lead the Reds out at Pride Park this time around. Clough is the tenth longest serving manager in England, with four years service under his belt. Half of the managers in the four divisions have been in post for less than a year.
Clough aims to run a small squad, partially due to budget pressures, but this is also his personal preference. There are precious few ‘senior pros’, something which some fans worry about, but with the best of our youngsters now established in the team and others filling in when required, the emphasis on youth is paying dividends.
As a result, Derby haven’t needed to loan in a single player this season. Perhaps uniquely in the Championship, Clough has decided to take the term ‘emergency loan’ literally and do without them where possible. It could be argued that we have been fortunate with injuries this season and that’s true, but that in itself is probably helped by the fact that the current personnel generally meet Clough’s much-prized criterion of ‘honesty’ and are prepared to suffer through knocks for the good of the team. In previous seasons, an injury-prone, feckless squad was patched up with as many loanees as we could beg and borrow, but these days, we are able to loan out surplus players ourselves.
Our strongest area of the park is undoubtedly the midfield. Before the start of the season, it seemed that Clough was planning to field a four of Paul Coutts, Jeff Hendrick, Craig Bryson and Michael Jacobs, but Hughes’ meteoric progress has forced a change in the manager’s thinking. Clough has therefore had the welcome conundrum trying to fit three excellent central midfielders into the team, while achieving the necessary balance between solidity, possession and attacking intent.
At the start of the season, Hughes was shoehorned in on the left, but only because there was nowhere else to put him. With Hughes encouraged to drift inside, this led to a lack of width on that flank, especially as the grizzled left back Gareth Roberts cannot raid forward as much as the younger right back, John Brayford. Besides, it rapidly became obvious that Hughes was so good that he simply had to play in the centre.
Arguments will run and run about Derby’s best eleven and it will be interesting to see what happens when the two first-teamers currently missing (Jamie Ward; best used as a deep-lying centre forward – and the energetic Bryson) return to fitness. Barring other injuries, with everyone available, some players are going to have to sit on the bench and it is by no means clear who should be left out. This is an excellent problem for Clough to have and certainly a vast improvement on his lot in seasons gone by.
However, in attack and defence, there are still some weaknesses. Theo Robinson is top scorer with nine goals this season, but hasn’t been a regular starter in recent weeks, while the relatively highly-paid Nathan Tyson has not been good value for money since joining as a free agent.
On the plus side, Conor Sammon is gradually becoming more consistent and is inching his goal tally towards respectability, while Ward was in good form before succumbing to a bad hamstring injury in September. Nevertheless, many fans crave the sort of talismanic goal-getter we have been waiting for at Derby for years now.
Defensively, we have been short at centre back since losing captain Shaun Barker to a dreadful knee injury last season. With Jake Buxton also injured, stand-in skipper Richard Keogh is currently partnered by an academy product, Mark O’Brien, whose bravery and commitment have already made him a fan favourite, but clean sheets have been in short supply this season. Long-term, there is a vacancy at left back, with Roberts now almost 35, but the right back slot is filled admirably by the excellent Brayford.
The way the team is currently playing, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope that we will remain within touching distance of the play-offs this season, although realistically, the squad is perhaps a touch light to crack the top six. But with the exception of Hughes, they are an unhyped lot, so we have every chance of keeping the group together for next year and hopefully adding a little more quality in the summer.
From the outside looking in, it does seem like a united, happy group and if this season’s hugely encouraging progress can be maintained, Derby County might just be on the verge of achieving something special.