Path Dependence at Derby County

Posted by on Oct 19, 2011 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Path Dependence at Derby County
Image available under Creative Commons © Duncan Harris
In comparison to the club’s 1970s heyday, the past twenty years have been tough on Derby County – the club experiencing a slow backsliding into quarters of the lower leagues largely uncharted by the mainstream press. But, where success has been achieved, it has often been at the least expected moments.The wallet waving of the Lionel Pickering years proved to be barren ones for the club and it was only once the expensive Craig Short, Mark Pembridge, Paul Kitson, Gary Charles and Tommy Johnson were offloaded that Jim Smith was left to fashion a new team – one that was to time its Premier League bow well, coinciding as it did with the final year of the old Baseball Ground and in advance of a move to a shiny new building.A few years later, and following an ignominious return to the second echelon, a County side that had experienced five years of miserable form turned the tables with another relatively unheralded XI – then unknowns Ià±igo Idiakez and Grzegorz Rasiak inspiring them to a creditable play-off berth in 2004-5. Derby really had come from nowhere that season and academy graduates Lee Grant, Pablo Mills, Tom Huddlestone, Marcus Tudgay all prised their way into the first team reckoning.

If that generation were to ultimately disappoint – the absence of the Spaniard and the Pole for the double header against Preston was to be too debilitating – another ragbag of a squad were to go one better in even more unlikely fashion in 2006-7 – defeating West Bromwich Albion in the final at Wembley. Billy Davies’s tenure has been tarnished by the autumn that followed – very unfairly – if a Rams side that contained the modest talents of Marc Edworthy, Jay McEveley, Dean Leacock and Jon Macken was never going to be good enough for top flight football, the achievement in getting them up was still a considerable one.

Economic historians are prone to summon up the notion of “path dependence” – that “history matters” and that successful previous strategies need to be taken heed of when the future trajectory of a firm or a government needs organising. Hence, Derby – and many other clubs for that matter – would do well to pay attention to what has brought success in the past.

Which seems to be how Nigel Clough and the Derby County board are planning things. The current flock of Rams might in some quarters be described as rather a faceless one – there is no Fabrizio Ravanelli or Paul McGrath here – nor even a Robbie Savage, even if that eternal attention seeker still managed to hog the headlines after conducting an on pitch practice session for Strictly Come Dancing at the Madejski Stadium last night.

If a 4-0 defeat at Leicester did show the gulf between the haves and have-nots, Derby’s thrift has been rewarded since August. With the frothy and inconsequential likes of Kris Commons banished to history, it’s a roundhead crop now and even more so in the temporary absence of controversial cross-Sherwood acquisition Nathan Tyson.

Jason Shackell seemed bruised by his one Premier League season a few winters ago, and in particular the howling agony of that 6-0 final day defeat for Norwich against Fulham in 2005. Since then however, he has clawed his way back to respectability – shoring up a struggling Barnsley defence for ever and a day and looking every bit the organiser on this occasion.

Shackell’s centre back partner at Reading last night was 18 year old Irishman Mark O’Brien and the youngster had an excellent match, clearing countless crosses with his head and providing a redoubtable rearguard in a game that saw Derby spend most of the ninety minutes on the back foot. Perhaps more than anyone on the pitch on this day, this is a man to keep tabs on.

Behind, England Under-21 and a solitary full squad call up has lent Frank Fielding nororiety even if his prominence owes as much to the current dearth of English talent as to his own ability – why otherwise would he have been allowed to go by Blackburn? Nonetheless, he was accomplished here – not scared to come for crosses and providing security to the back four. The non-goalkeeping quartet was completed by Russell Anderson, a man plagued by injury problems throughout his career at Pride Park, and Gareth Roberts, as experienced a left back as there is and a veteran of long spells at Tranmere and Doncaster.

Clough’s midfield was similarly comprised of prosaic talents. When a formation is described as ‘fluid’, it usually denotes swashbuckling tendencies. Not so here, even if the adjective is an apt one. For County’s midfield four were notable largely for their willingness to switch positions at will, albeit all in the water carrying cause. Prima donnas would be unwelcome in a system that expects graft – although Jeff Hendrick, slayer of hated local rivals Forest on a heady day in September, tends to stick to his position as a central pivot – and admirably so. Around him, Craig Bryson, Ben Davies and Tomasz Cywka scurried like oompa loompas, with even nominal front men Jamie Ward and Theo Robinson expected to tackle back constantly.

That front two is a curious one – the former rejected by Sheffield United but flourishing at Pride Park, the latter showing enthusiasm as a striker despite his previiusly stuttering career at Millwall. They epitomise the cloth cutting regime at a club which, despite consistently impressive home gates, has clearly had to adjust drastically to the legacy of once having Georgo Kinkladze and Francesco Baiano on the books. Tyson and young tyro Callum Ball wait in the wings, along with Steve Davies whose fine start to the season was ended by a dent to head against Southampton.

Clough and his backroom team were rewarded with new contracts earlier this week and if the mischievous might suggest that this move was inspired by panic at the thought that Nottingham Forest’s recruitment agents might come calling, it’s looking like an increasingly sensible move. Derby exhibit, with last night’s hosts and Middlesbrough, a new financial responsibility that will hopefully become the norm in Championship waters – this is not a dazzling unit, but it’s one that may well follow the XIs of George Burley and Billy Davies into the post-season come May.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.


  1. Ben
    October 20, 2011

    Yes, they're doing surprisingly well. Clearly the goals of Steve Davies have been vital, but what little I've seen of them (highlights on The Football League Show, I admit) would suggest that Hendrick and Ben Davies have been equally impressive in midfield. The Derby board might have been thinking about giving Clough the boot last season, but currently, at least, their decision to stand by their man looks like reaping handsome rewards.

  2. Lanterne Rouge
    October 21, 2011

    Hendrick in particular looks like a real lynchpin already. I wonder if he and his fellow Irishman O'Brien could have a chance to making the squad if the Republic make it to Euro 2012?

  3. Derby County’s Sustainable Progress Under Nigel Clough | The Two Unfortunates
    January 14, 2013

    […] 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 […]


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