Derby County Must Become Harder To Beat
In our season previews for 2013-14, we hinted that Derby County’s steady progress under Nigel Clough could see them launch a long awaited challenge this season. So far, promise has been shown in bursts although the informative 10 game threshold is still a distance away. Here, Ollie Wright, deviser of The Derby County Blog and a previous contributor to these pages, assesses the opening weeks of the new campaign for the Rams.
No longer considered a decrepit, sluggish Goliath ripe for humiliation at the hands of Scunthorpe, Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury, Derby County are expected to punch their weight in the Championship these days, with one or two pundits even tipping the Rams as dark horses for the top six this season.
Our pre-season transfer business was handled pretty well, with important signings including keeper Lee Grant and strikers Chris Martin and Johnny Russell wrapped up quickly. While the loss of the right back John Brayford for an initial £1.3 million to Cardiff was disruptive, there have been no bids yet for young Will Hughes, who will hopefully stay with us for at least one more season — although Nigel Clough, now the league’s fourth longest-serving manager, recently admitted his surprise that no Premier League clubs came in for the playmaker this summer.
So, having generally kept last season’s tenth-placed squad together and added quality at both ends of the pitch, there was a sense of optimism among fans before we kicked off this August.
Unfortunately, conceding an 89th minute equaliser against Blackburn at home on the opening day brought back acrid memories of ‘late sickeners’ that ruined seasons gone by under Clough. Victory at Brighton was therefore a welcome fillip, but after scoring a farcical own goal for Leicester in the next game, the team spent the rest of the first half pushing the ball morosely between defence and a static midfield, losing it every time they looked forward.
After a second-half revival against the Foxes didn’t yield an equaliser, Yeovil were brushed aside 3-0 at Huish Park. But what was threatening to become a decent start to the season was then undermined by a dizzyingly poor collapse at the hands of Burnley. The 3-0 reverse came as a genuine shock, especially as we were strong at home last season, suffering only four defeats — all by the odd goal.
Hopefully, the defensive shambles against Burnley was a one-off aberration and Clough has options if he wants to freshen up the side. Spurs loanee Adam Smith is likely to come in at right back for Kieron Freeman, while John Eustace could well be brought in to play at the base of the current midfield diamond, in an attempt to improve the balance of the side.
As the shellshocked response to the setback of conceding to Leicester and the unacceptable goals we let in against Burnley have demonstrated, there is still a defensive ricketiness about us and a certain callowness that needs to be addressed. Perhaps a leader like ex-Watford skipper Eustace is the man to fix that, but many fans, myself included, feel it is also time for us to bring in a new centre back.
On the plus side, the triumphs at Brighton and Yeovil are significant when you consider that Derby managed just four away wins in 2012-3, when even an average away record would have seen us make the play-offs in sixth place. So there are grounds for optimism, but it should also be remembered that money talks and in a wagebill league table, the Rams would not feature in the top six.
It could be that a genuine promotion push is beyond Derby until Hughes is sold. Without parachute payments or copious debt finance to play with, you have to find a different way to compete financially. Derby’s vision is to develop a successful academy production line, bringing through players – ‘assets’, as they are sometimes deemed – for the first team and, in exceptional cases, for eventual sale to wealthier clubs.
Derby deserve real credit for unearthing Hughes – not too many public schoolboys end up playing league football – and for developing him to his current, outstanding level. He has grown physically since last season and continues to dazzle us with the technical qualities that have made him an England U’21 international at the age of 18. How good he will be in two or three more seasons is anyone’s guess.
Used well, the transfer fee for Hughes would put us in the market to sign the sort of striker that Clough has pined for in seasons gone by, a genuine defensive leader to replace the injured Shaun Barker, even a midfield playmaker to replace Hughes. Extra quality down the spine to boost our team of promising youth products and assorted rough gems mined from the periphery of the British game.
On the whole, we have a stronger, better squad than at any other time during Clough’s tenure and, when they pass it like they can, the Rams’ playing style is very easy on the eye. However, they all too frequently fail to do what promotion contenders always seem to do – find ways to win games when they aren’t playing well.
Whether through sheer bloody-mindedness or an outstanding moment of individual skill, teams who go up tend to get results when they don’t ‘deserve’ them. Derby have been unable to do that consistently since the last promotion season, under Billy Davies. Instead, just when you think things are going well, they shoot themselves in both feet, then drop the gun at the feet of the opposition’s star striker.
As Clough admitted after the Burnley game: “We have to have everybody at it, 100 per cent concentration [and] effort to get results in this league.” Unfortunately, about half of the goals we have conceded this season have been diabolical, grisly, self-inflicted nightmares. To progress, we simply must become harder to beat.