Nigel Clough's winter of discontent at Derby County
Derby County looked in fine shape several months into the current campaign. However, a dose of the winter wobbles has seen the Rams slide down the table at an alarming rate. With relations cooling at Pride Park, Nigel Clough now finds himself under fire. Joel Clyne examines what went wrong once the frost set in.
Questions were not being asked about Nigel Clough when the team was flying through October and November and, believe me, Derby were absolutely flying. “The best I’ve seen since Jim Smith.” “The best football since George Burley.” No-one was mentioning Billy Davies, despite promotion and continuous good runs of form. The football just wasn’t entertaining then.
A trip to Burnley changed Derby’s season completely.
Half the pitch was frosty. It was hard. Star man Kris Commons was injured and the other creative spark, Alberto Bueno, was injured early on. The Rams still managed to snatch a lead but the football wasn’t pretty, or at least not to the standard Derby fans had come to expect.
One goal to the good and ten minutes from third spot in the league. The Rams well and truly threw it away, conceding two goals in the final few minutes. It wasn’t just the game that was thrown away, it was effectively their season. Since then, Derby have gone on to pick up a meagre five points and plummeted to 17th in the league. Oh, and don’t mention the FA Cup humiliation to non-League Crawley Town sandwiched between all of that.
So why has it gone so pear-shaped for the side that was flying the flag for the East Midlands?
Well, during the good run of form, Frank Fielding, Shefki Kuqi and Luke Moore had all arrived on loan from Blackburn, Swansea and West Brom respectively. Fielding proved to be a gem of a signing, keeping three clean sheets and helping the side to 15 points from a possible 21. The loss of Stephen Bywater, who at the time had been in solid form, hardly went noticed. In hindsight, Fielding was an improvement on Bywater and the Rams would do well to sign him permanently in the summer.
Despite the initial panic, Kuqi also turned out to be a good signing. God knows why Clough didn’t try to bring him in after he was released by Swansea. Derby could certainly do with him, because he was exactly what they needed. Kuqi led the line in a way not seen since Steve Howard’s targetman role during the promotion season. His ability to hold the ball up and link play was superb, allowing the creative trio of Commons, Bueno and Cywka to do what they did best. Those three weren’t the same after Kuqi left.
Luke Moore also did well. Not as well as Kuqi, but he was preferred in the lone role by Clough and by the time Moore had broken into the side, Kuqi’s form had wavered slightly. Moore had pace, which Kuqi didn’t, but his overall play wasn’t a patch on what Kuqi had offered. Back then the team just worked. Players were being played in their correct positions and there was continuity to the side.
So, come January, the players that had made the team stronger throughout the beginning of winter had left. Bywater was fit again, Kuqi’s loan had expired and Moore left for Swansea. Again, the strikers haven’t been replaced. Since then, a semi-fit Chris Porter has been at the tip of the formation. A player who has been out with a hip injury for two years and played only 40 games. His style of play doesn’t fit the 4-2-3-1 system, which has been favoured this season. In all honesty, many Derby supporters don’t know what system Chris Porter does fit into.
The problem for Clough is that he doesn’t have enough options in his squad. He has signed a steady amount of players during his tenure but they lack the quality needed to mount anything approaching a promotion push and, without significant investment, the current league position is where the club will remain. Other than Shaun Barker, there hasn’t been a player signed by Clough who has consistently shone. Barker is without question the best signing he has made. He is also the only player that has been signed for significant money. Coincidence?
James Bailey, for example, has had a patchy first season. Excellent during the good spell, average during the bad. In all honesty, you can say the same for Dean Moxey, John Brayford and Tomasz Cywka. All of a similar age. All costing a similar price. All returning similar levels of performance and there’s an obvious reason for that. They’re not surrounded by enough quality. It’s the quality players that come up trumps during the bad times and Derby just don’t have enough of them any more. They were at the club. They were allowed to leave. Now the price is being paid.
Over the past few weeks, Clough has become more angry and frustrated in his interviews culminating in the vicious personal attack on Cywka only last weekend. Derby fans are becoming frustrated with the results, understandably. A win would have been an excellent result but to brand his own signing as “a very inexperienced player and not a very bright footballer” is, without question, a disgrace. What sort of relationship does the player now have with the manager?
The player may not think much of it but what of his team-mates? Will they be playing nervously, desperate not to make a mistake because they know they’re in for an earful from their boss? What confidence does that restore in a squad whose morale is already low? It seemed as if the whole frustration of the past transfer window culminated into that moment, namely having had to sell his star player for a pittance and not being able to replace him with sufficient quality.
Clough must have been sure that, given significant backing during the window, he could have got his side within reach of the play-offs. The club was in the mix in November, add a bit of quality to the side and they could have been there or thereabouts. That’s what Wolves did. That’s what Clough wanted.
There has been a loss of faith in Clough during the recent poor run of results. His tactics baffle at times, as do the timings of his substitutions or lack thereof. There is also the situation regarding Cywka and Clough’s constant battering of players in the press. None have been as bad as the Cywka incident, but he is constantly chipping away at his players and their confidence is being eaten away by the man supposedly there to inspire. It is poor man management and if the players need anything at the moment, it’s confidence.
On the other hand, it is easy to forget the excellent run of form that occurred at the beginning of the season. If the manager can motivate the squad to play like that, then why shouldn’t he carry on? Of course a manager’s tenure at a club cannot be decided over a two-month period of good results. There have been plenty of bad results and performances during Clough’s time at Derby.
Clough wanted to follow the model set by Wolverhampton Wanderers by signing younger players. He has done that. Those younger players are going to improve as the weeks, months and seasons progress, but what is needed now is the quality to give those players the confidence to continue. The problem being that quality costs money and the board hasn’t dipped into its own pocket enough.
Perhaps giving a relatively inexperienced manager by name of Clough the job in the first place was part of the Americans’ plan all along? Knowing that it would be virtually impossible to sack a man with that surname, the pressure would cease for a considerable time more. Eventually, the pressure from fans has come to the board before the man in charge.
Maybe Clough will be replaced in the summer, doing the job that he was brought in to do. Save money and keep the club in the division. Championship safety is by no means secure at the time of writing, but if Clough was to keep Derby in the division could the board replace him with a more experienced head and throw some money at him?
It may not be a bad plan after all, but for Derby supporters to pin their hopes on the club’s American owners appears to be a huge risk. Clough may have another year in the job. He signed a three and a half year deal when he arrived in January 2009. Enough may then be enough.
This weekend, Derby County take on Leicester City at Pride Park. Read about the Leicester perspective here: