|RamsWeek 45 - Carry That Weight |
Sun 06th Nov 2011 21:39 by Paul Mortimer
After a comprehensive win over Portsmouth, Derby County faced Cardiff City in midweek before a trip to Peterborough United on Saturday.
The first news of the week was as unwelcome as it was familiar - there were more injuries for manager Nigel Clough to contend with. Young defensive prodigy Mark O’Brien had a damaged shoulder and Theo Robinson - effectively the only fit regular choice among Derby’s strikers - had pulled a hamstring.
Both would miss the Cardiff City game at least, so Derby’s stretched resources became even thinner. The Rams had a dozen injuries as well as some players only just re-entering training after long-term treatment and it seemed that, unless the club bit the bullet and looked for loan players to provide much-needed cover, there would be square pegs playing in round holes yet again.
I wrote a long time ago that it was dispiriting for fans to continually read a long list of absentees or injury carriers so I won’t use this column as an extension of the DCFC medical blog.
Through Derby’s persistent injury syndrome the manager is utilising some 40 players per a season. When fit, the Rams’ squad is adequate (notwithstanding Clough’s declared desire for certain additions even before the season started) - but short-term reinforcement is continually postponed.
Loanees won’t be recruited unless it is absolutely necessary; we instead had Clough’s time-worn utterances about ‘getting through’ the next matches up until another international break. Of course, Derby County could point to the win against Portsmouth last Saturday, with the perennially patched-up Rams team maintaining its position in the top six of the Championship.
The club was adding more casualties rather than receiving good news about fit-again stars - so the message to the rest of the squad, match-fit or not, studying for school exams or not, remains: ‘carry that weight!’ Fingers are crossed that players can cope with playing out of position, or being thrown in at the deep end, or carrying unresolved injuries through into further games.
It’s a long haul over the season and it is where Derby finishes in the table that is important. The squad shortages have shown through on some occasions, though the club is maintaining a steadfastly prudent but optimistic outlook by anticipating a shrinking injury list and expecting more first-choice players to become regularly available for selection during November.
Debutant striker Chris Maguire suffered a broken nose against Portsmouth but was named to play against Cardiff City. His teenage colleague, Mason Bennett, has (albeit temporarily) had the limelight taken away from his remarkable rise to prominence at a tender age by a Wycombe Wanderers player. Young Jason Ibe scored for the Wanderers in their 2-1 defeat by Sheffield Wednesday last weekend - 10 days before his 16th birthday.
Connor Wickham is currently the youngest-ever Championship goalscorer at 16 years and 342 days. That gives Mason Bennett well over a year to claim that record - a measure of Mason’s rapid progress and the growing expectations already surrounding his career at Derby County.
Tuesday’s Championship games saw Southampton stretch their lead at the top of the table to five points over West Ham with a home win against Peterborough whilst the Hammers were held by lowly Bristol City. Middlesbrough moved up to third by winning at Doncaster and Hull City, in 6th position, failed to overtake Derby because they lost at Barnsley.
Results meant that the Rams had the chance to move into 4th spot with a draw or win against Cardiff City on Wednesday evening. Due to the injury list, Nigel Clough had to fashion another new strike partnership to face the Bluebirds with schoolboy Mason Bennett making his full home debut alongside Chris Maguire. Jake Buxton replaced the injured Russell Anderson at right-back.
City, with more experience and depth in their squad, had no such problems; they could leave ex-Ram Robert Earnshaw and Stephen McPhail on the bench. Kenny Miller started up front for Cardiff; despite expensive fees and wages, neither of those contract-hopping forwards will ever be regarded fondly by Derby fans despite the large transfer fees and wages paid for their services.
Though Derby lost 0-4 at Leicester, I’d say that the defeat against Cardiff was the more comprehensive as the Rams didn’t fire up at all and were always second best. Given the players available to carry the burden, a defeat was on the cards against an experienced and organised Bluebirds’ side. City took control of the game from the start and never looked like losing their grip.
The Rams started slowly with little impetus and no penetration, strikers Maguire and Bennett were isolated and feeding off crumbs. It is simply unfair to ask a schoolboy, with no service, to carry the weight of leading Derby’s attack in front of an expectant home crowd.
Bennett has pace, quality and strength and his day will come. It is unlikely that Scotland boss Craig Levein went away very excited by the contributions of Bryson and Maguire. Ward and Davies scuttled busily but produced little and too many players performed well below their best.
Derby ground to a halt against Cardiff’s busy and purposeful midfield and made precious little impression on their defence; their goalie(s) should have brought a Kindle or whatever along to keep them occupied. It seemed inevitable that City would take hold after an authoritative start.
Fielding cleared a dangerous ball uneasily then his defenders failed to pick up the pieces - Cardiff did, Filip Kiss rapping home their opening goal after 20 minutes. The Rams’ goal attempts were limited to a few hopeful shots and the occasional Shackell sortie upfield to threaten at set pieces.
I thought Cardiff made Derby look rather like a club newly-promoted and struggling to acclimatise to the Championship; sometimes it seemed like Cardiff had an extra man on the pitch. The Rams were woefully short on penetration, cohesion and end-product. Clough said that the team had run out of steam - but Cardiff played at Leeds last Sunday so had more travel and a day less in recovery than the Rams. Derby lacked any fizz or snap, being second best all night.
Kilbane headed a Cardiff corner into his own net for the Bluebird’s 2nd goal, and their third resulted from a City break after a clear trip on a Derby player well upfield - with scorer Whittingham then clearly shown offside. The 3-0 scoreline did not flatter Cardiff though, and Rams fans watched the game in a resigned fashion well before the final whistle.
“The injuries we've got caught up with us and when you compare the two teams, they had an international striker up front and we had a 15-year-old who has double science on Thursday morning.” Yes, Nigel - we’re well conditioned to observing squad disparities, thanks.
The youngster wasn’t even able to receive attention from Derby physios for knocks he suffered against Cardiff, as he was back at school next day. Nothing is won or lost in November however, and fans must bite their lips and watch the season unfold - anticipating that the many good players on the treatment table recover and contribute significantly over the next 6 months.
Derby’s tight, prudent philosophy will then be either vindicated or damned again. There are alternatives to drafting in the next Under-18 lad from the Academy but the Rams steadfastly steer clear of loan costs. Clough points at the young talent coming through at Derby now against the paucity of Academy production over the past five years.
So, another Academy teenager, 16 year-old midfielder Will Hughes, was drafted into the squad to travel to London Road. Clough defended his reliance on youth, endorsing the money-saving philosophy by criticising the experienced players in the side that collapsed against Cardiff:
"It wasn't the youngsters who cost us the other night, it was the experience. Of the back four, three of them were over 30, and we conceded three goals at home."
You could point out that the experience gap in midfield and attack between the sides gave Derby’s defence no respite. Fans want to see Academy graduations but are concerned about over-reliance upon them too soon.
Never mind season-ticket cash-back options; can we have a voucher or discount from DCFC to compensate for paying to watch Academy-cum-reserve games sprinkled with first-teamers? The value of quality and experience over effort and spirit was vividly exposed.
Clough’s immediate aim was again to get through the last Championship game up to the next international break. The Portsmouth encounter had been a pleasing triumph, Cardiff an unmitigated disaster and now a trip to play the Posh followed. Prior to the visit to London Road, telling injuries to Robinson, O’Brien and Anderson had weakened the Derby squad even further.
Russell Anderson, we learned, is out for three months with a serious hamstring injury; it’s the latest of a series of setbacks for the Scot and it’s not difficult to reach a conclusion that physically he is not up to the rigours of the Championship and must be written off once again for the moment.
With their goal difference whittled back to zero, Derby dropped out of the top six; both Cardiff and Hull overtook them on the same points, with better GDs. It could all change again each Saturday, such is the topsy-turvy nature of the Championship but fans went home very flat on Wednesday.
Bristol City, 2nd bottom in the Championship, took Derby’s unwanted run-around midfielder Stephen Pearson on loan until January 2012 but it is doubtful that the wage saving will be put towards an incoming loanee. Pearson’s contribution improved under Nigel Clough but he’s been out injured for several stretches; a transfer to Birmingham City in July 2008 fell through at the medical stage.
The Rams need to offload other wage-heavy surplus squad members like Dean Leacock and Stephen Bywater, though permanent moves aren’t imminent. Leacock has another injury and Bywater is on loan to League One club Sheffield Wednesday. Perhaps plans to recruit a ‘technical director’ to help oversee player movements will be in place before January?
Rookie American striker Conor Doyle has been selected to join a USA Under-23 training camp in Germany during the latest international break. Jeff Hendrick has been included in the Republic of Ireland U-21 squad to play Liechtenstein in a U-21 2013 Euro Championships qualifier and Mark O’Brien is on standby. Rams’ utility man Kevin Kilbane has been left out of the senior Irish squad this time around, probably due to his fitness issues.
Peterborough United have had a yo-yo existence between League One and the Championship in recent years and manager Darren Ferguson has been hero and villain to the London Road fans, experiencing promotions and relegation, success and the sack. He’s back at Posh in the driving seat and his promoted side has had an uneven return to the Championship.
They have lost three on the spin and injuries and suspensions are cutting into their squad. Posh were missing a mere half-dozen players but as ever, Derby County usually defines the meaning of a real ‘injury crisis’. Ferguson, whose dad celebrated 25 years in charge at Old Trafford this week, drafted his own 15-year-old prospect, striker Jaani Gordon-Hunter to his squad.
Clough made 4 changes from the Cardiff game including (perhaps surprisingly) the return of O’Brien and Robinson - partnered by Ward up front. Conor Doyle started but Maguire and Cywka vanished from the 16 on duty altogether; the bench had a youthful look with Ball, Bennett and Hughes all included.
The game progressed uneventfully in the opening stages with Peterborough taking 20 minutes to build up a head of steam and look at all threatening. At the other end, Robinson had a wayward strike and Doyle fluffed a close-range header. Derby struck however just before the half-hour when Theo Robinson fastened on to a neat Mark O’Brien cross to put Derby 1-0 ahead.
Posh have a potent attack but a porous defence - and it only took Robinson just 5 minutes more to make it 2-0 to Derby. Posh soon rapped in a reply to bring the game back to a contest, as Paul Taylor struck from distance to reduce the arrears with the game becoming an attacking spectacle.
Robinson had missed a great chance to notch a hat-trick - which would have been the first for a Derby player in the League for 15 years - before Peterborough scored. Now Derby needed to hold on to their advantage into the break. Frank Fielding stretched Derby’s breather at a goal kick rather too far and was booked - but the Rams managed to hold on to their lead.
The Rams let the game slip however 10 minutes into the second half, when despite Derby claims for a foul, dizzy Derby allowed Tommy Rowe to knock in the equaliser. Jason Shackell did not take the chance to hoof the ball clear so Posh completed their inevitable comeback. Posh had their tails up - Derby had wasted their advantage.
The Rams strived to threaten the Peterborough goal but Ward had a long-range blast turned away for a corner and put a free kick into the car park.
Callum Ball replaced the ineffectual and wasteful Conor Doyle (an unjustifiable selection) with Ward reverting to his wide role. We assume Clough was making a (repeated) point to Maguire and Cywka by picking schoolboy rookies ahead of them; however, many fans could not help thinking that those two older, more experienced players would have given the Derby side more substance and attacking cohesion if picked - and the side may have used possession better.
It is odd - even perverse - to use novice teenagers in the late stages of a game which is slipping away, when there were more experienced reinforcements in midfield or out wide (Kilbane, on the bench; Cywka, not picked) and the (relatively) experienced Chris Maguire (not picked) for a substitute cameo to freshen up the attack upon Robinson’s withdrawal. Selection and tactics unfathomable!
Ward gives Derby attacking impetus out wide, but without proven strikers it was random, wayward stuff. Mason Bennett had replaced Robinson so the Rams fielded their Under-18s strike-force. Oddly, 16 year-old Will Hughes was then given a Derby debut close to the end of normal time, replacing Jamie Ward. Some fans later rightly criticised Clough’s erroneous reliance on youth.
The Rams gave away the ball and failed to clear their lines one too many times - and Grant McCann struck home a 94th-minute winner after a Posh took a disputed free kick. Derby could only blame themselves for having thrown away all the points.
Clough blew a gasket several times last season when the Rams specialised in giving away crucial late goals, saying he’d get in some players ‘that can do their jobs’. The Posh defeat was a throwback to that. Mind you, selecting players that haven’t even learned their jobs yet (or actually left school) when trying to close out a game seems suicidal.
Five Academy youngsters on the pitch are hardly likely to eliminate that throwaway syndrome. The enforced inclusion of an injured, struggling O’Brien (and I personally know how long a bashed shoulder takes to ease!) was also symptomatic of Derby’s ‘coping-rather-than-solving’ mentality.
Manager Nigel Clough said that the officials would get ‘an extremely low mark’ for some decisions, whilst noting that Derby didn’t cover properly when the ball reached McCann. The Rams conceded poor goals through careless defending; Robinson’s miss at 2-0 was a turning point and arguably, the failure to deploy experience like Kilbane when needed at critical times cost Derby a result.
Credit to Posh for a good comeback - but the chosen Rams squad proved too weak to hold on to a 2-0 away lead. Derby remained in 7th place in the Championship table on Saturday but then slipped a place to 8th on Sunday when Leeds overtook Derby, after their win at Leicester City.
The Rams, on 24 points, have three fewer League points than at the same stage in 2010 and are four places lower in the table.
Clough anticipated that he might have four or more players getting back to fitness ready for the resumption of Championship business at home to Hull City on November 19th.Here’s hoping!
It was a familiar scenario after a needless reversal, with Derby happy to see the two-week break, continuing to count their casualties and taking back-to-back defeats into the bargain.
RamsWeek 45 last year saw Derby manager Nigel Clough declaring that his team were ‘magnificent’ in their 2-0 home victory over Portsmouth.
Derby put on a ‘simply irresistible’ attacking performance to overcome a somewhat physical Pompey side, with Derby overcoming the South Coast club’s very robust defence, aided by myopic officials, to take the points.
As with previous recent home victories, Derby won with style. Robbie Savage converted a penalty after Cywka had been hacked down to give Derby a deserved lead and the energetic Paul Green scored the second, as Derby’s touch-football dazzled the visitors.
With excellent performances all round, especially from Green, Commons, Bueno and Cywka, Derby had played Pompey off the park and a 29,000 crowd went home optimistic about their team as the Rams climbed to 4th in the Championship table.
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