Rams still in hunt, but hampered by inconsistency - Interview
Sunday, 21st Apr 2019 12:33 by Clive Whittingham
The always excellent Ollie Wright from Derby County Blog joins us ahead of Monday’s meeting to discuss Frank Lampard’s first season in charge, the annual spring wobble, and the club’s recent FFP dodge.
How would you assess Derby’s season overall?
It’s been a funny one. Yet another season began under a new manager, which has been the case every year since we lost to you at Wembley. That meant yet another summer flurry of transfers in and out, as Frank Lampard sought to remodel the squad to his liking. We'd been briefed to expect a period of belt-tightening - a message which may or may not have precipitated Gary Rowett's decision to leave for Stoke - and yet millions were eventually made available for the signings of Martyn Waghorn, Jack Marriott, Florian Jozefzoon and Scott Malone, with Matej Vydra and Andi Weimann sacrificed to help pay for them.
Home form has been good all season, with only three home defeats suffered - nobody else in the Championship has lost less games on their own turf - but our away form stalled at the turn of the calendar year and that has held us back. We had some great moments in both cup competitions, most notably winning at Old Trafford, of course, but with hindsight, looking at it through an unromantic lens, we really could have done without an FA Cup run during an already congested winter calendar.
All in all, it’s probably summed up by the fact that we’ve only won back-to-back league games three times all season, but only lost consecutively twice (back-to-back defeats in August, then a run of three losses in February and March). So while we've never looked near the top two, we’ve always been in the top eight and with four games to go, we’re still in with a shout of the play-offs - while Forest aren’t, which is nice.
And how has Frank Lampard done in his first season as a manager?
He’s made mistakes, but when you consider how it could have gone for a rookie taking over at a club of this size, he’s done pretty well. There was no guarantee he would take to management and I’m sure an awful lot of people were waiting for him to go down in flames, but he’s applied himself to the task and clearly means business. It’s nice when things are going well and his charisma comes out - starting the bounce and all that - and he has tried to use his aura to dispel the doom and gloom which descends upon Derby whenever we lose a game. He can be prickly at times, but on reflection, I don’t mind that too much. He wants us to win, not to be everybody’s second favourite team.
Lampard’s stature in the game helped enormously in terms of recruitment last summer - no other Championship team could have signed Chelsea’s Mason Mount on loan, Liverpool’s Harry Wilson was wanted by everybody and chose Derby, while Fikayo Tomori, another from Chelsea, has been a fantastic signing. Those three loan deals have hoisted what otherwise would have been a fairly ordinary team into sight of the top six. Oh and his old mate Ashley Cole dropped in as a favour, got himself match fit and has ended up playing an important part, after Scott Malone picked up an injury. Cole's 38 now, but still more than capable of playing at this level and looks fully committed to the cause.
Lampard has also promoted 18 year-old right back Jayden Bogle into the first team and the kid looks entirely comfortable at this level. Bogle has been one of our main sources of creativity all season and finally scored his first senior goal recently - the sky's the limit for him, which is a major plus for the club.
If you were looking at it more positively, you could say that it’s only one defeat in the last eight and 13 points in that time, which isn’t too bad. We’ve never dropped out of contention for the top six. But yes, we had a little wobble in February again.
The trouble started when Mount injured his hamstring in the FA Cup tie at Accrington, at the end of January. He is arguably ‘our’ most gifted player and provides the team with a cutting edge in possession which is otherwise lacking. Without his key midfielder to count on, Lampard started to shuffle his pack and made some questionable ‘rotation’ decisions, which undoubtedly affected performances and probably cost us points. He swapped his midfield around for a disappointing draw at Ipswich, before a naive experiment with 3-5-2 led to a disastrous home defeat by Millwall, then, most embarrassingly of all, a truly weird decision to field effectively a B-team at Aston Villa led to a 4-0 hosing by half-time.
In his defence, Lampard would argue that he had to use his whole squad to get through the fixtures and we simply didn’t have sufficient depth to compete on multiple fronts, having progressed to the last sixteen in the FA Cup. However, the feeling was that he chose to rest players for the fifth round game at Brighton, which should never have been the priority over chasing a play-off place.
Surprised Marriott hasn’t been starting, he looked great before Christmas, what’s the story there?
I’d really like to know. Martyn Waghorn has forced his way into the side and scored a few goals, which is fair enough, but Marriott then disappeared from the 18 entirely for the Brentford and Blackburn away games, which raised eyebrows all over the place. When questioned about it, Lampard initially tried to stonewall, then eventually dropped hints that Marriott hadn’t been training well - something must have happened behind the scenes, which we'll never be entirely privy to.
Marriott is back in the squad at least now and has been coming off the bench for the last couple of games, so it’s possible that Lampard will give him a start against you lot, given that Waghorn played 70 minutes on Good Friday and Marriott will be both fresh and presumably chomping at the bit to get out there. I'm a big fan of his and would love to see him back in the side.
Player of the season candidates?
I voted for Wilson, our top scorer from midfield - almost all of which have been absolutely glorious goals. He seemed like a shoo-in, to my way of thinking, but from what I can tell, the majority seem to have plumped for the committed Tomori, while the local paper gave it to Richard Keogh (incredible – ed), who has played every minute of every game. Mount would have been in with a big shout had it not been for the hamstring injury.
Weak links in the side?
Bradley Johnson has been starting recently and is the man most likely to cough up possession in a dangerous area. His control is poor and he dawdles on the ball, frequently losing concentration and constantly thinking he has more time than he really does. If I was an opposition manager, I would order my players to press him as much as possible, because he will definitely give the ball away if you do.
Another glaring weakness is that we have a small team and can easily be dominated aerially. Lukas Jutkiewicz had a field day against us at Birmingham on Good Friday and our defending at corners was absolutely pathetic on the day. Cross it into the box towards a big bloke and we will struggle to cope with it.
Now far be it for QPR to be casting FFP aspersions towards Derby given the history but, come on, this ground sale is a con trick isn’t it? And as you can only do it once, what happens at the next set of accounts or the ones after that? It looks to be a matter of time before you breach the new rules no?
You’re right, it isn’t QPR’s place to wag a finger about Financial Fair Play. But you’re also right about the stadium sale. Without that manoeuvre, we would have failed the EFL’s profit and sustainability test this season and been handed a points deduction, maybe even a transfer embargo.
Partly because the club have been unable to stick with a manager for so many seasons, the squad has become too bloated, with a string of players signed by one manager, only to soon meet a new boss and find out that he was not the same as the old boss. Some of those managers made wretched recruitment decisions, which have left the club lumbered with overpaid underachievers they could not shift (stop me if you’ve heard this one before?)
However, the wagebill will be reducing significantly this summer, as many of the flops are out of contract and will be leaving as free agents. Clearly, it’s pretty bad that we won’t recoup fees for Johnson, Nick Blackman, Jacob Butterfield, Marcus Olsson or Alex Pearce, but at least we don’t have to pay them any more. David Nugent and Craig Bryson, who deserve far more credit than the other players listed, will also have to go, as will Cole, who I guess will retire this summer, plus another short-term cover signing, Efe Ambrose. Several other senior pros who are still under contract, most notably Chris Martin, will be offloaded, if takers can be found. So that’s a fair old chunk of wages to take off the spreadsheet - in some cases, without a direct replacement being required.
That doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, but those cuts should bring the wagebill down closer to 100% of turnover, while booking that £14m profit, by whatever means, has provided considerable breathing space when you consider that the EFL ask clubs to lose no more than £39m over three seasons to be deemed 'sustainable'.
I’m not saying that I like the Pride Park transaction, which means that the club now has to pay about £1m in rent to Morris per season, but Mel’s argument is that with the ground in his ownership, he will be able to maximise its revenue-spinning potential by hosting a lot more concerts and other events. If sweating the ground in this way helps Mel to earn back some of the heartbreakingly vast wad of cash he fruitlessly spunked on Butterfield, Johnson et al, it’s hard to complain too much. And he is a genuine fan, so I think we can trust him not to do anything which would put the club at risk of becoming homeless, or at risk of going to the wall.
Promotion prospects this season? Consequences of missing out again?
Promotion looks unlikely this season. Even if we nick sixth, that would mean an extremely difficult play-off semi-final against Leeds or Sheffield United.
However, it does seem like Lampard intends to stick around for another crack at it next season. It would be great to have a manager for more than one campaign for a change and it would give us the chance to see what sort of team Lampard really wants to put out, as he’s still largely working with other managers’ signings. There’s a massive opportunity for renewal this summer and although it won’t necessarily be easy, I hope he’s looking forward to the challenge.
There are lots of variables - the EFL could suddenly decide the stadium sale isn’t kosher, for example and there has been talk about Morris seeking new investment partners, or even to sell up entirely. But assuming nothing cataclysmic happens off the field and Lampard sticks around to see the job through, I’m cautiously optimistic about the future.
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