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The Weight of Expectation
DET Column
Friday, March 20 2009
As the last nine games of Derby’s disappointing 2008-09 season unfold, everyone is looking towards improving performances and enough good results to make Championship consolidation comfortable.
Billy Davies and Paul Jewell ultimately had no appetite for relegation battles, couldn’t organise or motivate their players at the top level and the two managers rapidly departed the scene. Since the play-off final, the team has played with fear and trepidation, unable to defend convincingly or attack decisively.
Derby seemed to be perpetually recovering from the shock of the quality and intensity of the Premier League, having never prepared properly or adjusted to the demands, playing with a negative mentality right through from August 2007 to the end of 2008. Once relegated, they have made unusually heavy work of the Championship.
Thoughts turn to how the current players will make their mark on Nigel Clough during the remainder of the season to stake their claim for a part in Derby’s future. Fans anticipate that Derby will be up there fighting at the top end of the Championship by this time next year, whilst the club aren’t making any bold promises this time around. We will certainly need 46 good performances to be anywhere in contention.
Derby have a large squad but depth does not guarantee quality and Clough will need to apply a sharp pencil to his ‘retained list’ in a few weeks’ time. The manager anticipates the comfortable ‘achievement’ of survival and a strong finish to the season as he puts together his plans for squad development.
Derby are now exciting going forward but still fragile defensively, this in itself mirroring the first stages of the Rams’ progress forty years back when Brian Clough first took over at the Baseball Ground. Present-day Rams fans will be delighted if today’s Derby County makes half the progress that Clough Senior’s team achieved!
The defence is a priority for the manager and he has said that if the rearguard is sorted, then the Rams should be challengers. There are influential players like Todd and Savage who are at the end of their careers and the need for more leadership and strength in defence and midfield will no doubt be priorities.
Right now, fans have to express their loyalty within the next month by renewing their season tickets, in the expectation that far more tangible progress will be made next season with Derby becoming a footballing force again. The club can expect to have the biggest supporter base in the Championship once again (unless the likes of Newcastle United and/or Tottenham contrive to fall through the relegation trapdoor).
The ‘Clough factor’ should ensure another emphatic demonstration of supporter loyalty before the first renewal deadline. Having paid up in advance it will be four months before fans can witness the results of Nigel’s endeavours. Rather than hear the expansive promises from manager and board repeated from last year, there is instead an air of quiet confidence that the team will perform, once Mr Clough has reinforced his squad and conducted his own pre-season.
>From what we have seen so far, Nigel will carry the weight of those expectations for 2009-10 on his shoulders quite comfortably; he is not making outlandish claims but is nurturing his injury-hit squad toward some progress whilst providing more entertainment than was evident under his two predecessors. Results have improved; goals are plentiful (unfortunately also being conceded far too plentifully by Derby!) and we now look forward to games once again.
Supporters will expect Clough’s 2009-2010 squad complement to be demonstrably more together and successful from the get-go than Paul Jewell’s hit-and-miss oversized squad. Derby have used 42 players so far this season (including Villa loanee Barry Bannan, but excluding any new loan recruits since then!) and there is still a fair old sort-out to undertake.
It’s known that Clough wants to operate with around half that number - aiming to have a tightly-knit group of players having genuine quality and commitment who are all fit, trained and sharp who can each contribute fully to the team’s progress.
Last year there was a rallying call from the club, as the leaders declared that Jewell had the advantage of 6 months of preparation for an instant promotion push, relegation having been accepted with 6 months to go in 2007-08. The 2008 squad overhaul has probably farmed a few jewels for Derby from the 20-odd players brought into the club last summertime, even if Jewell himself abandoned ship and couldn’t see the fruits of his labour.
Though hampered by injury, there has been more togetherness, purpose and teamwork since Clough’s arrival in January and the side has more spirit and tenacity. Clough’s ‘work in progress’ has rendered rather more tangible achievement in a few weeks that Jewell’s staff mustered in a year. Players are emerging as potential Derby stars and more are playing a full part in the Rams’ recovery.
The likes of Paul Green, Paul Connolly, Kris Commons, Steve Davies and Rob Hulse have proved their worth. Fans have been surprised and pleased at the rehabilitation of several out-of-favour players; that has helped the team’s rehabilitation even if some of those current regulars are unlikely to feature in Nigel’s rebuilding plans.
Perhaps we can expect more from Stephen Pearson and Chris Porter; Dean Leacock may be fit again, Nyatanga and Addison will develop further. We have yet to see the best of Luke Varney, Nathan Ellington, Emanuel Villa, Giles Barnes, Mile Sterjovski and Przemyslaw Kazmierczak (and anything of Liam Dickinson or Rueben Zadkovich!) and perhaps may never do so at Pride Park Stadium.
Offloading some of those - and a half a dozen others who can appear to be merely making up the numbers - should permit Clough to recruit a select few new players of genuine quality so that we can aim higher next season.
Rams fans might be considered greedy to wish for stability, promotion and their club then successfully confronting the considerable obstacle of ensuring Premier League consolidation. Good management and proper funding are certain prerequisites; the fanbase is deep and committed and will remain in place. They truly deserve a stable top-10 club, ultimately with that expanded 44,000 capacity stadium in which to enjoy sustainable top-level entertainment.
It has seemed a long and trouble-strewn decade since the Rams last occupied a comfortable top-flight position - and few clubs in England posses such a loyal and devoted fanbase that has invested so heavily and consistently in their team.
Everyone is desperate to see pride restored and loyalty rewarded - and a promising new adventure commences next August!
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