Are Midlands managers the answer to Derby County dilemma?
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | February 14, 2016
Derby County come across as a football club desperate to reproduce the glory days of Brian Clough, because their more recent history can broadly be categorised as either embarrassment or failure.
The Rams hierarchy removed Paul Clement for reasons nobody quite fully understands. Am ambitious young boss sought immediate promotion, but apparently that isn’t ‘the Derby way’.
Club chairman and lifelong County supporter Mel Morris’ rationale for axing former Chelsea, PSG and Real Madrid assistant Clement from his maiden managerial role was eyebrow-raising.
‘The Derby way’ in place anyway?
Might caretaker boss Darren Wassall be able shed further light on the Pride Park philosophy? “The Derby way is simple,” he said. “We want to be hard to beat and make [home] a fortress, but we also want to try to play attractive football and score lots of goals.”
At least Wassall admits: “That’s easier said than done.” Aren’t five Championship defeats all season under Clement sufficient to be classed as ‘hard to beat’?
Only Manchester United, Leeds United and Birmingham City have won at Pride Park across all competitions prior to the change of coach. Clement made it a fortress, then.
It’s only scoring lots of goals – five teams had more after 30 league games – where it could be argued in recent times that the previous Rams regime failed to meet expectation.
Haunted by 2007/08
Premier League promotion certainly came too soon for County last time round, taken up by Billy Davies when edging the more-fancied West Bromwich Albion in a tense play-off final and immediately down under Paul Jewell. Worst top-flight points tally ever.
There’s the embarrassment part of the history lesson, and frankly it has been failure ever since.
Successive mid-table finishes under Nigel Clough, who Derby fans hoped would be a chip off the old block (but has instead regressed back to Burton Albion where his coaching career started), when they were well-equipped to push for an immediate Premier League return, instead ended with his dismissal.
County choke artists?
And thereafter it’s not a case of underachieving in the East Midlands, but bottling promotion pushes when it matters most.
Steve McClaren’s vintage had lousy luck when one Wembley lapse in concentration cost them a Premier League place, with QPR going up instead of them thanks to a Bobby Zamora winner in the 2013 play-off final.
Last term, the Rams ran out of steam and blew it completely during the closing weeks of the Championship season. And so they must come again – probably next term, with what remains of this campaign about consolidation and anything more being a bonus, though County remain 7/4 with Coral for promotion.
Wassall targets permanent position
Academy director Wassall sees his 16-game stint in charge of first-team affairs as an opportunity to audition for a permanent position, adding it is a “massive privilege”.
“Anybody would be a fool not to want this job. I have nothing to lose,” he continued. “I have been here seven years and have a great job and have another one now. It’s a really exciting prospect.
“I have been told I am completely in charge of first-team affairs and we have to do the very best we can, [so] I will manage the team how I want to manage the team.
“I will do it my way. We are in great position. I will not try to be different to anybody else; I will just do it my way.” Forgive the mischief, but is Wassall’s way the Derby way?
Return of Stimac?
Ex-players becoming Derby managers; haven’t they already tried that with McClaren? Yet plenty of candidates rumoured to be taking over from next term, or at least linked with the vacancy, have donned the white jersey.
Like Wassall, fellow Rams defenders Igor Stimac and Gary Rowett were at the club during their penultimate Premier League stint (1996-2002).
Croatia cult hero Stimac had four fine years with Derby during their mid-90s relocation from the Baseball Ground to Pride Park. As a coach, however, he paid a heavy price for just three competitive beatings in charge of his country.
In his tenure as Blazers boss (2012-13), Stimac lost at home to Belgium, but a double defeat by Scotland cost Croatia top spot during 2014 World Cup qualifying. Ironically, they would go on to reach the tournament finals following his resignation under Niko Kovac.
Since then, Stimac coached a domestic side relegated from Croatia’s top-flight and is now in charge of an Iranian team. He could be said to be damaged goods, no matter what his standing at County.
Clamour for Rowett could continue
Nobody can say the same about fellow former Ram Rowett, whose stock could hardly be much higher. Birmingham have been in some pretty dire financial straits for several years, so Derby’s Midlands rivals are definitely punching above their weight by being in and around the play-off places.
Rowett, who is 4/1 to guide the Blues to a top six finish, has plenty of career common ground with County caretaker Wassall; both are ex-players both there and at St Andrew’s, as well as possessing links to Burton.
Having masterminded a 3-0 hammering of his former club when last visiting Pride Park, there is an air of inevitability about Rowett being mentioned in dispatches as the next permanent Rams boss.
“I understand the link,” he said. “I live in Derby and my lad goes to the games. It’s always a difficult one to hear, but you can write down the list of every team I’ve played for in my career.
“What if the Charlton job becomes available, or Cambridge United or Everton? Am I going to get linked with them too?”
Chris Hughton, a previous Birmingham boss, was once their only sellable asset after their last overachieving season (2011/12) ended in a play-off place. Rowett has already swapped one old stomping ground from another, moving to the Second City from Burton, so why not another?
Working within a strict Blues budget is certainly commendable, but how will Rowett manage with looser purse-strings that are virtually assured in relative terms at the Rams?
Preparing for Pearson?
If the former players route no long appeals to County’s board, then there are a number of high-profile managers out of work they could recruit. Chief among them is another Midlands man, in Nottingham-born and ex-Leicester City boss Nigel Pearson.
Derby was once the crucible of an intense Midlands rivalry that pervades to this day. Clough senior’s acrimonious exit from the Rams, via that infamous and ill-fated short stint at Leeds, saw him return up the A52 at Nottingham Forest.
The rest they say is history. Two European Cups brought to the City Ground with more than a few Rams players poached en route. Pearson is hardly a modern day Clough, though current Foxes boss Claudio Ranieri might yet emulate his against all odds top-flight title triumph.
County have already had to come out and deny they are lining up Pearson, who took Leicester across two spells from League One to the Premier League. Should he get the gig at Pride Park and provide that elusive promotion, it would certainly add a new dimension to the East Midlands football triangle.
Backed by substantial Asian investment, the Foxes’ wealthy owners gave Pearson time to take their team up. It took from autumn 2011, when he returned to the King Power Stadium from Hull City, until the spring of 2014 to achieve the aim.
Morris clearly wants the Rams in the right shape following promotion, so may be able to afford Pearson similar assurances. That success right on Derby’s doorstep is what they are desperate for, so who better to deliver it than the mastermind behind a resurgent Leicester?
Outsiders are alternatives
Remaining big name bosses are divorced from Midlands football, so does a fresh perspective, not laden by the baggage of history or what was done when in charge of the neighbours, appeal?
You get the feeling that David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers are waiting for stable Premier League positions, not needy works in progress. English managerial duo Garry Monk and Tim Sherwood could be surprise shouts, though.
Monk may have made rookie mistakes while with Swansea City, where admittedly he spent much of his career before becoming a coach, but County looks a good fit for a young, hungry manager like him.
Heart-on-his-sleeve Sherwood’s inspiration of Aston Villa to the 2015 FA Cup final cannot be ignored either. With relegation looming large for the West Midlands outfit under his successor, Remi Garde, a Championship club may be the only way to rebuild Sherwood’s reputation.
A plethora of Derby midfielders would benefit from what a Premier League title-winning captain could impart to them, if playing in the big time is the ultimate aim. When Will Hughes returns from a career-threatening injury, who better to put his arm around the player than Sherwood?
Gus Poyet, another that steered a side into the Championship play-offs during his days at Brighton and Hove Albion, may be looking to grab an opportunity to return to English football this coming summer.
His Latin temper and passion might push the Rams into the promised land, though his apparent interest in replacing Monk at Swansea never materialised. Poyet’s problems at Sunderland should not count against him, because recruitment there was not in the hands of management at the time.