Derby FM20 – August 2019: Of Baggies and Bees

I’m aware how slowly this game is moving, glacial even by my standards, and so this post is dedicated to closing out August and the four remaining matches that feature within it.

Fixtures come thick and fast at this level. We have three days to prepare for another tough tie at home to Bristol City, and it seems only sensible to give the players a day off from training to recover their fitness. The transfer window is closed in England but still open within Europe as a whole. I wonder if anyone will improve on Manchester City’s £41 million splurge on former Arsenal defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin, I mean what sort of world is it where Le Coq is king? Brizzle will be without Korey Smith and Jay Dasilva, two English players who are pretty good by Championship standards. We still have no Wisdom, Bogle or Bird, and the physio team isn’t even bothering to discuss Anya, who’s still a long way away (in more ways than one). City are strong opposition. Lee Johnson has been in charge for four years, an eternity at this level, and seems to be in a spiral of perpetually building his side for success. They can call on Nakhi Wells, Tomas Kalas and Henri Saivet, the latter a player we scouted with a semi-serious view to drafting him in.

I feel as though we needn’t have worried as we go 2-0 up in the first ten minutes. Both goals arise from breaking up the Robins’ play. For the first, Benkovic and Williams are faffing about with the ball and allow Troy Parrott to pinch it from them. With only the keeper to beat, he slots the ball into the corner. Two minutes later Baker opens his account with a delightful volley, again arising from City meandering in possession. I’m sat on my bench thinking football is so very easy, and for much of the half it is, until Kasey Palmer pulls one back in the 27th minute from a corner we fail to deal with, which is enough to put me back in my place. Strangely enough the reply appears to be enough to make the away team think they’ve done their jobs for the evening. Time for a half-time brew, perhaps? We make it 3-1 with 70 minutes on the clock when Bielik nets from close range at the culmination of a messy goalmouth tangle following a Baker free-kick, and that turns out to be the final result. It’s a tie that statistically looks fairly even, a similar amount of possession and a comparative shot count, but either through more incisive attacking or just wanting it more we have a fairly straightforward outing. I even have the luxury of taking Rooney off for the last quarter or an hour to save his precious legs.

We have the early televised match on Saturday, at home for the considerable challenge of West Bromwich Albion. Tipped for promotion and managed by Slaven Bilic, they bring a squad of highly valued players that includes unlikely England international Jake Livermore and onetime future hot prospect Charlie Austin, a £4 million summer signing after he failed to make the step up. There seems to be an optimistic mood in the dressing room before the game, a consequence of our good start, and when I tell the players I expect them to pick up from where they left off they appear to show signs of being motivated by my words.

It’s at times like these you know you’re in for a rough session. Bakery Jatta shows off the darker side of his game when he clatters two footed into the back of Kieran Gibbs in the first few minutes. That earns him a dismissal and puts us on the back foot for the rest of a long, long match. Long before Ajayi gets their goal from a corner, West Brom have mounted attack after attack and we’ve collected a further five bookings. Discipline has been thrown out of the window. When I should be urging them to focus I’m instead begging the players to calm down.

In the second half Lawrence comes off for Duane Holmes, who can at least add some balance by moving into the middle. Jack Marriott is introduced for Parrott and we show a little bit more adventure. A couple of Marriott shots give Sam Johnstone a chance to earn his keep, whilst at our end Montipo pulls off a few heroics to keep it 1-0. But there isn’t a lot what can do to get anything from the match. The Baggies know they can exploit our weakness on the flanks, build on their wide superiority all afternoon, and on a more incisive day could have caused more damage.

Derby were top of the table before this debacle, but a complete programme of Championship action shuffles us back down to reality and into sixth place. We’re on the same number of points (ten) as Leeds, Middlesbrough, Blackburn, Fulham and Barnsley, and by chance it’s the latter we’ll be taking on for our midweek Carabao Cup clash.

Despite Barnsley’s good start I see this one as an opportunity for some squad rotation. I don’t do this for fun. Rooney, Baker and Clarke are feeling the impact of our constant rotation of games and could use the rest. Holmes remains short of match fitness, so Lawrence starts outside his natural position on the right wing; Waghorn comes in to play the left hand side. The Tykes’ main threat comes from central midfielder Alex Mowatt, who’s scored twice from his five appearances. They field pretty much their best eleven, which makes sense but also means they have some tired legs out there. We’re relatively fresh in comparison, which emphasises the deeper pool of players I have to work with.

And it works! The only downside is a knee injury to George Knight that instantly removes him from the field of play; fortunately it’s just twisted rather than incurring worse damage and he should be available again within a week. Otherwise we put three past Brad Collins in a first half blitz. I put this down to superior quality and fitness, and of course superb management. The assault starts after quarter of an hour. Lawrence’s corner is cleared from the area, but only out to Max Lowe who’s marauding down the left wing. Totally unmarked the full-back is able to place his shot – a rare treat from the ever-present Lowe. Twelve minutes later, Lawrence steals the ball from Cobbaut and finds Jack Marriott, the striker shrugging off the unromantic attentions of Sollbauer to shoot past Collins. I’m pleased for Marriott, the forward whose effectiveness has been dulled by injury. Waghorn makes it 3-0 from the spot when Baker is bundled over clumsily by Ludewig in the area.

A very pleasing evening’s bit of business, and we learn we’ve avoided the big boys in the third round to be tied away to Luton. This cup run could have a little more life in it yet.

August closes with a journey down to the Big Smoke to take on Brentford. The Bees are a promotion possibility and have spent a truckload in attempting to underwrite their bid. A cool £27.5 million has been lashed out on the best part of a whole new team. Pontus Jansson, Ethan Pinnock and Bryan Mbuemo are the pick of their arrivals as they boost their credentials. They’re currently in second place, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see them stay in the upper echelons throughout the campaign. So it’s a tough one we’re anticipating, a game in which Andre Wisdom could technically take part after recovering from injury, though no doubt his match fitness will be awful. Rushian Hepburn-Murphy has a thigh strain and can’t be used. Nobody sees this as a massive loss. As we prepare for the game I discover that Manuel Ugarte, for whom we once had a work permit application turned down, has been signed by Sevilla. His loss, though the move suggests he belongs in a higher tier than we could offer him.

Jatta has been banned for a further two matches, which robs us of his services for this one and for Cardiff at the end of the international break. Parrott, picked for possibly his first Republic of Ireland cap at the tender age of 17, is back in the line-up, while at the other end of the international scale the much-needed Rooney makes his return.

At the break we’re 1-0 ahead. Max Lowe has scored another special – clearly you leave a left-back unmarked at your peril as he lashes home another powerhouse. The Bees have had slightly the better of it elsewhere in a closely fought tie between evenly matched sides, nothing less than you’d expect from an ambitious team playing before their home fans. We’re anticipating a second half onslaught, but I’m reticent about becoming too cautious. Instead we put a second past Raya when Waghorn heads in Christie’s crossed ball. Brentford have their chances, but they can’t find a way past Bieliek, Milosevic and Montipo and they’re struggling to find any rhythm with our press working well. All I need to do is time waste more often, play carefully and replace lads who are looking knackered. 2-0 is a fantastic final scoreline and underlines a very positive start to the season.

The table makes for good reading. Derby are third, and if we can maintain anything like this form then we will be able to reflect on a good season indeed. Remember, the target is mid-table so we are presently bucking the odds and this is mirrored on the board’s praise in their end of the month meeting:

Even the squad dynamics make for good reading – Tom Huddlestone no longer sees himself as my enemy (calloo callay, etc) and of the 27-man squad 14 support me and 13 have no real opinion, so things are moving in the right direction. September contains just three league games, plus the Luton cup match, and in the meantime all we need to do is get through the Interlull without suffering further injuries. Yeah, good luck with that.

Derby FM20 – August 2019: Determination

The Derby save isn’t the only game I’m running on Football Manager. I’ve been coaching Manchester United in a save that’s been going since I first bought the 2020 edition, and at times when I’m not updating this one I go back to Old Trafford. Initially I was going to blog about that game – there are some early posts here on these very pages, just as I did once in covering a very successful FM2018 adventure.

My tendency with the more modern iterations of FM is to take over big clubs, usually teams that are bubbling under the title winning positions and with the potential to make that leap – it just takes my obvious spark of managerial genius to get everything clicking into place. Not for me the lower league start; I’ve played these beforehand, but in my experience they take up more time and I can’t be bothered to invest it anymore. Manchester United are a great start because they’re still in their post-Sralex slump. They have some really good players as a starting point, but the important factor is the pots of cash they’re willing to throw at a successful manager. In other words it’s a sandbox challenge, an opportunity to reshape the United ranks however you see fit.

That game is now in its third season. I’ve sacked off the likes of Smalling, Jones, McTominay, James and even Martial. The midfield is amended to the point that only Pogba of the original complement remains. He now plays alongside Tonali, Bentancur, Pellegrini and Berge. Chiesa and Sancho are my wingers, Erling Haaland my main goal threat with Rashford and Greenwood also on hand to help us get to the top. I’ve won two league titles, and FA Cup and Europa League. We would have made the 2021 Champions League final but for a bit more luck – we won the first leg of the semi against Barcelona 2-0, but a couple of late injuries in the away tie had us playing with ten men and that’s when Messi and the lads struck back.

As you can probably tell I don’t rush through my saves. I like to scrutinise and ponder over things, analyse where things went wrong and, yes, slap my own back in imaginary interviews when it’s all going my way. But the United and Derby games very different beasts. The former are so well resourced that I can pretty much weed out who I no longer want at will, knowing I’ll be able to replace them with better players. The money means I can even explore the mentality of potential signings to make sure I can end up with a determined group. This, I think, is important. The dream is to have a squad that is similarly hungry for honours to United’s 1999 treble winning team. Those of you who are old enough to remember them should recall their fierce will to win, the sheer nerve that meant no matter how beaten they seemed to be you couldn’t keep your eyes off them for a moment. This was a team that was 3-1 down on aggregate to Juventus in Turin during the second leg of their Champions League semi-final, only to roar back with three goals to clinch their place in the showpiece, let alone losing 1-0 to Bayern going into injury time during the final…

The rest is of course history. Mentality is one of those hidden factors that matters so much. Contrast this team with Arsenal, particularly after The Invincibles season. Think of some of the ballers Arsene Wenger had to play with. What a hell of a side that was – Henry, Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg, Reyes, Flamini, Fabregas, Van Persie, Toure, Campbell, and their funky mates – and they could have gone on to dominate football, only the focus changed. What seemed to matter were the game’s aesthetics, producing glorious examples of beautiful football while the results and honours slipped away.

I can’t make those quick changes that make all the difference at Pride Park. I just can’t afford to, neither are the ‘right-minded’ players happy to sign up. Can you blame them? They’re determined, and they see a team that’s happily bummed around the upper mid-table of the Championship without actually making the final push for so long. What’s in it for them? It makes having Wayne Rooney such a boon. He’s from the Old Trafford stable of born winners, wiling and able to keep going when there are seconds left on the clock. We have a few others like him, but too many are more balanced in their personalities. ‘Balanced’ is fine, it’s nice even, but when you’re going into the final ten minutes, the scoreline’s 0-0 and the result really matters, can you depend on these people?

So that’s the long-term challenge, obviously if I’m allowed to stay here and make the changes needed. Mentally, they’re a decent bunch. Their sense of vision, off the ball work and flair play are rated highly within the division, however we aren’t very brave, and our critical determination levels are good enough to be 22nd, which isn’t good at all. If league tables depending on this we’d be relegated. It needs to improve.

Back to the game, and our weekend tie away to Stoke City. You will recall that team morale is currently on a knife edge. I had a run-in with Tom Huddlestone, who hates me, over my positivity about team performances. My view is to push this lot, to not accept anything less than full commitment, which personally I thought was somewhat lacking in our victory over Fleetwood, but he feels all that matters was that the game was won and the players deserved a collective pat on the head, perhaps a lollipop for being big, brave boys. My reaction is to pick Huddlestone for Stoke; either he’ll play his heart out and prove me wrong, or he’ll turn out to be exactly the over the hill ball of mediocrity that I suspect he is ahead of selling him in January.

The Potters are 19th. They should be much higher than that, given their status as a relegated team and their determination to hold on to much of their squad. Ryan Shawcross is injured, which should be that bit better for my prospects of keeping my players fit, but they can still call on the likes of Barreto, Allen, Ince and Clucas, and they have Jack Butland between the sticks, for my money the best keeper at this level. Jatta’s knock against Fleetwood means he isn’t as fit as I would like and can only make the bench, and I start Duane Holmes, who is lacking match sharpness. Frank Lampard warns me to respect Tom Ince. I respectfully suggest he should invest his time in looking after his own team – it’s a bit like being Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, and having my illustrious predecessor Tony Blair constantly offering advice and reminders of better times when he was in charge. Sod off, mate.

The first half ends with us 1-0 up. Quality overall is lacking, if I’m honest, but Stoke seem happy to produce lightweight attacks and let us push at them. They’re dependent on the talents of Butland, which is just about enough to keep us out as we make the majority of the play. Shortly before the break, Milosevic heads us in front from a Baker corner, the sort of set piece move we’ve worked on to death in training.

The only real negative is having to replace Bielik with Milosevic due to a suspected injury. Otherwise I’m able to tell the boys not to get complacent, ensuring this is framed like a plea and not a demand because I don’t want to upset their little feelings. If this was a Premier League match I would be spending the second half biting my fingernails in anticipation of a reaction from the opposition, but here there’s very little to worry about and we can keep playing the way we did before half-time. Ince is marshalled out of making any kind of difference by Rooney and elsewhere they’ve the collective strength and force of powder puff. We even add a second in the 86th minute. A Stoke throw-in deep inside their half is intercepted by Christie, who finds Rooney. He plays it sideways to Baker, who picks out Waghorn with an intelligent raking pass. The winger makes it nearly to the byline and cuts left to Lowe. The cross is made, meeting Parrott’s head who produces a knock down for the advancing Jatta (on at the expense of the knackered Holmes). Criminally unmarked, the German has the entire net at his mercy and makes no mistake. Excellent. There’s time for a bit of a scare moments later when Verlinden heads in a reply, only to be ruled offside but still enough for me to ask the players to waste time and play more cautiously. All the same, 2-0 at the evocatively named bet365 is a fine result. I tell the lads exactly that, and I mean it too.

Derby FM20 – August 2019: Bittersweet Victory

I haven’t gone near an alcoholic drink since 11 January. This was after climbing inside a bottle for the entire Christmas break and emerging, bleary-eyed and dry-mouthed, with the realisation that I’d wasted the whole period. The booze can be fun. We all know that. But still being up at 3.00 am purely for the excuse to drink that bit closer to pissed oblivion isn’t fun at all. It’s just sad. There are things I’d like to do with my little life, but drinking always put paid to any plans I might have made. My weekends were lost, a cycle of either putting it away or recovering from the previous evening’s excesses.

I can’t say I miss the bottle. It doesn’t compare with the mental torture that is giving up smoking, but I’ve tried to find distractions in order to keep my mind off having a drink, which isn’t very easy during this period of self-isolation where many people’s direct remedy is to knock ’em back. This game and especially this blog is one of those things, something to pour my thoughts into because I’m a bit scared about where they might go otherwise. And while no one might be reading this, and that’s fine, I’m enjoying myself. The Derby save has become by some distance my most indulgent game of Football Manager in some years, something into which I can really invest the time because time right now is not at a premium.

After the draw against Huddersfield there’s a collective feeling that we can do better. Next up is Swansea City at home, my first opportunity I can prove I have what it takes before the Derby fans at Pride Park. It’s nearly a capacity crowd on this pleasant August afternoon. I name almost the same starting eleven, what I believe to be my best available line-up, with the obvious change of replacing the on-loan Jozefzoon with new signing Bakery Jatta. From the start we’re into them, attacking hard, pressing and choking the life out of any rhythm they try to produce. This is good work. The Swans are at least decent, with a couple of players valued at over £10 million including Andre Ayew on their right wing, and exciting Liverpool loanee Rhian Brewster in attack. We do everything but score a goal. Our set pieces are threatening, designed to give Clarke and Milosevic shooting chances, while Baker in midfield is enterprising without currently having an end product.

In the 25th minute their keeper Woodman punts the ball towards Bidwell, only it’s intercepted by Jatta, who beats the full-back from the halfway line, dribbles up the pitch and into the area, and finally unleashes a strike that smacks satisfyingly into the top corner. It’s a cracker of a goal, from a player who already looks exciting and will hopefully develop into something special. And that’s the game’s highlight. I keep things positive, determined to keep Swansea on the back foot, and it works. They have a handful of shots, only one of which is on target, while we put them to the sword throughout. Only once do we come close to doubling our lead quite late on, when Rodon’s sloppy clearance finds Baker on the edge of the area, who shoots just wide of the post. Despite the scoreline it’s dominant stuff from the Rams, a very decent start before our home fans.

We’re at home again for the visit of Fleetwood Town in the Carabao Cup First Round. The board want us to make it as far as the third phase, and I agree that cup games are a potential money spinner for the club. We have a big squad; time perhaps to dip into it for what ought to be a straightforward affair against League One opposition. Before the game their manager, professional thug wannabe Joey Barton, suggests an upset might be on the cards. Their side is filled with veterans like Ched Evans and 35 year old Glenn Murray, and they sit in first place, so they do indeed have the experience and some ability, but do they have the legs?

In my dealings with the press I’m never one to upset the apple cart. I have a 100% attendance record with the media, remain calm and try to make out we’re all great mates beneath the surface, even if in reality I could barely care what they think. Only once have I used these occasions to slag off a fellow professional, when I had a pop at Mido for some reason or other, mainly because in my opinion the bloke’s a cunt. Otherwise I adopt the Steve McClaren approach of speaking a lot and saying very little, all my real talking done on the pitch, which is just how it should be. Fortunately for me, Derby isn’t like managing Manchester United. Whereas they solicited my opinion about pretty much everything at Old Trafford – Mr Side, Mr Side, Pep Guardiola has been praising the colour blue very heavily; given his reaction what’s your favourite colour? – here they aren’t all that bothered.

For the vast majority of this tie it goes to form. Despite making a number of changes and starting with my enemy, Tom Huddlestone, we’re simply a lot better than Fleetwood. This is underlined when Huddlestone scores in the 12th minute, a volleyed shot from the edge of the D after he’s there to collect Lawrence’s head-down. The rest of the first half contains many more attempts from us, but no addition to our account, and it takes until the hour mark for us to make it 2-0 when Parrott slots home his first following a messy clearance by the opposition keeper. Barton orders his team to show more passion, prowling his technical area with pursed lips and clenched fists in a way that suggests there may be violence in store for his players if they don’t improve. Ched Evans pulls one back for them in the 68th minute. Shinnie is warned for a foul, giving them a free kick 30 yards out. Connolly takes it, lashing in a defence splitting ball collected by the striker for the most prosaic of goals. It’s the sort of routine, training ground practised effort that has me using the last of my substitutions to bring on Milosevic for Schuurs, for me the defender who looks most overawed by the occasion.

But that’s about it from them. The Fishermen commit to fouls and unsportsmanlike play in lieu of the talent gap, and at one point I’m forced to remove Jatta for an ankle injury that fortunately turns out to be only bruised and not too serious. We have a chance very late to put a third past Cairns, but Holmes shoots concerningly wide from a point-blank position. We have to take the 2-1, a result I find a little disappointing considering our clear superiority, and I tell the lads exactly that. Being a bunch of Snowflakes they naturally aren’t happy with my feedback, and I’m made to haul Huddlestone into my office because he’s annoyed about my negativity. This I see as an opportunity to drag a player who’s opposed to me back onside, so I offer to be a bit more positive in the future, and that gets the desired reaction.

It’s a frustrating evening on the whole, one where we could have truly laid into Fleetwood and perhaps dragged more supporters to the ground in the future (we don’t even get 12,000 for this encounter). The encouraging signs are that a side containing five changes from the Swansea match prevailed and in places looked very good, with Huddlestone and George Evans particularly impressing me. Parrott scored, which is a handy monkey to get off the young striker’s back. We dominated with 67% possession and 91% of our passes completed, indeed the only area where we were inferior was in headers won, which I’m aware is an Achilles heel within the side generally. Round Two will have us taking on Barnsley at Pride Park towards the end of the month, so barring a cock-up I feel we ought to at least satisfy the board’s requirements for this competition.

Derby FM20 – August 2019: Terriers and Transfer Deadlines

After much planning, a busy pre-season and many thousands of words written, it’s at last time to enter the 2019/20 Championship season. I’ve put it off long enough and we’re here – the moment of truth. My destiny… Or at least a trip to the John Smith’s stadium to face Huddersfield Town.

The Terriers are freshly relegated from two seasons in the Premier League. Their fall last year was so pronounced that no one has them tipped to go back up, or even to make it into the playoffs. They’re rated as being good enough for mid-table, looking at a similar position to ourselves, and with the likes of Mooy and Billing moved to new clubs that might be fair enough.

We assemble with what I consider to be our best available line-up. Considering they’re at home, Huddersfield’s formation – a flat back five, four across midfield and a lone gunman – looks designed to contain us, to hold us at arm’s length, a defensive set-up that suggests we’re hardly in for a classic tie. And so it goes for the first 25 minutes, as we play with a balanced mentality, can’t beat their defence and the ball bobbles about non-commitedly in midfield, like a fella who is unable to decide whether to have fish and chips or a pizza for his tea.

It transpires that the Terriers are softening us up, letting us get more adventurous before striking. I demand greater positivity, which opens up gaps for them to exploit. With 27 minutes on the clock, Andy King lollops into our half and picks out Toffolo on the left wing. In some space because Cyrus Christie is presumably thinking about what to have for his own post-match meal, the left-back is able to get into our box. It takes this long for Christie to reach him, miss his tackle and allow Toffolo to get a cross off. This meets the beautifully placed and predatory Lewis O’Brien, who has time to rifle his shot past Montipo and into the top corner.

Two minutes later and O’Brien’s scored again, only this time he’s clearly offside and we remain just about in the game. We make it to the break, the players get a bollocking and are ordered to attack more. The second half turns into an exercise in attrition. We tease, probe and pick at the Huddersfield defence, which has the numbers to hold off our less than heavyweight offensive play. I switch things around. Parrott, Jozefzoon and Waghorn are swapped out for Marriott, Holmes and Lawrence. I can appreciate the former’s callowness in failing to break through, but the latter two haven’t produced anything like an acceptable performance and the Surinamese right winger in particular has been terrible. I make to a note to myself to focus the last couple of days of the transfer window on his position, and watch as we force an equaliser on the 76th minute mark.

It’s the culmination of frequent attacking. Rooney is playing quarterback, picking out teammates at will. Shinnie and Baker are running riot in central midfield as the players ahead of them find space. A nice bit of interplay between the pair results in Baker haring into the penalty area and picking out Lawrence on the edge. Rather than try to find someone through the sea of legs the winger tries a punt and produces a strike of accuracy and wonder that sizzles beyond Jonas Lossl to make it 1-1.

After that we continue to press, but the urgency ebbs away as a draw seems the fairest of results. There’s a fair amount to be happy about. We have 53% possession and the majority of shots on goal. The 92% pass completion is excellent, even for a Tiki Taka approach that ought to be producing a high rate. Most of all I’m happy that we grew in confidence as the game developed. That telepathic understanding every good side needs seemed to be in evidence, so I’m cautiously optimistic with our performance. Lawrence is named Player of the Match for causing so much trouble during his thirty minutes on the field.

Our pick as the Monday night match means we now have three days to arrange any late transfers. My priority position is right wing, with additional hopes to prove to Milosevic and Huddlestone that I can (i) sign a pal for the former (ii) strengthen the side for the latter. The obvious answer is to bring in a Swedish winger, perhaps see what the likes of Selakovic and Bakircioglu are up to these days. The obvious choice, Niclas Eliasson at Bristol City, is going to cost a flipping fortune and, following a scouting mission, turns out to be more comfortable on the left wing. In the end I ask the scouts to find someone from Sweden – anyone! – who is prepared to sign, hopefully on cheap terms. They come up with Marcus Olsson, a 31 year old left-back, who has no current club after being released by none other than Derby County. Red-faced, I thrash out a deal to bring Olsson back. He’s willing to sign a one year contract on £15,000 per week, a lot more than I would ideally pay him, a fringe player with an automatic additional season’s extension should he appear in five matches for us. Daylight robbery that, mate, but we’re close to the deadline and there’s little we can do but welcome him back. With any luck he’ll spend the year haunting our reserves before vanishing into the night.

Not the ideal capture, but at least he cost us nothing beyond the £700,000 we’re going to pay him just to keep a first teamer happy. The search for a winger takes on epic proportions. The majority of players we look at, those who’ll realistically have any interest in being here, are no better than what we have already. Jonathan Leko of West Brom is ideally aged at 20 years old, but his club would want more money than we could ever afford. Huddersfield’s Elias Kachunga is a Democratic Republic of Congo 27 year old who almost fits the bill but demands the sort of salary that has me asking him if he’s aware who we are and which division we play in. Most prospects simply don’t want to know. I’d really like to recruit Gaizka Larrazabal, 21 and a breakthrough prospect with Athletic Bilbao, but it’s clear he would rather quit football than bring his game to the English midlands. The gorgeously named Bright Oyasi-Samuel of QPR has no interest in signing for us and in any event his team would only ever let him personally refuse our overtures in return for a king’s ransom.

The trail eventually leads us to Hamburg SV in the German Second Division, and a 21 year old named Bakery Jatta who the scouts believe would be a superb acquisition. Better still the player is prepared to sign for us, though we pay handsomely for the privilege, handing £3 million to his club and spunking £33,500 on his weekly spends. All the same, it’s a problem solved. What can possibly go wrong with a player whose first name conjures up the best early morning aroma in human history?

Jozefzoon goes off on loan to SM Caen for the season, because there’s no time to find a permanent home for him. In the meantime I approach the disgruntled Tom Huddlestone and ask him what he thinks of the Jatta signing? He’s still unhappy, so much so that he now considers he and I to be mortal enemies. I don’t even get the chance to impress him when the January window comes around. As far as he’s concerned we’re done here. If these were nobler times it would be a glove across the face and pistols at dawn. The worry is that Huddlestone’s one of the side’s top influencers. I have Rooney’s support, but not his.

In my experience squad dynamics are just about as important as anything. It’s no surprise to have a group of players that’s ambivalent and even sceptical about me at this point in my career, but if they start turning against me then it’s going to be an uphill battle to bring them back onside. The obvious remedy is to go on a good run and earn my managerial spurs, persuade the players into thinking they may be going somewhere with me making the decisions. The next few games suddenly take on a critical quality. Win and Huddlestone’s personal enmity might not matter very much; hell, even he might feel better about working for me. Lose and the whole house of cards could collapse…

Derby FM20 – Meet the Gang

The transfer window closes in the week following the Huddersfield match, so there may be further additions to the side made at the last minute, indeed this will almost certainly happen just to meet my promises to a couple of grumpy first teamers. It isn’t easy to sign players for a club like this. Finding ballers who are (i) better than what we have (ii) willing to come (iii) affordable is a a proper challenge, hopefully one I have met, though I’ll confess my initial scheme of a massive overhaul simply did not come to pass.

In the meantime, I’m asked to do those things that indicate the season is nigh. Squad numbers have been issued. Players are registered. The groundsman has asked me for my preferred pitch size. I bet if it’s Pep Guardiola this is a cap doffing, deferential affair – Please Mr Guardiola sir, if you have a moment to cast your magnificent eyes over this morsel of a question, etc, whereas what I get is along the lines of Oi fuckstick, what’s the plan? Hmmm, I’ll show them.

Here’s the team for 2019/20:

Goalkeepers

Ben Hamer (31,  £2.5 million value) is on loan to us from Huddersfield, no doubt arranged in the light of Scott Carson jetting off for the relative glamour of the Manchester City stiffs. The coaching staff consider him to be a “leading player for League One sides”, which comes with the obvious warning signs that Hamer is clearly not going to be a suitable first choice here. There’s nothing bad exactly, but nothing especially good either, and looking into the player’s past there have been a handful of years when he’s played as his team’s starter across a career stretching back to 2005. It’s for this reason I made it my main focus to capture a goalkeeper, more or less at any price. Extensive scouting, and a fair number of refusals, eventually brought Lorenzo Montipo (23,  £4.6m) to our door, someone who should be utterly at ease in the Championship and even has the potential to develop into a Premier League net-minder. Capable of playing as an effective sweeper keeper, not earning an extravagant wage, and happy to be here, it’s my contention that you really do need a good player in this position and thankfully we now have one.

Right-Backs

A position defined by injuries. The first choice under normal circumstances would be Jayden Bogle (19,  £5m), a defensive wing-back from the Academy ranks who broke into our first team last season. Suffering from pulled ankle ligaments and unavailable until October, Jayden is considered to be fairly injury prone and this factor might ultimately have an adverse effect on his room for development, otherwise he has decent technical levels for a player his age and possesses the stamina to run up and down his flank for ninety minutes. It’s his lack of availability that has forced my hand into drafting in Cyrus Christie (26,  £5.75m) on loan until the January transfer window. Cyrus the Virus is probably about the best we could manage as an interim player. A former Ram, now at Fulham and having been tested at the top flight, he’s a perfectly adequate wing-back. He was often caught at sea in his Premier League season, still far up the pitch as speedy counter-attacks quickly moved the action into his defensive areas, and it’s for this reason that his poor anticipation make him a player who’s completely unsuitable for anything more testing than the Championship, but here he should be fine. Under normal circumstances our alternative to Bogle would be Andre Wisdom (26,  £3.7m), from the vaunted ranks of Liverpool’s Academy and a £2 million signing in 2017. Described by the staff as a good player for Championship sides, he’s an ideal fit for the squad with sound figures in all the right areas. His wage (£23,000 per week) is an issue, as I would prefer not to be paying so much to someone who will be second choice once everyone is fit and well, but he’s a decent asset to have for the time being. Torn knee ligaments will rob us of his services until the end of August.

Left-Backs

Our first choice is Max Lowe (22,  £3.5m), a homegrown product that says a lot about Derby’s ability to churn out first team footballers. Max is a great wing-back, about as good at passing as he is at tackling and able to put in a decent cross, which will be useful to us. He’s only taking home £3.5k per week, so I expect salary discussions will be an issue at some point in the future. The back-up was a toss-up between Craig Forsyth and Scott Malone (28,  £875k), and it was the latter’s age and willingness to accept a squad rotational role that saw me keep him and sell the other. In truth neither player is really good enough for us. At some point we will have to address the thorny issue of drafting in a player of real ability to take us forward, and there’s a dependency on Max Lowe to remain hale and hearty, but for now Scott should be okay. He’s a low injury risk and can do most things well enough, albeit with no expectation on him to surprise us. Some bright spark saw fit to pay this journeyman £20k per week, probably a fall-out from his spell in the Premier League with Huddersfield, and it’s this factor aligned with his limited ability that has him on borrowed time.

Centre-Backs

A unit that needed some work, with two decent defenders and one very old and over every hill former star man. The latter, Curtis Davies, needed to be sold as only ‘more seasoned’ gamers like me will remember having him in our teams back when he was a promising young gun with a career of endless possibilities to look forward to…

Before I joined the club, Krystian Bielik (21,  £4.1m) was the Rams’ major signing, a £7.5 million acquisition from Arsenal. A good bit of business that I probably would have quailed from making due to the scale of the outlay, the teenage Pole is homegrown, has fantastic levels of potential and is already perfectly calibrated for Championship football. He was clearly acquired as a star in the making and he has all those qualities, along with strong attributes in marking and tackling, packaged in a 6′ 2″ frame that could make him the ideal long-term stalwart. It’s a different story with Matt Clarke (22,  £6.75m), as he’s on loan to us from Brighton and considered to be good at this level. Of a similar build to Bielik and very good at heading, it’s to be hoped that these two represent a considerable wall for opposition attackers.

Signings were needed to augment this unit. I can’t expect two centre-backs to last the full rigours of a season and so the hunt has been on for a couple of additions. One, Alexander Milosevic (27,  £5.75m), was brought in very early on a free transfer. The Swede is a much travelled and experienced addition, for whom we had to outbid a number of teams in sealing the acquisition. I have also made a number of promises to him in order to gain his signature, which makes me slightly regret not paying more attention to these details. It used to be the case that every English side needed some Scandinavian influences and we have them now. Alex has been capped for his country on seven occasions and looks like being a sound signing, with caveats highlighting his occasional laziness and reputation for arguing with the referee. It won’t be dull, at least.

We have also brought in Perr Schuurs (19,  £2.6m), a promising member of the talent production line that is Jong Ajax. I don’t want to sign players on loan and would far rather buy them outright, however Perr would have cost us a nebulous amount so in his case there’s a clause in the loan agreement that allows us the option of a £6 million fee if he works out. It’s a ‘try before you buy’ situation, in other words. Another tall defender who is turning heads with his appearances for the Dutch international U21s, the issue is a lethargy in his game that is a symptom of his lack of natural fitness. This can be worked upon. Technically he looks like he has what it takes, if he so chooses to hone his talent.

Midfielders

A mixed bag of a unit, Derby’s complement of midfielders contains one of the best players in the division and a living legend of the English game, through to the standard Championship group that needs an injection of talent.

Lewis Baker (24,  £4.2m) represents that injection, a midfielder on the Chelsea loans carousel who was transfer-listed and more than capable of handling football at this level. With his young age and potential to make in the top flight, Lewis is the ideal capture for me, though the amount of travelling he’s done and failure to make any sort of impact at Stamford Bridge are slight concerns. His passing is an asset, and he is fit, and those are his strong cases for succeeding with the Rams.

I’m making Max Bird (18,  £3m) available for loan, due principally to the lack of first team opportunities he is likely to enjoy this season. Versatile and capable of playing naturally in a defensive or central midfield role, he’s far more of an asset than a liability. It’s because he’s behind too many other players that has prompted me to put him out there. He’s up against George Evans (24,  £1.5m) for DM, currently a readier but ultimately more limited player who is probably in the right place to be second fiddle. The difference is that Max could grow into something a bit special; George has done most of his growing, and the results don’t suggest a star in the making.

Jason Knight (18,  £3.8m) is, like Max Bird, a homegrown midfielder who has only just been promoted to the first team. With more Under-21 caps for Ireland than appearances for Derby, this is his chance to impress, something of a pocket rocket in a box to box role with great natural physical assets and room for development elsewhere. I suspect we will struggle to hold on to him if he grows as expected, and if we don’t show signs of progress at the same time. Ten years his senior, Graeme Shinnie (28,  £4.7m) is a free signing who’s making his first moves in England after a career spent with Aberdeen and Inverness Caley Thistle. A regular starter with those clubs and rated as important here, Graeme has been capped six times by Scotland and is considered essential enough to the cause to be named as vice-captain. A good man to have in the ranks and superb as a team player, the only concern is his high aggression level that could make him a target for card-happy referees.

All this is mere a supporting act to the main player at Derby. Step forward Wayne Mark Rooney (33,  £4m), a bona fide superstar who was the focal point for his country for the best part of a decade and remains England’s record goalscorer. These days Wayne has steadily fallen back from his old position as the side’s spearhead and is now most likely to be used as a defensive midfielder – his passing is fantastic, his vision miraculous at this level. Wayne is of course far too good to be playing in the Championship. We’ve got him because he’s working a dual role as a first team coach, but he rightly holds the captaincy and retains his star power. The latter is reflected in his Premier League salary of £50,000 per week, and his presence within our lowly ranks is no doubt reflective of Wayne’s status as a first team regular from the age of 16, all that football taking its inevitable toll on his body.

Attacking Midfielders

An area hit by injury, notably on the right side where we will not see anything of Ikechi Anya (31, £350k) before November. For a fringe player Ikechi is earning £28,000 per week, which is a crazy amount, and it isn’t even as though he looks that good when he’s fully fit. The high wage is a consequence of signing him from Premier League Watford, where he was still active. We paid £4 million for him in 2016 and steadily since then he has figured less and less, until now he is probably of a League One standard. Bloody hell Derby, talk about money to burn… The more obvious starter, thankfully, is Duane Holmes (24,  £3.9m), an American international from, er, Wakefield, who is in the latter stages of his recovery from a torn thigh muscle. This, coupled with his holidaying, has robbed me of his services so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do. Memories are stirred of another Holmes from Derby, Lee Holmes, who was one of the latent stars of the game in Championship Manager 2003/04 edition, but Duane’s quite a different animal and our best hope of having a winning presence on the right wing. The unavailability of this pair has left me relying on Florian Jozefzoon (28,  £3.3m), the rarity of a Surinamese footballer playing in England and a stunningly average one at that. For some reason ‘Flo’ has been declining in recent months, despite supposedly being in his prime years. I’m tempted to find a new home for him before too long. In the case of Anya he’s in the last season of his contract, one I would be a total stupidface if I even considered renewing. Alas his injury means we just can’t shift him in the short term.

There’s more quality on the left wing, thankfully, where it’s a toss-up between two players who deserve regular football and have quite possibly filled in on both flanks in an effort to maximise their talents. Tom Lawrence (25,  £4.1m) is a Welsh international who operates as an inverted winger and brings a fine level of technique to the table. Unfortunately those years of playing alongside Gareth Bale have made him a star in his own head, with a temptation to go on Ronaldo-style mazy dribbles that in his instance lead nowhere. Mate, Ronaldo and Bale can do this because they have amazing ability – you play for Derby in the Championship for a reason. Martyn Waghorn (29,  £4.5m) is about as second tier as it gets. He started at Sunderland before being part of the pre-promotion Leicester set-up, then taking in spells at Wigan, Rangers and Ipswich before coming here. I think he’s about as talented as Lawrence, and he can run up and down his wing all day, albeit not very quickly though there are signs of flair that imply he can pull off something unpredictable.

Strikers

A unit filled with sufficient personnel that I was able to consciously uncouple from Chris Martin, once a free scoring forward (note the use of the word ‘once’) and ship him out to Birmingham. We have a loanee of our own, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy (20,  £750k), ‘gifted’ to us by Aston Villa who know a cruel joke when they see one because frankly he looks a bit gash. There’s much room for improvement here. The coaches see him as a future Premier League striker, but for me the Championship is too high a level for him at this stage in his career and a player we have signed as a regular starter will do well to get any football in the first team. 

The only permanently signed forward in the side is Jack Marriott (24,  £3.8m), who cost us £5 million back in 2018 on the back of a superb year’s work with Peterborough. Looking slightly less sure-footed at this tier, Jack can nevertheless develop into a good player and the rest is up to him. He certainly has the pace, and he can finish, but his squad rotation status is probably a correct reflection of his current abilities. It rests therefore on Troy Parrott (17,  £9m) to score our goals. There’s a precariousness about relying on someone who isn’t even a grown-up yet, but our young loanee from Tottenham pretty much has it all, is our best natural finisher whilst his 6′ 2″ frame makes him good in the air. There’s very little possibility that Spurs will sell someone they view as a genuine prospect for future stardom, so much as I once signed Carlos Vela to propel Middlesbrough into the Premier League back in FM 2010 here I’m depending on Troy to produce the goods. Vela scored goal after goal before sodding off back to Arsenal and eventually moving to Real Madrid. Can we expect anything like this quality from the youngster?

Derby FM20 – Reshaping Part 3

The calendar of pre-season games starts with an away day at Maidenhead. We win 3-0 with goals from Waghorn, Huddlestone and Rooney, and it’s exactly as dominant as that scoreline suggests, more an excuse to build up match fitness than do anything productive. Still, the town’s quite pretty. Next up is a tie at Pride Park against Manchester United, which is certainly more of a challenge even if I can expect Ole to name a rough side. This he does, placing Mason Greenwood at the spearhead of his attack, and by half-time they’re a goal ahead, McTominay netting from a scruffy penalty area melee. I warn the players that I expect better, especially as 29,901 people have made it out to watch us and we should be aiming to entice them into returning. With little choice but to play a more attacking style we push forward frequently, try to make nuisances of ourselves in the opposition, aim to do better than standing back in awe at the fact we’re taking on one of the country’s biggest teams. Nothing much happens, but the second half is a fairly even affair, and we get our just rewards late into added time when we win a penalty. Waghorn beats De Gea to make it 1-1 and a morale boosting draw.

We don’t have to travel very far to take on Burton Albion, now a League One outfit coached by former Rams manager Nigel Clough. This one’s a frustrating affair. The boys pummel Garrett’s goal, raining in shot after shot, enjoying nearly three quarters’ possession, but we’re wasteful with our opportunities. After going ahead via Lewis Baker in the fourth minute, we should be out of sight but I’ve opted to field Rushian Hepburn-Murphy up front and it turns out he’s bobbins. The forward, a 20 year old on loan from Aston Villa, doesn’t look that good in training and works hard to match that assessment on the pitch, making it clear to me he will be very much third choice behind Parrott and Marriott. If only we could terminate his loan deal, or not have to pay half his wages, but it seems someone at Villa knew what they were doing when this move was arranged. Burton get a somewhat fortuitous equaliser via Sterling-James deep in the second half, but this prompts us into a flurry of reaction, which gets its rewards towards the end of the game when Milosevic heads in Waghorn’s corner ball.

The trip to Motherwell produces a 0-0 draw so insipid and highlight-free that there’s nothing about it to stick in the memory. It’s an even affair, Krystian Bielik winning Player of the Match for defending stoutly, and keeping a clean sheet in an away game is some sort of plus, right?

Finally, we entertain Club Brugge, taking on an actual Champions League team that attracts a crowd of nearly 10,000. Brugge last won the Belgian league in 2018, and whilst I don’t know whether that says more about them or the division it’s cool to be taking on a relatively glamorous outfit, one that’s found a home for one-time Liverpool comedy goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet. Between us we produce a fairly even contest. The visitors have the better of the first period and we dominate the second, a matter that appears to be decided on whether Rooney’s involved. Once we introduce the English legend the complexion of the game changes in our favour. Here’s someone for the opposition to respect, a man capable of picking out a ranging pass that splits their defence, which is precisely how we come to win when he finds Jozefzoon with a 30 yard bullet and the winger is polite enough to hit the back of the net from close range.

I’m starting to get a very good idea of how the side ticks, though the situation is changing all the time with first team players steadily returning from injury. Marriott is just about going to make it back to full fitness in time for the season’s start. Duane Holmes isn’t far away, but Anya, Bogle and Wisdom are more distant prospects, and we happily add to the crocks when defensive midfielder Max Bird suffers a groin strain during training and is rendered unavailable for a month.

The squad changes continue, even on the eve of our opener against Huddersfield. With Max Lowe and Scott Malone available to play at left-back, we don’t need a third player and 30 year old Craig Forsyth is the one to lose out. This is partly due to his age, and getting his salary off the books, and the fact he’s been here since 2012 and in many ways represents the years of bumbling around at this level. Several clubs are willing to make a punt on him, and it’s Sunderland who eventually win his services, paying £750,000 for the privilege. I think it speaks volumes that a player considered to be one of the squad’s most influential makes a move that takes him down a division.

Unfortunately this is one of those instances when the sale of a team leader prompts uncertainty and some unhappiness in the dressing room. I only assuage Tom Huddlestone’s concerns by saying I am going to replace Forsyth with a better player, which means I need to do exactly that. The man in mind is Manuel Ugarte, an 18 year old defensive midfielder who plays currently for Fenix. There’s much about this one that is in the balance. At his age Ugarte will eventually become homegrown, and the scouts have been slavering about his abilities. But he is Uruguayan, without a cap to his name, and I think we will have to hope the Immigration Office is looking the other way if we are to get a work permit for him. But you never know. We offer £3.8 million for someone who could become a star…

The player agrees terms easily enough, but we have to wait until close to the end of the transfer window to discover whether his application for a work permit has been successful. In the meantime, we need a fourth centre back. I want Perr Schuurs, a 19 year old who comes from the famous Ajax Academy. There’s little interest from the club in accepting a transfer fee, but they are willing to let him go out on a loan, and I sneak an optional future fee of £6 million into his contract that I hope nobody notices. Everything’s agreed, and we have a potential Premier League defender on the books at a salary commitment of £1,300 per week, which incredibly is the full amount he was being paid by Ajax.

That should more or less finish my rebuilding efforts. The squad isn’t perfect of course, and it’s been a tougher job than I expected to sell Derby to potential signings, but we have at least two players for each position now, which we will need if we are to get through the season. It’s here my Assistant Manager Chris van der Weerden advises me of a promise I made to a player, one I had completely forgotten about. Upon recruiting Alexander Milosevic it seems I guaranteed I would bring in a friend to help him settle. I forgot all about it, clearly part of the package that persuaded the Swede to come to Pride Park and now something I have to honour. I haul the player into my office and ask him to suggest someone; true to form he can’t think of a single person, which is incredibly helpful. I am left to scour the Swedish scene, settling initially on either Simon Tibbling or Mattias Svanberg, both young internationals. Their clubs agree fees easily enough, but neither player is interested in negotiating personal terms, which at least doesn’t leave us hanging. I then look at Sebastian Larsson, a veteran midfielder who’s hanging out with Milosevic’s old club, AIK. My aim is to not spend a lot on someone with a limited shelf life, but as the negotiations take place we hit the wall of going to Huddersfield for the season opener. This signing, one that we don’t need to make just to keep a player whom we signed on a free happy, is going to take us right up to the deadline.

Derby FM20 – Reshaping Part 2

As I think I’ve mentioned previously my track record in Football Manager 2020 has mainly been with big clubs. Things happen with the likes of AC Milan and Manchester United that simply don’t at this level, and it all boils down to money and reputation. Want to sign someone as manager of Milan? Fine! Your man has heard of the Rossoneri because he has a brain and naturally is desperate to strut his funky stuff on your stage. Things are different at Derby County, where my overtures are reacted to dubiously. Players are reluctant to play in the English second tier for a side and a manager that aren’t on their radar. I can throw cash at the situation, offering to recompense them for lending their talents to our lowly cause, but the job of selling a Championship outfit to potential signings is not as straightforward as it was with those recognised giants.

Even transfer listed players have higher expectations of themselves than deigning to play for us. I don’t expect to recruit Douglas Costa or James Rodriguez, the most prestigious of the unwanted talent out there, but the pickings are slim when you’re a mid-table second division outfit whose glory years happened when your dad was at best a slip of a lad.

And then there’s the issue of wages. We’ve all winced at some point when we have seen the fabulous levels of wealth lavished on players who turn out to be pretty ordinary because they’ve joined a Premier League outfit. I could offer a role to Henri Saivet, the midfielder who promised a lot when he joined Newcastle and delivered little. At our level he’d be a fine acquisition, and yet he’s earning nearly £40,000 per week, so he’s priced out. Watford’s Andre Gray? £70,000 per week. Jack Wilshere, patron saint of treatment tables and once the next big thing in English football? Yours as long as you’re prepared to come close to meeting his £80,000 salary expectations; oh and don’t forget to buy a stack of new hospital bed sheets – you’re gonna need them.

Our search for a new goalkeeper takes place across the continent. What we want is someone who can start for us, is better than what we have already and is young enough to possess the potential for development. We have money to spend, so meeting a reasonable transfer fee should present no significant obstacle. As I will find during this transfer window, however, despite setting what I think is a low bar the prospect of moving to Derby is a big negative in most peoples’ eyes. The scouting reports flood back, all with various shades of recommendation but little inclination from current clubs to sell and virtually none from the players to move. We’d love to make Cameron Dawson from Sheffield Wednesday our man. He’s 24, plays second fiddle to Keiren Westwood and wouldn’t have to take a drop in division to turn out for us. No interest. I also make overtures to Newcastle’s Martin Dubravka, one of many Barcodes who is basically for sale by the man who shifts sports goods as cheap tat. Not bothered.

In the end, our hunt high and low takes us all the way to the Italian Serie B. At Benevento is a 23 year old keeper called Lorenzo Montipo, an under-21 international for his country albeit in the permanent shadow cast by Donnarumma. I dispatch Director of Football David Moss to arrange the deal. We wind up paying £3.6 million for him and offering the young Italian a £9.5k per week contract. That sounds like a lot, but I’d fund any amount of money for the right man and he absolutely improves the side.

As a postscript and a damning indictment of my attention to detail, it’s only later that I realise I could simply have recalled Scott Carson from Manchester City’s Under 23s team. As ordinary as he is (and he really is), he was still the squad’s best keeper. Oh well, live and learn, right?

To boost our midfield quality I turn to the list of the damned, the players who have been deemed surplus to requirements by their clubs. My pick is Lewis Baker, because he’s a namesake and due to no longer being wanted by Chelsea. They demand £3.2 million, and he’s after a £25k salary, a third of which will be paid by his old club. The 24 year old seems to me to be a good and natural fit. He’s also endemic of all the things that have made Chelsea something of a bastard of a set-up. Never having kicked a ball in anger for them during his seven year stay at Stamford Bridge, like most prospects he’s been doled out on a string of loans, taking in the delights of Sheffield Wednesday, MK Dons, Vitesse (two separate, season-long spells), Middlesbrough, Leeds and Reading. His success at these places has been varied, and it occurs to me that I could follow suit and arrange a loan deal for him, however I would far rather call time on his Chelsea hell and give him some stability, actually offer a permanent future for him somewhere. Nobody is suggesting that Baker will transform into a superstar; he is however a lot better than he’s been treated and ought to thrive at this level as a technical midfielder with a good passing range. The coaches see him as the second best player within this unit behind Wayne Rooney.

DoF Moss suggests signing Sunderland’s Duncan Watmore as cover for Duane Holmes. The League One winger is available for around £125,000, which is nothing, though there’s little about Watmore that indicates we’re getting our hands on the snip of the summer. The matter then slips through our fingers when the move breaks down over his salary demands. He expects us to honour the £15k per week deal he has going on at the Stadium of Light. We aren’t prepared to pay that much for an average player, so maybe we have dodged a bullet here.

With Montipo in the side we are now overloaded with goalkeepers. I have little time for Kelle Roos, the 27 year old Dutchman who I view as a health warning to Championship football. With Ben Hamer available to play back-up there’s absolutely no need to keep Roos on the books anymore so I hawk him out, eventually agreeing a £600,000 fee with Udinese. More fool them, right?

Derby FM20 – Reshaping Part 1

Summer break is my favourite part of Football Manager. The season itself I can find a bit stressful, truth be told, though not without its various delights, however in those between times I get the hopeful promise of building a team, tinkering to knock together a side capable of raising everyone’s expectations… until it all gets knocked down when we start playing matches…

There’s much to do at Pride Park. We begin with the much needed influx of staff. Dr Andy Renshaw and Dr Steve Devine sign on as physiotherapists to complete our team of quacks. Neither’s reputation is especially strong, but they are about as good as it gets in their administration of treatments, and with a fragile set of lads like we have, not to mention the rigours of a long campaign to follow, they’ll be needed. We also take on George Bentley as our Heads of Sports Science. These moves propel us to having the second best medical team in the division.

On the coaching side, ex-Scotland international staffer Jim Stewart is brought in to work with goalkeepers. At 65 he brings a wealth of experience. Portsmouth’s Mark Chamberlain comes in, mainly to work on technical areas of training (we’re now the peak of the Championship in this area). His recruitment forces us to come to a mutual agreement with one of the existing coaches, and it’s Liam Rosenior who gets his marching orders, though apparently not as he agrees a new contract to work full time as a Data Analyst. I’ll be honest; I don’t really know what a Data Analyst does, but if it keeps him happy… Finally, we get David Moss to be our Director of Football. Once doing the same job at Celtic, who I would argue have been quite good over the years, I see this as a plus for us. Nick Evans is sought and signed as the new Technical Director. Again, I’m not really sure what he’s here to do, but apparently we need one and now we’ve got one. Job’s a good ‘un.

I make my first playing recruitment with the free transfer of Alexander Milosevic. I see this potentially as a bit of a coup. Clubs were lining up for the 27 year old Swedish international, and after agreeing to some promises he laid out we made him our capture. This one doesn’t come without risk. We’re Alex’s tenth club (if we count two separate stints with AIK twice). His previous experience of England comes from spending last season with Nottingham Forest, and there are bits about his game that simultaneously tantalise and terrify me. He can do everything a good ball playing defender should be able to, but there’s his history of aggression that’s a bit of a concern. In particular he has a track record of arguing with referees, which doesn’t bode too well. I like someone who’ll stand his ground as well as anyone. No one wants a set of wallflowers in their line-up. But nor do I hope for a slew of bookings and dismissals, so this could be something to look out for.

Having good centre backs is so important. Milosevic is the first of a planned two recruits in this area, and his arrival allows me to work towards removing Curtis Davies from our books. There was a time when Davies was seen as a potential England international. Aston Villa once paid nearly £9.5 million for his services. Now he’s 34, clearly waning in terms of his powers and yet earning £25k per week for what will at best amount to being around in case we’re desperate. There’s no way I can justify this. Physically he’s on the slide and, for me, we should get something for him while there’s still the possibility of getting anything at all. Here’s where fun with the Derby Board takes place. I’m happy to accept any offer to take him off the books. Valued at £475,000, I would take a fraction of that amount if it meant showing him the door, yet the old farts refuse to accept anything less than £300k with a minimal salary contribution from the club. There’s no one that desperate, is there? It turns out there is – Olympiacos, the Greek giant based in Pireas. I haul Davies into my office, starting extolling the benefits and pleasures of a good seafood diet, show him slideshows from my holidays in Greece, bang on about paradises on earth, you know the sort of thing, when eventually more out of wanting me to stop than enthusiasm for the move he agrees to leave.

You will remember me saying in my last post that I would prefer not to bring players in on loan. Well, I’ve signed a couple of players on loan. The first, Cyrus Christie, makes complete sense as we have two very good right-backs at Derby but both are injured for a time. The Irish international is with us until the next transfer window, and as a former Ram is quite happy to spend time back at one of his old haunts. I remember Christie from his half-season with Middlesbrough, where he provided an effervescent, attacking presence with a worrying propensity to forget his defensive duties. Perhaps he’s learned a bit since then.

We also take Troy Parrott from Spurs for the season. At 17, he’s very green but may very well be the best striker on the books. His arrival paves the way for selling Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay and at one point a feared forward. Now 30 and having been with us for eight years, I see Martin’s powers as fading. This was emphasised by his loan spell with Hull in 2018/19 where he shat out two goals from thirty appearances. No one is prepared to sign him permanently, but Birmingham City will loan him for the year and pay his wages in full, which is good enough for me. With Parrott in and Martin out, I’ve made a weekly saving in the wage budget of £8,000, and at this level every little counts.

It’s 6 July. I’ve been here just over a week. The coaching staff have overseen a friendly game against Young Boys, but I expect to be in charge when we take on Maidenhead for the first of our run of five pre-season encounters this month. By the time we go to Kent and visit Theresa May’s constituency for the game I want to have made a few more squad changes. There’s still around thirty grand in the wage budget to play with, and a considerable £12,000,000 lolly to spend on players, so much room for manoeuvre.

The priority position is goalkeeper. Our best existing net minder is Scott Carson, once an England international with the ignominious record amongst his four caps of being in goal for his country’s 3-2 defeat against Croatia in 2008, the infamous ‘wally with a brolly’ match in which he was to blame for Krancjar’s goal. In any event he’s on loan at Manchester City for the season, which is of no use to us and little for him either as he’s only there to increase their complement of homegrown players. In his absence we’ve drafted in Ben Hamer from Huddersfield for the year. I don’t know who’s agreed this. The 31 year old is happy to be here, but he’s happily bobbins, and his understudy, Kelle Roos, is worse still. In my experience you can never get very far in football if you don’t have at least a good goalkeeper. As a Championship manager I’m not exactly expecting Dino Zoff, but some level of competency would be nice. My main area of scouting will therefore be the hunt for a decent goalie, on whom I’m prepared to invest if he looks right to me. Ah readers, I remember a Middlesbrough game in FM2010 when I discovered Nigerian international Vincent Enyeama available for around £350,000 – someone of his calibre would be just the ticket right now, or even a keeper with one good working arm. The search continues.

Derby FM20 – Arrival

Before continuing I should make something clear. I don’t rush through seasons. Football Manager is a slow and considered experience for me. A month in the game can amount to a long evening’s thinking and reading stuff. We all have our ways of approaching it. Mine is ponderous, and that will be reflected in the entries here. If you expect season summaries, covering everything in the broadest of brush strokes then you’ve come to the wrong place. What I can offer, if you aren’t already running for the hills, is a deep dive into the game. I’ll share my philosophies, how I feel the side ought to be built, the steps I take to make the players fit my tactics, my attitude towards the opposition and the future. I’m not saying that, like Aitor Karanka, I prepare lengthy dossiers for each match and expect the players to learn them by heart, but I’m pretty obsessive and this will take some time. One day I might even tell you about the media interviews I hold with myself in the bath…

Still with me? Good, let’s carry on. As mentioned in the previous post the board expect us to avoid relegation, which for a team that has been a top ten regular seems overly cautious. The first thing I do – without even taking the normally sensible step of looking at the squad – is negotiate the seasonal target to finishing in mid-table, and for this blinding ambition my transfer budget is increased to £11,933,333, with more than £50,000 now available within the weekly wage limit. We should be able to achieve that, hopefully much better than that in fact, and the money ought to  go some ways towards building a side capable of preparing for loftier future prospects. For my part I’m handed a two year contract that carries a weekly salary of £18.75k. Not bad for a new manager with a reputation little over one star, based on a background of being a nationally recognised footballer (not quite Frank Lampard, more along the lines of Nicky Butt or *shudder* Jonathan Woodgate, perhaps).

in any event, it’s a decent start. My first task is to work through the club’s staff roster (see image above, and click on it for a larger version that opens in a new tab). This is a mixed bag. In terms of coaching we aren’t bad, in fact we’re considered the Championship’s best in certain areas, however I have no interest in taking training so it’s important to have the best personnel I can possibly recruit for this part of the work. The scouting side of the operation is pretty average, but we are decidedly weak in our medical staff. To my horror I learn the club has one head physio – albeit a good one in Robin Sadler – but no one working under him, and this with a squad carrying a number of long term injuries. We have spaces for two more physios, so I make contract offers to Andy Renshaw and Steve Devine, neither with high reputations yet unimpeachable talents in their trade. Better still, they’re unemployed right now. Hopefully they will see their futures as being with the Rams. I offer a first team role to Portsmouth’s Under-18s coach, Mark Chamberlain, because we need someone who can specialise in teaching the technical side of the game, and I also make overtures to veteran goalkeeping coach Jim Stewart to improve this area.

Derby have a first team squad of 24 players. Of these, six – a full quarter of the playing complement, in old money – are injured, none for less than six weeks. The area worst hit is at right-back, where we have two fine players but both are unavailable to me. Jayden Bogle has pulled ankle ligaments (ouch!) that will keep him out for up to three months. The alternative, Andre Wisdom, has torn knee ligaments. I’ll be lucky to see him before October. Right wing is another problem area, where Ikechi Anya (torn calf muscle – four to five months) and Duane Holmes (torn thigh muscle – up to eight weeks) are ruled out. The best looking striker is Jack Marriott, a £5 million signing by Lamps, who has a pulled thigh and will do well to be ready in time for the season’s start. And then there’s Craig Forsyth, one of three left-backs in the squad, who’s out for up to two months with damaged cruciate ligaments. We’re the walking wounded. Without much walking actually taking place, truth be told.

It’s therefore important that we boost the number of physiotherapists at Pride Park. Championship campaigns are long. There are 46 games to play, with cup matches in two competitions thrown in as an addition and these can be real money spinners so we simply can’t treat them as unnecessary distractions to be dealt with expediently. Ideally we would do well on all fronts, build a sense of momentum, of a club going places, but as a bare minimum we require two good players for each position. That’s something we don’t have right now. In certain areas – left back, striker – we’re overstocked; in others – central midfield, centre backs – we lack basic numbers, and that’s to say nothing of the quality.

Derby’s squad has an average age of 26, which ideally i would like to reduce by a couple of years. If we are to aim high then I should be looking to build a side filled with potential. The players don’t need to be ‘off the shelf’ great, but they should have greatness (or even goodness) within them, so that after a couple of years’ match development and careful training they can potentially take on the added challenge of surviving in the Premier League. That means a transfer policy of scouting the lower leagues to death, hunting relentlessly for hints of latent talent we can then sharpen. Loaning players in ought to be a last resort – better to develop our own players than do it on behalf of other teams. Derby have three players who are essentially borrows – goalkeeper Ben Hamer from Huddersfield, Brighton defender Matt Clarke, and young Aston Villa striker Rushian Hepburn-Murphy. None come with future fees for permanent transfers as part of their contracts, so while we can use these players we won’t necessarily see any future benefit from them, and that’s something I would prefer to avoid.

Derby FM20 – Introduction

It’s pandemic time! The Coronavirus is part of your life, or is about to be, or at any rate it’s about the only thing anyone is talking about. A side consequence is the cancellation of most football, which sucks. The likely absence of Euro 2020 – at the time of writing – really hurts me, I can tell you. I work in a school, which has been given the order to close its door to most of its students. My drives to and from the job are incredibly quiet, as though I’m out on the roads on Christmas Day. Pubs and restaurants are shut to me now. I love a cinema visit, but that’s out of the question for the time being.

I haven’t known anything quite as existential and surreal as this time, a period of months that is forcing me to self-isolate and think of other things to do. The choices for the immediate future are watching YouTube videos and starting a new Football Manager save. As much as I disliked it there’s only so much time anyone can spend watching hate videos about the latest Star Wars film, so FM it is. So far I’ve been playing with big clubs, because I’m a bit lazy and a glory hunter I guess, but in the end you can win too many trophies via a combination of spending transfer monies and clear managerial genius, so let’s take on a chancer, one of the many Championship teams vying for promotion. Let’s do Derby County.

Why the Rams, I hear you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. I could of course manage genuine contenders like Leeds or West Brom, and there’s definitely some allure in attempting to guide the former back into the big time after all those years in the wilderness, yet as mentioned they are both sides that should go up. That means they have a lot of talent already, indeed in Kalvin Phillips Leeds have a Premier League ready baller who I would surely spend many hours trying to keep from the attention of allegedly bigger set-ups. Then there’s my own team, Middlesbrough. I’ve had a lot of fun in the past with Boro, particularly in the old days when I could fill the ranks with Swedes and win things, and most recently in a titanic FM 2010 save where I led them to Champions League glory. But I know a lost cause when I see one. The Boro job is a dog with fleas right now; anyone can see that. Why put myself through the pain of trying to do anything with the club I love when in reality I can see Coronavirus as a condition bought and paid for by Steve Gibson in an insidious attempt to put the season out of its misery. Clever bloke, Steve. If only he’d spent the money on a decent team instead.

And so Derby, and there are various reasons for taking them over, which will take in my own personal history with them, their background, where they are now and the promise they contain.

I’ll start with saying I have little love for this bunch. They’re about the same natural size as my club, albeit unlike Boro they share top billing for the hearts of Derbyites with a cricket club that I have actually been to watch play live (and a lovely lazy afternoon it was too, only partly sullied by the long journey there and back and the discovery that trying to navigate the M1 at rush hour is a complete twat). MFC and DCFC have a similar recent history. They are both arguably too big for the Championship and not quite big enough for the Premier League, based on their facilities and fan bases. Doing no research whatsoever, I sense they have more or less similar recent records in head to heads. I can certainly recall some memorable victories over them, including a 6-1 shellacking during our 1996/97 relegation season, and a 5-1 win in 2001 that suggested, very briefly, the stories about Carlos Marinelli being the new Maradona weren’t so wide of the mark. Spoiler alert- yes, yes they were. I remember being at Ayresome Park to watch us play them on New Years Day 1991. Anyone who’s been to Teesside from November to April knows that it is absolutely bollock freezing, so imagine the joy of watching your lot play out an insipid, testicle-retracting 1-1 draw, in which the most memory-jogging element was of being stood behind goal in the Holgate stand and marvelling at the sheer bulk of Peter Shilton in the away goal…

The lack of love comes from their rather naked efforts to spend money in going up over recent seasons, mostly fuelled by jealousy because that’s exactly what Boro used to do and the sense of fun that arose from it not working. They have a track record of appointing big name managers and breaking their transfer record, only to screw it up each time, and it’s always a laugh to see that happen. In 2018/19 it was the turn of Frank Lampard, in his first managerial role and leading lazy commentators to refer to them endlessly as ‘Frank Lampard’s Derby’, as though they had no history to speak of before he gifted them with what passes for his talents. After spending the usual small country’s GDP on players, including handing a place to his old Chelsea buddy, Ashley Cole, Fat Frank oversaw a late run of good form to squeeze the Rams into sixth place. They then somewhat heroically overcame much-fancied Leeds in the playoffs before eventually losing to Aston Villa at Wembley. Frank got the Chelsea job for his efforts. Derby were left to pick up the pieces.

The big difference between County and Boro is that they have won serious honours in the past, not just a single poxy League Cup as a consequence of all that investment. They’re previous FA Cup winners, and in the early 1970s were a Division One force thanks to the Renaissance generated by one Brian Howard Clough. Before Nottingham Forest and those European Cup miracles, Cloughie was over-achieving at the Baseball Ground, getting them promoted in 1969 and winning the league title three years later. Dave Mackay added another First Division trophy before they declined again. What happened during the Clough era is the stuff of legend, like a real life Footy Man game, and it’s well worth your time looking the events up for yourself at some point. Honestly, it’s gripping reading. There’s even The Damned United movie to give you some idea of what went on. Basically try and imagine the Leicester City glory season but forty years beforehand, admittedly when the Premier League wasn’t quite the closed shop it became but nonetheless a total anomaly, particularly with big shots like Shankley’s Liverpool and Leeds under Revie to contend with.

In their post-Lampard era, a rare instance for Derby of having lost their manager for positive reasons rather than via Mel Morris’s sacking finger, the club faces an uncertain future. They still have an eye for the celebrity appointment. Wayne Rooney has signed as a player-coach. Shay Given and Des Walker are part of the small staff list. A number of players have already been sold when I arrive, but the Rams continue to spend with the best of them, snapping up Polish defender Krystian Bielik from Arsenal for a cool £7.5 million in the summer. All they want initially is for the club to avoid relegation, which ought to be more than manageable. In exchange I have an actual transfer budget of £10 million to play with, and I get to entertain the fans at Pride Park, a relatively new stadium that’s built for the top flight and can accommodate nearly 35,000 souls.

According to the season preview we are tipped to finish 14th. Leeds and Fulham are best priced for automatic promotion, whereas Charlton, Luton and Barnsley need to watch their backs. Boro are 16-1 for 11th, which is at complete odds with what I’ve seen of them.