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.