Derby FM20 – May 2020: That Was the Season That Was

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

Before preparing for the new season, I figured it would be handy to wrap up 2019/20 with details of who was honoured for their Derby performances, how the Championship playoffs ended and what took place in the division we are soon going to think of as our new home…

Club Awards

Largely as expected, Lewis Baker was named our Player of the Year. He won 71% of the popular vote, an overwhelming margin ahead of Max Lowe (11%) and Bakery Jatta (10%). I largely agree with the verdict, though I should like to have seen Krystian Bielik perhaps get more recognition for a superb year’s work.

Lewis also won for Signing of the Season, while Pedro Chirivella claimed the Young Player award. A really competitive field this, the Spaniard up against the likes of Jatta, Bogle and Bielik. To celebrate, and to fend off the possibility of letting him slip through our fingers, I’ve negotiated a transfer for Pedro. He’ll cost us £750,000, and while you are right to note that we may have got him for free at the end of his contract the queue of clubs lining up for him terrified me into getting it over the line early.

Tom Lawrence scored the Goal of the Season, for his long shot against Barnsley in October. I would upload it to YouTube, but the Google sign-in error is prohibiting me from sharing the goodness of his volley – the first in that game was pretty special also, a cheeky lob from Max Lowe. Oh well.

Football 365 described our season as ‘[one] of unlikely yet jubilant success for the Rams, who consistently defied the odds from the outset, and were eventually crowned champions.’ I see nothing to argue with here.

Here’s the Championship Team of the Season, featuring a good representation from the Rams. I’m a little surprised that only Max Lowe figures for us in defence, no doubt a reflection of the scale of rotation I instigated among the centre-backs, however it’s really pleasing to see Jack Marriott make it. The little forward impressed me towards the end of the campaign, not so much his strike rate but rather his ability to hold up the ball and play a complete forward’s role in finding his team-mates in dangerous positions.

As you might expect, the club’s aim is for us to bravely fight against relegation in 2020/21. There’s an onus on me to work within the wage budget, which is fair enough, and to develop the best youth system in the country. The latter I think is ambitious, and I hope the board will play their part by investing in facilities and the Academy in helping to realise this dream. Additionally I’m asked to play high-tempo pressing football, and to refrain from signing players who are over 30.

I am given the opportunity to decide where Derby’s summer training camp will be held. The choices are limited. Whereas I’d plump for the States, there’s no option outside of Europe and I can even pick the East Midlands if I want to, which I don’t. In the end I go with the Algarve, because the aim of any good manager is to work on his Clayton Blackmore style tan, isn’t it?

The Playoffs

My personal aim for this season was initially to equal the sixth place that Frank Lampard achieved in 2019, thereby entering the playoffs. As we now know I buggered that up, and in most ways I’m happy to have avoided the hell of playing more matches whilst everyone else is already off on their holidays. My memories of games involving playoffs are invariably of sailing through the semi-final and cocking up the final, in part as a consequence of the most important player in the side getting injured beforehand. For some reason that always happens, and it doesn’t matter what I do… I could personally wrap them up in cotton wool and cryo-freeze them ritually before the big game, and someone who’s crucial will still find a way to take an arrow in the knee.

Still, not our problem this time. In the first semi Leeds are taking on Fulham, my two tips for automatic promotion. The latter are being made to rue choking at the last hurdle, while Leeds have no business being anywhere but in the top two and presumably this amounts to another success in the sparkling managerial record of Sam Allardyce. The first leg takes place at Elland Road. It’s a game of violence and casual thuggery, the ref showing six yellow cards and one red as the pair play out a largely exhausted contest. Helder Costa’s penalty puts the home team ahead early, but Ivan Cavaleiro equalises on the half-hour mark. Jean-Kevin Augustin finds a winner for Leeds, but before the end of the game they’re down to ten men, Kalvin Phillips having been dismissed for a second yellow. Without their best player the Yorkshire side are broken and go down 4-0 in the return leg at Craven Cottage. Arter, Mawson, Mitrovic and Bryan all score as Leeds are simply brushed aside, living up to their traditional role of chokers when it really matters.

The other half of the draw pits fourth placed Reading against Middlesbrough. Two sides that have vastly over-achieved in reaching these heights and in turn cast the more fancied likes of West Brom and Cardiff to another season of second-tier football. The Riverside Stadium hosts the first leg, a shock 3-0 win for the home team whose three scorers – Patrick Roberts, Lukas Nmecha, Luke Berry – are all loanees. Roberts, the City player who marauds from the right wing has been their big star all season, ending memories of Adama Traore and at times single-handedly drives Boro forward. Back at the Madesjski Yakou Meite heads in Pele’s free kick to set up an interesting contest, but then Danny Loader is red carded for a horror movie tackle on Djed Spence and all the visitors need to do from there is hold Reading at arm’s length. Boro’s 3-1 aggregate win sets up a showpiece at Wembley against Fulham.

The final is as disciplined and cagey as you’d expect with so much on the line. It’s settled by a single goal, almost predictably from Roberts who’s very much on our radar now as the game’s outstanding player. Boro are stunned to have won 1-0. Like us they were expected to do little this season, so to find themselves in the Premier League is an enormous achievement, indeed I would argue all three promoted sides have bucked the odds against more fancied favourites.

The Premier League and Cup Competitions

The critical match in deciding this year’s winner takes place at the Etihad, a catch-up game between the Manchester giants. Despite Ederson getting himself removed from the field in the first minute, suffering a knee injury after some industrial attentions from Paul Pogba, the home team are good for a 3-0 romp, and sail to the title. Man of the Match Aguero is scintillating, De Gea awful, as the Blues clinch their third consecutive title with a more modest 84 points. Their main rivals, Chelsea, finish a point behind when they win on the last day and City suffer a meaningless defeat. United and Liverpool make up the top four. At the other end Watford are bottom all season and go down on 30 points. Crystal Palace and Wolves join them as surprising relegated outfits, the latter disappointing throughout – the appointment of Bielsa makes no difference to their fortunes.

Brighton knocked us out of the FA Cup, and then raised their game for a thrilling victory over Arsenal in the quarter-final. Liverpool are next, something of a reckoning for the Seagulls as they are done 6-3. Gross and Duffy put them ahead, but then the usual suspects start turning the screw, Salah laying on a masterclass with his goal and three assists. The Pool will take on Chelsea, who did for Leicester in their semi-final. At Wembley, the Scousers run riot, producing chance after chance, Andy Robertson especially enterprising and forcing Reece James to play the performance of his life in limiting his attacking spark. It’s decided on a penalty kick. Salah is the scorer as Liverpool prevail.

The Premier League champions add the European Cup to their roll of honours. City beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 in a superb final played in Istanbul, the contest going to extra-time as Morelos and Laporte’s strikes cancel each other out. Gundogan finds an eventual winner, while PSG succumb to injuries with Di Maria and Neymar both forced off their field of play. The latter suffers a foot injury, a comedy of errors as no one believes there’s anything wrong with him for several minutes. The Europa League is decided by penalties, Sevilla prevailing over Real Madrid at the end of a tense 1-1 where Oliver and Hazard’s strikes prove indecisive.

Back at Pride Park, I dream of European nights while the players are all enjoying themselves in Dubai. When we return not all of them will still be Rams, and an early transfer has already been arranged after I’ve fallen out with Alex Milosevic. The Swede is angry that I haven’t worked harder to improve the group of coaches. I argue that the group is better than it was, indeed it’s one of the Championship’s finest coaching set-ups, but he isn’t happy and the heated discussion ends with me agreeing to transfer-list him. Boro are looking to strengthen their ranks and see the difficult to please Swede as a piece of the jigsaw, paying £4.3 million for his contract. Personally I don’t think that’s bad business for someone we picked up for nothing at all, for me the least of our four centre-backs but someone who has given his career a shot in the arm with a year of top flight football.

He won’t be the last to go as I settle down to the thorny task of improving our ranks. A summer of Redknapp-style wheeling and dealing is in order, as I constantly check on who’s available, where the bargains are, adjusting the budgets, trying to achieve the delicate balance of adding to the ranks without rubbing out the spirit of what’s got us to where we are…

Derby FM20 – May 2020: End of Term Report

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

So how ready are we for a long campaign of top flight football? The sobering truth lies in this table, which categorises the Derby lads according to where our coaches believe their current playing level to be:

I have included the Premier League as a column to illustrate how far away from that standard we are right now. Various players are considered capable of rising to that level, but they aren’t there yet. For now we are very much a Championship side, with some ageing and young players bubbling under, and poor old Marcus Olsson some way off the pace.

What you really want to know are my thoughts on each member of the team, how they’ve performed and what their prospects are. This then is the place for you. In squad number order…

1. Lorenzo Montipo
Age – Nationality: 24 –
Current Value: £5.25 million
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 53 (0) – 25
Average Rating: 6.83
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Potential to be a decent Premier Division goalkeeper in the future
A key signing in summer 2019, Enzo was brought in to be an instant starter with a developmental brief to improve himself to top flight standards. He absolutely hit the former, pulling off any number of important saves and ending the term with the division’s second best record for clean sheets. I can indicate on one hand the number of times he let me down. Solid and lacking eccentric ‘qualities’, his value rose beyond the £3.6 million we paid for him and he is especially impressive in his reflexes. I now have to rule on whether he is up to the challenge of the higher level, where he will be facing world class players on a weekly basis. It might all be coming to him a season or two before he’s ready for it.

2. Andre Wisdom
Age – Nationality: 26 –
Current Value: £3.4 million
Position: Right Full-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 20 (0) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 6.86
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Doesn’t enjoy big matches
Something of a dead man walking, my intention for some months has been to sell Andre once the season finishes. Since returning from injury he’s been largely fine, not spectacular but defensively sound, and good enough to become a regular for the Jamaican national team. I think I’m fairly bang on, however, to consider him incapable of prevailing at the higher level and that the sooner we part terms the better it will be for both of us. Some bright spark told him he’d be a regular starter, which he isn’t, and offered him a contract that pays him £23,000 per week, and that’s steep even for someone who would figure week after week. I guess this is what comes of signing a Liverpool prospect, however there are good reasons why they sold him to a Championship team.

3. Marcus Olsson
Age – Nationality: 31 –
Current Value: £23,500
Position: Left Full-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 0 – 0 – 0
Average Rating: N/A
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has taken several large steps backwards as a footballer over the last two months
You might think I’m going to criticise Marcus, who never troubled the first team with what amounts to his services. I’m not going to do that. He was drafted in for free to help Alex Milosevic get settled into the team and achieved just that, so as far as I’m concerned this Swedish veteran has done his job. But he isn’t anything like good enough, and his association with us will end when his contract expires in the summer.

4. Graeme Shinnie
Age – Nationality: 28 –
Current Value: £2.7 million
Position: Ball Winning Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 27 (6) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 6.75
Key Coaching Comment: ‘His bravery and work rate make him a good team player
A difficult player to quantify. Graeme wasn’t a natural selection for me. I prefer to have deep lying playmakers in central midfield and the Scot is better in a more withdrawn role, almost a DM but playing further forward. Too often I found myself subbing him off as we were chasing a result and it was clear he wouldn’t be a part of that effort. At the same time Graeme isn’t lacking for steel, for sheer busy running in the middle third of the pitch. He’s also a good leader, our vice-captain for the year. If I needed someone to simply put his foot on the ball then I could think of nobody better. My instinct is that this will be the end of the line for him here; he’s a fine professional but consummately second tier.

5. Krystian Bielik
Age – Nationality: 22 –
Current Value: £9.25 million
Position: Ball Playing Centre Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 (2) – 3 – 1
Average Rating: 7.05
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has improved as a footballer
Expensively acquired before my time, Krys was brought in to develop and improve his game, and he’s done it. Becoming increasingly important within a competitive defensive unit, the youngster enjoyed a banner season, representing Poland impressively along with playing consistently well in Derby whites. His tallness is a strength, and increasing assets like his vision, his reading of the game, show that he is growing as a player. A sentence I will repeat often is that Premier League football might be coming before he’s ready for it, but my feeling is that he will become so before too long.

6. Alexander Milosevic
Age – Nationality: 28 –
Current Value: £6.25 million
Position: Ball Playing Centre Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 23 (2) – 2 – 0
Average Rating: 7.05
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Lack of work ethic can place an extra burden on his team-mates
A free signing in the summer, Alex is a former Forest defender with eight clubs in his history before coming here. Essentially a journeyman player, the Swede has an aggressive streak that led to him collecting eight yellow cards (a concerning one-in-three record), but he was also a consummate professional. He was happy to help the cause and became something of a crowd favourite due to his industrial, hard man brand of football. The prospect of him bringing this to the top table terrifies me. Opposition forwards looking to take advantage of defenders who get a lot of bookings will have a field day with him. My strong overriding suspicion is that our association with him is going to have a single season’s shelf life.

7. Bakery Jatta
Age – Nationality: 21 –
Current Value: £7 million
Position: Right Winger
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 38 (9) – 13 – 7
Average Rating: 7.06
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Spirited individual
Another crowd pleaser who could be incredibly flashy and produced some impressive feats of skill, Bakery frustrated me as often as he was pleasing. The side’s top goalscorer despite not being rated as one of our better finishers, he also had the potential to simply vanish from matches. The squad’s quickest player, he also has a mean streak that saw him sent off twice. For someone who cost £3 million he probably justified the outlay, though I’m concerned that we pay him £33,000 per week and sense we should have expected a more consistent performer for the amount he’s earning. All the same Bakery has conjured magic for us at times; a tricky winger who’s built to torture defences, and I’m intrigued to see how he handles the game’s higher levels.

8. Matt Phillips
Age – Nationality: 29 –
Current Value: £2.6 million
Position: Right Winger
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 7 (10) – 1 – 2
Average Rating: 6.75
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has declined slightly as a footballer over the last three months
I brought Scottish international Matt in on loan, seeing him as an improvement on Duane Holmes and someone who could challenge Bakery Jatta on the right wing. His contract contains a £3.8 million release clause that we can activate if it all works out. On balance I don’t think it has. We experienced a fair return on the £10k we were paying him weekly, but at no point did I think of him as a star player on whom I could rely, and in terms of upsetting Jatta he failed. The fortunate element is that we don’t need to keep him. The final, damning note is that he’s beginning to wane, which is the opposite of what we are looking for.

9. Martyn Waghorn
Age – Nationality: 30 –
Current Value: £2.1 million
Position: Left Winger/Pressing Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 (11) – 9 – 3
Average Rating: 6.75
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Inability to make the right decision at the right time underlines this player’s lack of intelligence on the pitch
For a brief golden moment I thought I’d unearthed a proper diamond in the rough in Martyn. Cast into the first eleven regularly as a consequence of Tom Lawrence’s broken foot, he owned the left wing for a time, scoring a lot of goals and being very impressive. But it was fleeting. The English winger with a string of teams in his history soon settled back into middling performances, whether used up front or on the left, producing little and turning out to be very one-footed. At some point I made a promise to him that he’ll be getting a new contract, which will be a lie as he is almost certainly going to make the transfer list. In the end he isn’t even quite up to the standards of the Championship and is rated as only the side’s fourth best player in his natural position.

10. Tom Lawrence
Age – Nationality: 26 –
Current Value: £11.25 million
Position: Inverted Left Winger
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (12) – 11 – 3
Average Rating: 7.08
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Enjoys big matches
Tom has become our starting left winger by default, by the simple virtue of being the de facto best choice. He’s vexing. ‘Tries tricks’ is listed as a typical trait, which is byword for ‘Showboats often’. Basically Tom is a Welsh international and likes to see himself on a par with that other great dragon, Gareth Bale, but one of these players is a global superstar with a repertoire of dazzling skills, and the other is Tom Lawrence. All the same, his low rent Bale-isms have produced results at this level. He has no fear of opposing defences and is perfectly willing to try spectacular shots that, when they go in, are highlight reel magic. I quite like his impudence, despite the likelihood that things will go wrong for him as often as they pay off. His self-belief is an asset.

12. Scott Carson
Age – Nationality: 34 –
Current Value: £350,000
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean sheets: 1 – 1
Average Rating: 6.95
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fringe player but may be past his best
It’s good to have an experienced England international in the ranks. Scott was our starting goalkeeper before this season, when he went on loan with Manchester City reserves until January, and I feel safe having him here if anything happens to Montipo. That said, we’re nearing the end. Scott’s earning a large wage for providing back-up services and overseeing his decline with the U23s. Though goalkeeper isn’t necessarily a priority position for us, if someone becomes available then he’s likely to be the fall guy.

13. Lee Buchanan
Age – Nationality: 19 –
Current Value: £2.9 million
Position: Left Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 9 – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.96
Key Coaching Comment: ‘No intention of joining our club on a regular basis
What plans I had for Lee, a golden future where he grows up alongside Max Lowe as a first team player, the pair sharing time in the left-back role and improving all the while. That ended when he was sold to Leicester in January, though he agreed to return for the rest of the season on loan and we’ve had a glimpse of his flowering potential. For such a young player Lee never let us down, and his determination levels are so high that I wish they could inspire certain others in the line-up. He leaves with our thanks and best wishes.

14. Jack Marriott
Age – Nationality: 25 –
Current Value: £4.2 million
Position: Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 19 (18) – 8 – 5
Average Rating: 6.92
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Seems to fit in fairly well with most of the squad
I found Jack’s fragility in front of goal to be frustrating. Eight goals in 37 appearances isn’t the standard we’d hope for from a striker, however he emerged as a better bet than Troy Parrott and was instrumental in helping us during the crucial run-in. There might not have been enough additions to his goals account, but he held up the ball well and unselfishly worked as a team player, seeking out his fellows when he could. His injury record is a concern, and I’m very uncertain of his capacity to cut it in the Premier League, but I will say that the jury’s out on him.

15. Troy Parrott
Age – Nationality: 18 –
Current Value: £13.5 million
Position: Complete Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 – 3 – 4
Average Rating: 6.80
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Tendency not to get stuck into rough challenges can put his team-mates under some pressure
Included here because he played a lot of football for us before the foot injury he incurred ended his loan period. Troy was an important acquisition for us, brought in for the season from Spurs and never quite cutting it. In essence he didn’t score goals, nor did he look like getting himself into shooting positions enough. Even before his injury he was being dropped for Marriott, signalling a disappointing end to his time with us. Against that is the nebulous factor of his youth. Troy recently celebrated his 18th birthday. His year with us was really his first taste of senior football, so what did I honestly expect…? He certainly improved as a player while he was here, and he played a role in helping us get to where we finished, and for that I am grateful.

16. Matt Clarke
Age – Nationality: 23 –
Current Value: £9 million
Position: Ball Playing Centre Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 30 (2) – 2 – 0
Average Rating: 7.01
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Extremely interested in joining our club
Matt’s been part of the furniture all season, to such an extent that it’s easy to forget he’s ours for a limited time only. At some point he will need to return to Brighton, and there could be a jagged element to this in the sense that – at the time of writing – they may yet be relegated. Considered the side’s fourth best centre back, Matt has been Mr Reliable during his time here, rarely causing me any concerns and being the consummate professional throughout. If we wanted to sign him permanently then Brighton would expect something in the region of £8 million, which is a prohibitive fee for a defender who is still realistically playing at Championship standard. Still, it’s been fun.

17. George Evans
Age – Nationality: 25 –
Current Value: £650,000
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 10 (5) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.98
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fairly inconsistent performer
Quietly, George racked up fifteen appearances this season and rarely let me down. A squad player who isn’t earning a massive salary, can pass and tackle relatively well, possesses little in terms of vision and drive, he was someone I could slot into the line-up as an alternative to Lord Rooney. His occasional spells in the first team were blown once we’d brought in Chirivella. He’s unlikely to play for us again.

18. Perr Schuurs
Age – Nationality: 20 –
Current Value: £4.3 million
Position: Ball Playing Centre Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (2) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.98
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Potential to be a Premier Division centre back in the future
Perr broke into the first team slowly, tested initially against softer opposition before being used more often and ending the year as the best centre back within the unit. I would love to sign him permanently and his loan agreement includes a £6 million optional fee. But will I need to earmark this money elsewhere? What counts in the Dutchman’s favour is his youth. Perr is 20. He’s improving, especially in technical areas, and he works hard in training, earning constant glowing reports. He also really wants to remain as part of the project – yes, somehow Derby County is more appealing to him than Ajax; go figure… We’ll see. Perr is on the books until the end of June, so there’s time before I need to make a decision on him.

19. Pedro Chirivella
Age – Nationality: 22 –
Current Value: £1.7 million
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 17 (3) – 0 – 1
Average Rating: 7.28
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has put in some really good performances lately
Pedro arrived on loan from Liverpool in January and never looked back, becoming an essential player for us and impressing everyone with his natural control and great passing. What made him especially valuable was how he dictated the tempo of games in which he featured – always available, constantly finding space, an intelligent footballer. At the time of writing 18 clubs have him on their shopping list. He really wants to stay, and we could get him at a knockdown price if we put some money on the table for him before his Liverpool contract expires on 30 June, which coincidentally is also when his time at Pride Park finishes. It’s highly tempting. Pedro strikes me as a young, hard working pro with a great future.

23. Duane Holmes
Age – Nationality: 25 –
Current Value: £3.5 million
Position: Right Winger
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 – 1 – 1
Average Rating: 6.68
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Tends to be a peripheral figure within the squad
Duane spent the second half of the season out on loan after a disappointing first. I wanted a good alternative to Jatta who I could bring on when required, and via injuries and moribund form he turned out not to provide the answers… That said, Matt Phillips didn’t make the grade either, so I’m left with a gap in the squad. The American is transfer listed and I see no reason to change that, despite a decent showing at Wigan Athletic that will hopefully serve as a shop window for his talents.

25. Max Lowe
Age – Nationality: 22 –
Current Value: £6.5 million
Position: Left Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 44 – 4 – 6
Average Rating: 7.09
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fairly consistent performer
My number two choice for our player of the season, Max was selected as the best pick for the left-back slot and never really looked back. A fast and fit player, he has the ability to stamp his authority on the flank and developed into a key figure, along with Montipo and Baker someone I was highly reticent about leaving out of my first eleven even when he was being run into the ground. He improved a lot through the campaign, honing his key attributes as he develops into someone we can enjoy in the Premier League. Max has a growing list of admirers. Six top flight clubs are monitoring him, and he is rumoured to be interested in moving to a ‘bigger club’, so the summer could involve a battle to retain his services. Anyone who wants Max will need to be prepared to pay a lot more than his market value.

32. Lord Wayne Rooney
Age – Nationality: 34 –
Current Value: £1.4 million
Position: Defensive Midfielder/Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 41 (7) – 2 – 2
Average Rating: 7.02
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Regular player but may be past his best
Honoured for leading Derby back into the Promised Land, living legend Lord Wayne was for much of the season a critical player, a vastly experienced superstar with dwindling physical levels (on the wa(y)ne, if you will – who writes this stuff?), yet more than capable of handling himself within the Championship. It’s a good thing that with the arrival in January of Pedro Chirivella Lord Wayne’s importance to the cause lessened. We already need to anticipate a future without him, even if his technical and mental assets are still considerable and will continue to make him useful as we attempt to establish a Premier League foothold. His ability to play two full games per week is no longer present, and more and more he will be valuable to us for his coaching, in particular his status as someone who’s won just about every club honour available and can pass on the knowledge of what made him great to the next generation. It seems incredible that Lord Wayne has just completed his nineteenth season as a first team player. That’s impressive, but equally so is his high Derby salary (£50,000 per week), which sits in the accounts like a headache-inducing drain…

34. Lewis Baker
Age – Nationality: 25 –
Current Value: £7.75 million
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 44 (5) – 5 – 16
Average Rating: 7.35
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Important player and could still improve
It was a case of throwing the dice when I lashed out £3.2 million to make Lewis mine. What was I going to get? An improving midfielder who just needed a permanent home at which to perfect his talents, or the perennial Chelsea cast-off journeyman who had completed seven loan spells elsewhere before signing for us? Fortunately it was the former, Lewis leading the charge from the middle of the park, becoming our highest rated player and impressing especially with his set-piece work. Lewis finished third in Championship assists, a lot of them coming from the corner flag, and he has a mean free kick in him also. Ideally I would have had two seasons to turn him into a top flight performer, but it seems clear the bloke is close to being Premier-ready and hopefully we will be able to rely on his consistent work for years to come. My choice for Player of the Year.

37. Jayden Bogle
Age – Nationality: 19 –
Current Value: £6.75 million
Position: Right Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 25 – 1 – 1
Average Rating: 6.96
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Improved considerably on his decisions and has also slightly improved his crossing
Of Derby’s two right full-backs, it was a toss-up between Jayden and Andre Wisdom over who would eventually become the main man. The Jamaican proved adept in a defensive role, whereas teenage Jayden is rapidly emerging as a more complete and modern wing-back, razor sharp in terms of his pace and showing some real flair. The prospect of him and Max Lowe on opposite flanks developing together is a mouthwatering one – ideally both players will torment opposition defenders for years to come. Jayden wants a new contract to reflect his enhanced status and improved assets, which I’m inclined to give him.

38. Jason Knight
Age – Nationality: 19 –
Current Value: £7.75 million
Position: Box to Box Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 13 (9) – 4 – 1
Average Rating: 6.97
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Strength and stamina make him a decent athlete
An enigma. I didn’t see Jason as having a natural place in the line-up. He’s the closest thing we have to an attacking midfielder and we just don’t use such an individual. Clearly the youngster didn’t read this part of script though, forcing his way into the reckoning and scoring some crucial goals to help the cause. There’s an argument for suggesting he should have been swamped amidst more fully developed Rams, but Jason doesn’t agree, aggressively developing his technical abilities to go with some already impressive physical numbers.

41. Max Bird
Age – Nationality: 19 –
Current Value: £650,000
Position: Defensive Midfielder/Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 1 – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.90
Key Coaching Comment: ‘A committed player who gives his all to the cause
Poor Max. Considered to be the sixth best DM in the squad, behind a couple of convertible centre-backs, this was intended to be his opportunity to develop within the Under-23s and go out on loan. The latter simply didn’t happen and it was Max’s lot to play endless non-competitive fixtures in which he was admittedly impressive. He could perhaps have played more, but the level of competition for places was fierce, and this plucky youngsters always missed out. A long lay-off with torn abdominal muscles that he suffered while lifting weights didn’t help, and he could do with the development. Physically Max is far from the complete package. A project therefore for the right team, but is that going to be us?

44. Tom Huddlestone
Age – Nationality: 33 –
Current Value: £195,000
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 9 (15) – 2 – 2
Average Rating: 7.01
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has got slightly weaker at his balance over the past two months
Tom’s contract ends in the summer. We’re paying him £25,000 per week, reflective of his status as an England international with vast experience in the top flight for Spurs and Hull, and that’s a lot of money to be siphoning off to a player who’s declining. He’s been a first team player since 2003, back when he was emerging with Derby and was part of a cracking young side featuring Lee Holmes and Lionel Morgan, all with seemingly limitless potential. But that was long, long ago. Tom no longer has the stamina to play the grind of matches that make up a Championship schedule, neither does he possess any of the physical attributes to succeed in the top flight. It’s the right time to part ways with him. That said, he and I found an understanding after he criticised me in the early weeks of the campaign. The truth was that he was right to do so and I learned my lesson, developing a close relationship with him as I often came to rely on his calm authority in critical instances when we were defending a lead. Who better to bring on than a veteran who’s seen just about every situation there is to see, and watch him control the action from then on? A team leader who loves the club, Tom has qualities that will be missed. We’re funding a coaching course that will ease him into a natural future within the game.

46. Scott Malone
Age – Nationality: 29 –
Current Value: £1.1 million
Position: Left Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 2 – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.90
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Inability to put himself into the right position at the right time
Progress means change, shedding ourselves of players who don’t have the talent to take us forward. Such is Scott, who not so long ago was playing Premier League football with Huddersfield but in terms of standards is suitable for League One. Transfer-listed and on loan with Oxford, he’s done well because his team are in the division below ours and it seems certain to me that his happy future is there. We’re paying him £20k per week, which is excessive.

49. Morgan Whittaker
Age – Nationality: 19 –
Current Value: £650,000
Position: Left Winger
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 2 (17) – 2 – 1
Average Rating: 6.77
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Acceleration underpins his overall speed
Morgan was plucked from the Stiffs when we lost Tom Lawrence to injury. A young winger considered to be close to ready for the first team, he worked hard to make himself useful, appearing mostly from the bench but towards the end of the season in a position to usurp Martyn Waghorn’s status within the squad. Physically he already has everything. He comes with endless reserves of stamina and is impressively agile, a perpetual difficulty for defenders to cope with. Much work is needed in technical areas and the future for Morgan could involve a loan move or two. That is if we get the chance, with several clubs watching him greedily. He isn’t one we want to lose.

Derby FM20 – April/May 2020: Champione…?

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and the attempt to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

In general I write these updates at the same time as I’m playing the game. I have come into this post with no knowledge of what’s going to happen, and you can imagine my night’s sleep was not the most settled. Much tossing and turning took place, Mrs Side wondering what was going on as I moaned in my restless slumber – I believe in you, Jack… Harder Wayne, press harder… Tom, use the channels

There are various mathematical permutations that will come into play as the last three fixtures are played, but essentially if we win any one of them we will be promoted as champions. That sounds simple enough, and surely it ought to be suitably motivating for the players. I’m working hard to downplay the significance. Going up is an enormous bonus for the season. None of us expected to be here, so it’s important that my message for them is to remain professional and play as well as they have been lately.

Our first match is away to Cardiff City. Brentford are entertaining Preston and Fulham have a tricky away day at West Brom. As our FA Cup epic showed, the Bluebirds are difficult opposition that we must take seriously. They have a very outside chance of making the playoffs, a combination of winning all their games and hoping that Boro or Leeds blow it, so they still have something to play for.

And we lose. It’s 1-0, a contest we dominate overall but they get the breakthrough when Ralls’s free-kick into the box isn’t dealt with and Mendez-Laing is suddenly on the ball, in space and with a clear view to the net. At the time 30 minutes have expired and we have an hour to get on level terms, but whatever we attempt nothing comes off for us. Clearly we’re giving the home team a hard time. They collect bookings enthusiastically, but they are stiff in defence and we’re unable to produce a goal. It’s vexing yet not entirely unexpected. This is a good side. As well as Chirivella plays in defensive midfield, winning the match ball for his excellent effort at the heart of the matter where he sprays passes around and is pivotal in halting any further damage, we’re poor in attack. Lawrence and Jatta don’t figure as well as they can; I replace them both but Whittaker and Phillips change nothing.

It turns out to be irrelevant. Brentford win their match and now sit four points behind us. The Baggies do us an enormous favour and down the Cottagers 2-0, which means we can’t finish any lower than second. No one especially likes to succeed based on results elsewhere, yet we’ll take it. We’re so pleased that the knock Lord Rooney took against Cardiff that will likely rule him out for the Leeds game doesn’t really bother anyone, least of all the England legend who can be seen rubbing his bruised thigh with one hand and holding the other aloft.

The division title may still be on the line, but for now we’re all too happy to care. I am advised of the board’s initial budgets for next season, which are way in excess of what we would expect if we were still a Championship side. We now have £650,000 per week to spend on wages, an increase of close to two hundred grand. Our new transfer budget is £38.46 million. This sounds great. I’m going to think about it later, when we start planning for 2020/21; for now it’s good to see there’ll be something to play with as we try to make ourselves Premier-ready.

I am forced to deal with media speculation about Max Lowe, our star left-back who is on the radar of seven top flight teams and coveted particularly by Crystal Palace. Of course my default reaction is that he’s going nowhere, yet I’m a little concerned over reports that he’s flattered by the attention being shown towards him. Max is valued at £7 million. We would want a lot more than that before we even entertain letting him talk to other teams, but my feeling is that we could recycle those transfer funds into additional talent.

Close to £5 million of my transfer budget is siphoned away instantly, via bonuses paid to other clubs as part of contract clauses relating to player transfers. Arsenal get £1.5 million for Bielik. We pay £100,000 to Florian Jozefzoon, which irks me as he hasn’t kicked a single ball for us in anger this season. Then again, maybe it’s bonus enough that he’s been playing elsewhere.

Leeds United are next. I still recall the whupping they handed out to us at Elland Road as a waking nightmare, and how that fast flowing, incisive group of cavaliers has not streaked away with the division is really quite incredible. They’re fifth. Victory for them would guarantee their playoff status, so their motivation should be clear. For my part I would love to put a spanner in the works, kind of repayment for the way we were humiliated in West Yorkshire. Also there’s the title to fight for. Brentford are away at Stoke City. The Potters are three points adrift of safety – there’s a great deal on the line for both teams.

At half-time we lead 1-0. It’s been a tense period of football. Leeds have had their chances but produce nothing on target, while we are more incisive and go in front when Marriott collects the ball deep in their half and holds it up long enough for Lawrence to get into the area, collect his cross and fire it home. Slack defending from the visitors, and again sheer shock expressed from these quarters that they aren’t simply blowing us away. Even without the injured Klich they’ve got such talent in their ranks. Agustin has scored more goals (22) than both my main strikers combined. Kalvin Phillips has no business playing at this level.

We expect an onslaught and Leeds provide one. All our rearguard qualities are brought to bear as they constantly test us. Bogusz equalises but his goal is ruled out for a clear offside. And then we make it 2-0, Lawrence again as he finishes a move that has involved our entire midfield. Tom Huddlestone (on for Shinnie) is credited with the assist, which is wonderful for a player who is enjoying his last moments in a Derby shirt. In the last minutes, Max Lowe is sent off after picking up a second yellow. All my substitutions have been made so Huddlestone gets to showcase yet another aspect of his flexibility by becoming a makeshift centre-back. Fortunately Luke Ayling has to go off injured for Leeds, so we’re both down to ten men and they fail to make any further impression.

Look at that graphic and weep with joy, my friends. It’s so gratifying to have sealed the title against Leeds, and not to have to rely on results elsewhere (Brentford beat Stoke).

The curtain closer, away at Birmingham City, is now an irrelevance, a celebration as far as we’re concerned, and I use the occasion to field Scott Carson and Tom Huddlestone, both for sentimental reasons. The Brummies have settled back into lower mid-table. They’re decent, and in Jude Bellingham they possess a player of enormous promise, but we should win here and we do, Matt Phillips’s venomous strike in the second half making the difference. Wayne Rooney takes a penalty and misses the target completely. Their best opportunity falls to Lukas Jutkiewicz, who like any former Boro striker sends his close range effort safely into the arms of the keeper.

Further analysis will follow, but for now here’s the final table. For the Rams out there the sight of Forest in thirteenth place should be a source of some celebration. Leeds have just about squeezed over the line in sixth, following a campaign where they spectacularly under-achieved. I would still see them as playoff favourites, but on the whole it’s been pretty poor stuff from them. And what about Stoke? Going down with that side ought to be viewed as an aberration.

But all that really matters here is that we have scored the Championship title. Again, I’ll state that it was not my intent to do it at the first time of asking. I didn’t and still don’t think we’re good enough as we stand to survive a full Premier League campaign. By necessity we are going to have to produce some careful yet sweeping changes just to prevail, and that whilst aiming not to rip the heart out of a bunch of lads who have done themselves and their club proud. That however is a thought for another post. You will forgive me if, for now, I go away and bask. I’ve done a lot of things in Football Manager, but by my standards this counts as a considerable achievement. I’m off to celebrate with a cup of coffee and some Haribo Starmix (no really).

Derby FM20 – April 2020: A Dead Parrott

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and the attempt to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

As always the international break represents a unique opportunity for my players to get themselves injured. Tom Huddlestone leads the charge with a twisted ankle, which is worth up to a month’s lay-off. This could have come at a better time. The Derby veteran may be far from a regular starter for us, but he’s useful to have around and when we are in need of someone composed to come on, take control and put his foot on the game there are few better. Next up is Matt Phillips, the on-loan winger who we lose for two to three weeks with pulled knee ligaments. Ouch! His absence gives me pause to think about his Derby future. Matt was drafted in to see how he could play before potentially making a permanent transfer offer for him – he’d cost somewhere between £2.1 and £3 million to sign. The idea is to ascertain how well he can challenge Jatta for the starter’s role; so far he’s well off the level at which the German is producing.

Krystian Bielik gets his first cap for Poland, playing throughout their 5-0 friendly win over mighty Liechtenstein. It was always a winnable tie and all the centre-back needs to do is be composed, but he does it well and earns credit for his performance, and partly as a consequence his value as a player has risen to £9 million. Bielik then scores in the follow-up against Estonia, taking the opportunity to make himself essential to the national cause.

As we enter April I learn I have been named Manager of the Month for my work in March; it’s my first personal award. The board are delighted with me, and I really hope the good feeling can continue as we enter a season-defining group of fixtures. I take the time to watch the midweek match involving Nottingham Forest, our opposition on Saturday. They play a plodding 0-0 at home against Bristol City, which is encouraging, especially the missing in action turn put in by star man Jota. Our rivals are in 14th place, on 50 points and going nowhere quickly. Their one scrap of hope to cling to was their status as the last non-Premier League in the FA Cup, an admirable run that took them all the way to the quarter final before Leicester City dumped them out. As for our vanquishers Brighton, they saw off Arsenal after an exciting 4-3 victory that lasted into extra-time. They have Liverpool next, a daunting prospect for any team.

We go into the game needing a win, and knowing if we do that we’ve guaranteed a playoff position. Under normal circumstances a challenge like this should be utterly straightforward – the opposition’s going nowhere and has every right to be playing out their commitments on auto-pilot – but it’s Forest, our main rivals, and the chance to reclaim the Brian Clough Trophy is on the line.

At half-time it’s 1-0 to us. The goal, a Matt Clarke header from Lewis Baker’s corner that comes straight from endless set-piece training routines, is a fair reflection of the overall action. Forest need to be respected. Their players are much better than the league position they’re in suggests, and Chris Hughton is a positive appointment as manager, however beyond the bluster there seems little about them to fear. In the end the threat of possible reprisals from the visitors never materialises. Maybe it’s the fact they had to play that extra fixture, but they wilt as the match progresses. We’re happy to keep possession, just stop them from doing anything by starving them of the ball, and it stands as a professional job.

In reality we should probably have produced better than a 1-0 victory. I’m always tense when it’s so close, but when we look back at the course of the term it won’t matter. The game will be a footnote and it’s the points that count. And the trophy…

Afterwards I’m asked about Pedro Chirivella and repeat my assertion that I would love to make a permanent acquisition of him. Jurgen Klopp weighs in next, saying the player isn’t for sale, and I’m like my god, Jurgen Klopp’s talked about me! His dazzling smile… There’s now a queue of seventeen clubs showing an interest in the player. The media speculation is that he’s most likely to opt for a return to Spain, with Celta Vigo the obvious next step, so it’s on us to transform Pride Park into the Chirivella Fan Club, remember his birthday with a lovely cake and try to force/compel him to think of this place as the home away from home that he never realised he really needed.

We all know the true message of Easter, don’t we, that it’s about stuffing in as much football as possible. We have matches on Good Friday and Easter Monday, two crunch ties in the run-in. The first is away to West Bromwich Albion, a team I tipped heavily for promotion but have perhaps not developed into the sum of their parts. They’ve hovered in and out of the playoff picture throughout the campaign, whereas I expected them to be pushing for the automatic positions. Matheus Pereira has been good on the right wing, whilst on the left Kamil Grosicki is the side’s leading goalscorer but has failed to settle in the area, and his performances have suffered as a result.

Personally I’d be happy with a draw at the Hawthorns. The Baggies beat us at home earlier in the season, back when I was still finding my feet, so anything we get here will represent an improvement. The first half is cagey and largely devoid of excitement. The home team try to entertain by actually taking the game to us and promising a decent level of competition, but in attack they struggle to get the breakthrough, a combination of lacklustre shooting and Montipo being able to deal with everything.

It all explodes in the second half. Bogle and Jatta are given far too much space on the right and spark a move that culminates with the latter’s cross into the middle, where Marriott slips the attentions of Gibbs and Bartley to shoot past Johnstone. Shortly after, we build similarly effectively on the left. Full-back Furlong is carrying an injury and can’t deal with Lowe and Waghorn. The latter picks out Jatta who climbs above the defenders to head home. With the Baggies attacking more desperately and leaving gaps, giving me the luxury of bringing on fresh legs, a foray late in the game opens a hole in the defence for Jason Knight to fire in one of his long shots. It’s 3-0, a superb scoreline at a place where I would have been grateful with 0-0.

Charlton and Millwall‘s relegations are confirmed. At the table’s other end we have opened a nine point gap to third place, with four fixtures remaining. We can’t finish lower than fourth, but naturally anything less than automatic promotion would now be viewed as failure. It’d take a collapse of epic proportions to screw it up. We’re as capable as anyone of producing one, yet the mood in the camp is excellent. The players support me, have developed into a team really well, and are generating an atmosphere of high spirits.

We have Brentford at Pride Park on Easter Monday. First versus second – who could have predicted such a predicament earlier in the season? I hold a team talk beforehand, trying to downplay the importance of the fixture and instead urging the players to treat it as they would a normal game, which appears to go down well. I know I couldn’t take this approach if I was in charge of Manchester United, where ambition – ought to! – ooze from every pore. Because West Brom was a couple of days ago I make sweeping changes to the line-up. For me, a relatively fresh side is better than knackered players, and hopefully our superior fitness will be a factor.

It isn’t. During the first half we have our backs against the wall, the visitors pressing hard as I suppose they must – after all, we’re in the driving seat here. Even an in-form Olly Watkins isn’t so much of a challenge for my defenders, but their pressure reaps results in the end when they win a free kick and the striker’s lofted ball is headed in by defender Henrik Dalsgaard. For our part, Troy Parrott – who’s on for Marriott – has one tame strike that’s easily saved by David Raya, before going off injured. It turns out to be a broken foot that will keep him out of action until August, and that wins him an instant return to Tottenham. It seems a somewhat ignoble way for someone who’s played a lot of matches here to end his time, but that’s football, and at least he leaves on a relative high. Whatever criticism he’s endured for the lack of goals, he’s been part of the effort that has got us to the verge of promotion and for that he deserves some gratitude. Apparently I’m one of his favoured personnel, which is nice to hear, though I’m not sure the love of a goal-shy striker really counts for very much in the final analysis.

Meanwhile we’ve a match to save. There’s nothing for it but to tell the players off at half-time. Nerves or not, title on the line or whatever, I don’t think we’ve got any excuses for the way Brentford have bullied us. Knight (a poor game) and Phillips (not good on his return from injury; also he played a lazy back pass that nearly led to a second goal) come off for Baker and Jatta respectively. we respond in the best way, by forcing our way back into the reckoning and pushing for an equaliser. For long passages there’s nothing doing. Little goes right for us – headers sail over the bar and forays into the penalty area are broken up. But when Baptiste bowls Marriott over from behind in the box, it’s the clearest shout for a spot-kick that the referee will ever have the pleasure of making. Rooney is up to take it. He’s had two chances beforehand in the campaign and scored from one of them, so it’s a wayward record for someone who’s so revered. And yet in this situation, within a tie of some significance and nerves of steel required, who else would you choose to take it? Lord Rooney doesn’t blow it. Raya dives one way. He shoots the other, and it’s 1-1.

I’ll take a draw here any time, which is what we end up claiming. Fine – there are still three matches to play and a hat-trick of opportunities left to produce the goods, and that’s if Brentford and Fulham win all their remaining fixtures. We need to wait until the following evening to see if the latter give us a backdoor promotion, but they wind up beating Cardiff 1-0 to keep the pressure up. Boro are on 78 points in fourth place, so it’s between the three of us now.

Derby FM20 – March 2020: On Top of the World

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and the attempt to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

Eight league fixtures remain. Derby are number one in the table, but ours is a slim lead and plenty can happen between now and our final commitment, which will be against Birmingham in early May. As far as this month is concerned, we have two matches to play before the last of the mid-season international breaks.

We start with a tough one, entertaining fourth-placed Reading at Pride Park. There’s close to a capacity crowd for this encounter, which is what we would expect as everything is now on the line and the supporters are anticipating a fascinating challenge. Belying their pre-season prediction of lower mid-table, the Royals have spent time at the Championship’s peak and, even now with all those games and fatigue taking their toll, represent difficult opposition for us. It’s cold and throwing it down, making playing conditions hard, and the away team is causing us all sorts of problems, midfielder John Swift an especially enterprising presence at the heart of things. For all the good approach play they produce Reading are more toothless in attack. Their striker, George Puscas, is as wasteful with his chances as Troy Parrott is for us, indeed I am becoming increasingly vexed with our Irish Wunderkind – he should be loving it here; he isn’t.

Early in the second half I bring on Jack Marriott, and remove Graeme Shinnie for Tom Huddlestone. Can fresh legs make a difference here? Turns out they can. Lee Buchanan is creating all kinds of openings from the left flank, playing in place of the injured Max Lowe and revelling in the chance to showcase his energy and agility on the ball. In the sixtieth minute he crosses in-field to Huddlestone, who engages in a nice little passing triangle between himself, Chirivella and Baker. The latter finds Tom Lawrence bursting beyond Yiadom and playing a simple ball, which the winger guides beyond Rafael Cabral for our opener. About twenty minutes later, having dealt with a Royals response that is surprisingly laboured and weak, Lawrence does it again. This time it’s a grand solo effort, picking the ball off a dithering Mazgal, racing unopposed into the area and selling the keeper a dummy before slotting it beyond him. An errant goal from someone whose self-belief far exceeds any actual talent, but it’s beautifully timed and a pleasure to have him available again, this impish Welshman whose confidence has served us well here.

2-0 is a smashing result against a side we feared. The points are priceless. I’m delighted to have found a way to convert 0-0 draws into victories, to have added a little goalscoring potency to the side’s evident tightness at the back. Troy Parrott, however, remains a concern. Now a tender 18 years old and valued at £13.75 million, he really ought to lauding it over the standard of play at this level but it’s just not happening for him. I’m so perplexed over the return of 3 (three) goals from his 31 league appearances that I question my own tactics. Surely it’s how I’m setting things up that’s letting him down. Another clue is Parrott’s age; his talent, which must be considered to be raw and that this is the first place where he’s enjoyed an extended run of first-team football. And his playing average isn’t bad. His rating stands at 6.80, which I would view as passable – not brilliant, especially for a team that’s outplayed itself all year, but hardly bad enough to have him whipped naked through the streets of Derby while someone bellows ‘Shame!’ at him repeatedly.

Maybe I’m over-thinking it. The easier option is to drop him to the bench and select Marriott instead. For a £5 million signing the Peterborough forward has hardly stopped all the clocks, but he’s more composed before goal than Parrott could ever hope to be, and ultimately when the kid returns to Tottenham we will still have this fella on the books. Our last tie of the month, before the Interlull takes over, is at Preston North End. I’ve been to Deepdale previously, not to see a game but to visit the National Museum of Football when it used to be housed in an adjunct to the stadium. These days the exhibition is in central Manchester, reflecting the game’s overall standing, but I liked that it was once situated in a town where professional football began in this country; a nice touch.

Deepdale’s a neat ground and the sense that this team really should have at least had a spell in the Premier League before now is a fair one. For now they’re about as far away as it can get for them. The Lilywhites are in 21st place and casting anxious glances over their shoulder, though there’s an eight point gap to Stoke in 22nd. Safe to say it’s been a torrid campaign, with the arrival of Tony Pulis not really improving anything and just making matters more dull for everyone. Our instruction is clear – stop Scott Sinclair and it will all be fine.

As we approach kick-off I’m thinking about the influx of youngsters we’re monitoring currently. They’re a moribund bunch, and I’m happy to go with Darren Wassall’s suggestion that we only offer contracts to eight of them. He’s excited by Lukman Ojo, a 16 year old striker from Leicester who possesses a lovely sense of natural control and has all the determination that I would want to being to the side, yet there’s a long way to go for him. Watch this space, is what I’m saying, but don’t watch it too closely.

We win 3-0 before a worryingly half-empty stadium, the majority of noise coming from the visiting fans who appear to be the only ones with anything to shout about. Despite the rather emphatic scoreline, we win because we’re efficient. Chirivella is tasked with pocketing Sinclair and does a manful job of it, easily matching him throughout and effectively nullifying him from the action. Once they find they can’t play in their star man the home side are more or less neutered. At the other end Lawrence has us in front after 16 minutes when his beautifully curled free kick beats Rudd in the PNE goal, the keeper barely moving when he could have at least made a flailing effort to stop it. Straight from kick-off we get the ball back and advance, Jatta laying off a pass that Marriott collects despite the close attention of two defenders. He makes no mistake, in fact he enjoys it so much that he has a second within ten minutes. Once again soft defending from Ben Davies – a centre-half being asked to play at full-back – is at fault. They really are squeamish at the back, easy to bully and slow in their reactions.

After the break all we need to do is waste time and look forward to a break from football, as Preston are held off with little difficulty. I get the luxury of making substitutions based on fatigue rather than necessity, which is rather a lovely position to be in.

Equally pleasurable is our league position. We’re still top and from the looks of things we are even beginning to pull away. The mood in Derby is one of excitement. Local talk-in shows involve callers going through the run of remaining fixtures and identifying where it might be safe to drop points. They’re right to do that as the schedule looks like this:

It’s no one’s idea of straightforward. We’re perhaps fortunate that Forest, Brentford and Leeds will be taken on at Pride Park. We have the second best home record in the Championship and all that confidence will need to brought to bear during those three games. I’m sure they would relish the chance to take a bite out of us, especially Forest, so it’s going to be a time for Churchillian team talks and manful performances. Of the away ties, West Brom looks particularly painful. Cardiff is never an easy place to visit, and I could do with a more routine closing fixture than St Andrews. Birmingham are now managed by former Ram Steve McClaren with all the delightful returns you’d expect from such a proposition, but its potential as an upset is plain for everyone to see.

Derby have a sound number of players going off on international duty. Krystian Bielik may make his first appearance for Poland, which I think is a justifiable reward for his good work here. Wales call up Tom Lawrence; Andre Wisdom is with the Jamaicans and Ireland decide a non-scoring striker is what their cause needs and find a place for Parrott in the first team. Perr Schuurs and Jason Knight are with their countries’ Under-21s set-ups, while Jayden Bogle and Lee Buchanan are now part of the England U21s scene. Don’t come back injured, boys.

Derby FM20 – March 2020: Focusing on the League

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and the attempt to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

I confess that the title of today’s piece is a pretty big spoiler alert for the result of our FA Cup tie, but honestly did anyone think we would get very much further?

March opens with our Fifth Round meeting with Brighton and Hove Albion, played before over 30,000 supporters at the evocatively named American Express Community Stadium. In terms of league placing there are only about five positions between our teams. We’re near the top of the Championship and the Seagulls are fighting against relegation from the Premier League. Despite this apparent narrowness I think it’s fair to picture the gap between the two divisions as akin to a yawning chasm. There’s a reason I’m reticent about us getting promoted so early, which is because we would struggle to cope without, at a bare minimum, replacing most of the players with new ones and upsetting any natural structure and balance that has been carefully constructed.

As I now appreciate, going up is a distinct possibility for us. My view is that if it happens then if happens, and we have to deal with it as best we can. It’s hardly a terrible thing to undergo, is it? And look at the opposition, an unfancied side that has somehow prevailed at this level for several years, steadily becoming a top flight outfit even though their size and limited ability to attract good players means they will always have an eye over their shoulder. All I’m saying is that it will be a big culture shock if it’s what becomes of us, but what a grand adventure it could be.

As for the match, we try to keep as close an eye as possible on Pascal Gross, Brighton’s 28 year old German attacking midfielder and someone who we rather conceitedly have scouted in the past with a view to possibly signing him. By all accounts Gross’s club don’t want to sell him (go figure…), and while we can do all the marking in the world if he takes a free kick then we are unable to stop it from being razor-sharp accurate, nor can we complain about Ezequiel Schelotto heading in from close range, a move that’s obviously been worked upon to death and against which we have no answer. Try as we might, and our effort is creditable to me, breaking them down is difficult and our chances are few. The tie finishes 1-0. Montipo is awarded the match ball, which says a lot about where the decisive battles took place.

Brighton’s reward is a home fixture for the quarter-final, in which they will host Arsenal. We get to concentrate on league matters, not as much of a consolation as you might think. At board level, Mr Morris announces that he’s cancelling the club takeover bid. It seems everything is taking too long and he’s had quite enough of the uncertainty, which at least makes us all clear about where we stand for now.

I shuffle the pack again for the visit of Blackburn Rovers at the weekend. Tom Lawrence is exhausted, a side-effect of his slow return to match fitness from injury, and I start with Morgan Whittaker on the left wing. Martyn Waghorn is tried in the striker’s position from the outset. The parlous return of goals from Parrott and Marriott is a huge problem. I appreciate that playing one outright forward is a gamble; at the very least it encourages opposing defences to simply mark him out of the game. But our attacking forays are supposed to involve five players pushing ahead – the striker should still be having opportunities and neither is taking them, so I’m trying this instead.

The Rovers beat us at Ewood Park earlier in the term. They’ve remained in the top ten throughout the season, hovering teasingly just outside the playoff positions so there’s clearly some quality within their ranks and we have to respect them. All the same we ought to have enough in the tank to win here, and the supporters feel the same way, producing close to a capacity attendance at Pride Park. It’s great to see this place when it’s a cauldron of noise, the anticipation bearing down on us. And yet the first half shows just why the visitors are where they are in the table. Their actual ability is limited but they know how to press, minimising space and time whenever we have the ball and exploiting our nerves by robbing us of possession at every opportunity. It’s impossible to develop any sense of fluidity, my hope for a patient passing game in ruins as they fight for everything. In the 23rd minute we get what’s coming to us when a routine long ball punted forward by Armstrong is collected by Dack, who beats the offside trap and forces Montipo into making a clumsy early dive before slotting home, calm as you like.

The downside of Blackburn’s approach is that it’s energy sapping. No one outside the current Liverpool set-up can keep up this level for very long, and once they have the lead they swap to playing very deep, protecting their advantage. It doesn’t work. We start to cut deep into their half, and a passing move that involves Phillips, Rooney and Shinnie eventually finds Waghorn just inside the box. Surrounded by defenders he finds Whittaker, who rifles off a shot that beats Walton and gives the young winger his first ever goal for the side. Lovely stuff. We now pass and move Blackburn into submission. They’re increasingly laboured, unable to put in the challenges and close attention that produced the goods for them earlier. With time to probe, look for openings, tease and stretch the Rovers defence, we end up leaving it until the last ten minutes to get a winner. The goal comes from Tom Huddlestone, on for Shinnie and selected specifically because he can pass a ball and has the experience to not get rattled under pressure. His is a strike from distance, the culmination of another long passage where we look to prise the opposition players open and he has the time to place his effort. It’s his first league goal of the season, and it couldn’t come at a better moment.

At the weekend we’re down in the Smoke for an away tie at Millwall. The presence of a managerial guru like Martin O’Neill has done little for the Lions, who are 23rd in the table and increasingly adrift, a clear 13 points distant from the safety margin. It’s been a wretched return for them, though they were expected to do little better than where they are currently. As for Derby, I sense a banana skin here and am highly tempted to take a cautious approach. This however would be to invite trouble; Millwall are beatable, prosaic and at the back rather porous. They’re old also. It’s a source of pride for me that the average player age at Pride Park is 24.62, despite the presence of greybeards like Carson, Huddlestone and Lord Rooney within the ranks. We’re the third youngest team in the competition; Millwall in contrast have one of the oldest squads, which suggests good levels of experience but also gives the impression they will tire over the course of matches.

After weathering some early pressure we go ahead midway through the first half. Rooney picks out Lowe, racing down the left flank, and his cross for Jatta’s headed opener is a move plucked straight from training exercises. It’s heroic stuff from the full-back, who picks up a knock early and yet sees out the game with his typical elan; afterwards he’s diagnosed with a pulled hamstring that will remove him for two weeks. We then win a penalty once Cooper bundles Jatta over close to their goalmouth. It’s a cheap one to give away as the winger wasn’t in an especially threatening position, but Rooney uses all his guile to send Steele diving to the right as he plants a cool finish in the left corner of the net.

In the second half Millwall pull one back through Icelandic forward Bodvarsson, a very simple headed goal from Ferguson’s corner that (i) we almost certainly should have defended better (ii) was destined for the net via the sheer law of averages. We’ve been good at defending set-pieces, but you’re never going to win them all, are you? In any event, we restore our advantage within minutes, almost taking the piss with an identical goal when Whittaker heads in Baker’s floated ball from the corner flag.

I think 3-1 is a very fine return for our efforts. Sometimes it’s pleasing to expect a victory based on the comparison of the teams involved, and to get the win exactly as planned for. This does nothing for the home side, obviously, even more in the soup after losing here and with only Charlton’s still poorer record to cushion the blow of their almost certain relegation.

For us it’s another great job from Chirivella, very composed and authoritative in defensive midfield. After the match I tell the press I would love to sign him permanently, a statement the player reacts to very positively. According to the coaches he wants to commit his future to he club, which is fantastic, and I hope this good feeling continues as a growing list of teams is interested in signing him. Saint Etienne are the favourites, unsurprising as they can offer him not only top flight football but the promise of European competitions on the side.

But hold on Pedro – it isn’t the end of the month, but here’s the top of the table as it stands:

There’s a four-point drop below Reading, with Leeds falling out of the playoff positions altogether. Dare we dream? Eight matches remain. And now we need to hold our nerve and prepare for the final push. I’ve said all along that I hope we don’t get promoted, but now here we are and I’m inclined to modify that statement because, after all, it would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?

Derby FM20 – February 2020: Fixture Pile-Up

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and the attempt to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

Heading into the crunch encounter with Fulham I am advised that Andre Wisdom is no longer concerned about his playing time, having been deployed much more regularly since the start of the year. Time to put out those club flags, Chris. Things have changed a bit since I made that promise to the Jamaican full-back. We now have Ivan joining in the summer, a direct replacement for Andre and a new contender to challenge the rise of Jayden Bogle… However, with so many matches still to play I’m going to need to keep as much of the squad as I can sweet and onside. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one I relish, keeping a close eye on team dynamics as I look to maintain a focused and loyal group of players. Only six players (Phillips, Parrott, Knight, Whittaker, Chirivella, Schuurs) have no opinion of me, and looking at those names there’s a trend – here on loan; recently promoted to the first team. The rest are in support of my work. Long may this continue.

Fulham are currently sitting atop the Championship. The Cottagers are strong favourites to go up and they’re playing to form. Aleksander Mitrovic is the leading scorer and Anthony Knockaert leads the division in assists. Scoring goals is not their problem, though in terms of conceding they are a mid-table side. The plan for them is to pummel the opposition into submitting, and clearly they’ve been rather good at it. So this will be a challenge. We rather spawnily snatched the points off them at Craven Cottage, achieving a rare shut-out, and we’re expecting the return at home to be tough going.

Which it is. Fulham are much the better side in the first half. We can only do our best against a fluid attacking unit that sweeps forward whenever it wants to. Their full-backs – Odoi and Sessengon – look especially terrifying, and Lowe and Bogle have a lot of work to do in order to stop them from overrunning us. But luck is on our side. Much like our unrewarded display against Bristol City earlier in the month, the visitors deserve better than 0-0 at half-time. We have defended doggedly, held our own and when Lowe tugs down Knockaert for a penalty Mitrovic shoots wide of the post.

I can almost hear the away fans rumbling about how this isn’t in the script. If that’s the case then they must really have cause to gnash their teeth straight after the break when Tom Lawrence puts us ahead. Bogle races to the edge of the goal-line and crosses the ball into the area, where Le Marchand is keeping tabs on Marriott but no one is there to guard Lawrence, who makes no mistake from close range. Riled and railing against the injustice, the visitors really start putting us to the sword, yet in classic fashion this just opens them up and ten minutes later we win a free kick in their half. Baker swings one in, and a messy jumble of players at the goalmouth results in Lawrence poking the ball across it for a 2-0 scoreline. Moments later, it’s 2-1 when Knockaert’s free kick just outside the box is headed home by Kongolo. A lesser team might fade at this moment, crumbling under the intense pressure, but we don’t do that. Bogle get the chance to make another cross, which Baker slams beyond Rodak to produce a final score of 3-1. Even the injury worry to Lawrence, which forces him off, turns out to be nothing more than a bruised ankle and two days’ absence.

It’s impressive work, and frustrating also. I should probably just revel in a good job well done, but instead I’m left to ruminate on our ability to do the double over the division’s best team while dropping points with casual disregard elsewhere. This is the manager’s lot, isn’t it? The glass is perpetually half-empty, and I’d argue so it should be. There’s always room for improvement. The talk of Championship football is that it’s wildly exciting because anyone can beat the other team on the day. Personally, I would prefer to be consistent. Where you see fun, fixtures that don’t follow a pattern, I just get aggravated by our inability to see off the sides we should be putting away.

Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road are next. We’re playing away against the outfit sitting in seventh place, just outside the playoff positions, so it’s another stiff challenge. They’ve conceded more than us, but they’re better goal scorers, with Ebere Eze on the left wing their main concern.

As we travel down, I’m reading a slew of reports from Joe McClaren. Our Chief Scout is in France and Italy currently, busily recommending young players who can potentially be drafted into the developmental squads. It’s mouthwatering reading, though Joe’s florid descriptions – has the potential to produce Tigana level moments of individual brilliance – are not matched by some of the video footage I watch of these boys. Now and then Joe throws one in for a laugh. He really likes the look of Federico Di Marco, a left-back playing at Verona. He appears terrific, really good, but we’d be paying more than £10 million for his services and I’m tempted to ask the scout to explain where in the world we’d produce that kind of money from.

The QPR game is a cagey chess match, short on thrills but from my point of view beautifully balanced as we match each other so well. Everyone out there is eager not to drop a bollock, the impression being that it might be decided on mistakes. The tackling is tough but fair, the passes carefully placed. There isn’t a lot for the purist to enjoy. I’m almost loving it, especially the seriousness my boys are putting into their work. It is however frustrating to see such parlous qualities in attack. Here’s an example. In the first half’s most threatening move, Waghorn is in possession and makes it as far as the QPR goal-line, a little to the left of the net itself. Marriott and Jatta have raced into the box and are demanding the ball, but the winger just holds on to it, as though there’s nothing he can do beyond eventually being harmlessly tackled and dispossessed, which is just what happens.

In the second half I think they’ve been softened up and resort to the classic managerial tactic of going for more direct balls. The risk is that we’ll lose possession more often, but you never know, it might be worth it if they panic and let one of those passes connect… In truth I’m happy enough to see us get a 0-0 result here. It would be a fair return, even though as time passes QPR are visibly tiring, having made far fewer changes to their line-up than I have (which, incidentally, I feel that you must do in order to cut down on potential injuries). In the 89th minute the pressure pays off. Lowe has a throw-in deep in their half. He picks out Marriott who in turn finds Chirivella in space just outside their box. The midfielder spots the run of Jatta, who can beat his marker and plays the pass, which results in a delightful, training ground worked goal.

While we’re snatching all three points in London the real crime is taking place miles away, where Middlesbrough entertain Leeds and win 4-0. Roberts puts in the kind of display that is made to make the mouth water, scoring and setting up two further goals as the Whites embark on their now traditional bottle job.

February ends with yet another away day, this time a short hop to South Yorkshire and Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls are now managed by Mark Hughes, someone who’s been in charge of so many teams that I’m surprised he’s never put in a stint at Pride Park. The signing fees and pay-offs that man must have racked up over the years… We’ll be playing Brighton in the FA Cup in midweek, so further squad rotation is in order. Buchanan’s back in the line-up, as is Baker while Lowe and Chirivella drop to the bench. I retain Matt Clarke for this game because he’s on loan from the Seagulls so cannot play against them.

In spite of their mid-table position Wednesday are in sizzling form. Sparky plays a 4-4-2, which you don’t see too often these days, and it’s working for them with Forestieri and Wickham in fine form up front. At Hillsborough they batter us, raining in shot after shot though we hold firm. At one point late in the second half Forestieri shoots from the sort of close range that people have cause to get up and celebrate, only for Montipo to pull off a classy fingertip save. And then we cock it up when Milosevic gives away a penalty. It’s a fair shout, one I can’t argue with as the Swede puts in an X-rated challenge on Wickham for which he’s lucky to be only seeing yellow. Barry Bannan sends the keeper the wrong way to make it 1-0. To sum up a disappointing afternoon, Matt Phillips gets a late opportunity to equalise, the kind of goalscoring chance where all he needs to do is avoid shooting straight at the keeper, and of course that’s exactly what he does. Knickers.

Despite the setback we’re winning a lot more often than we’re losing. I have concerns about the form of my strikers, their lack of goals suggesting it might even be an issue with the way I play them rather than their abilities, but otherwise it’s all good. We’re third, and if we finish in this position then I would see that as a job well done. Reading are beginning to slip a little, as predicted, claiming eight points from the month’s seven fixtures, which is poor compared with the fifteen we’ve picked up. Elsewhere, Brentford are more than matching our results and look like a good bet for promotion, whereas Leeds supporters must be thinking wistfully about the good times of the Marcelo Bielsa aegis. The continental football being ordered by Samuele Allerdici just isn’t producing for them right now, though I imagine you would write them off at your peril. After experiencing some horrific form, they have just come away from Hull with a priceless 4-3 away win, which says something about their innate character.

The Derby board, meanwhile, are dancing in the streets about what we’re achieving. It was a vision of theirs for Derby to become an established Championship outfit (which we have been for years, surely), and while the takeover discussions are still in progress it’s a good position to be in. I hope they remember this fondly when it all goes belly up, right?

Derby FM20 – February 2020: Robbing Robins

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and the attempt to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

I was asked in the comments (I get comments now) about how I go about scouting players, particularly in reference to the number of dudes I have tapped up to join us on free transfers in the summer. At the risk of losing any respect from the blog’s reader(s) I will confess that I use the Player Search facility in Football Manager as a matter of course. I know to some people that this almost constitutes cheating the game, that I should rely on scouting reports alone, and perhaps if I was managing in the lower leagues I would do just that.

My justification is it would be easy enough for any manager to learn which players have contracts that are being wound down, and to then ask the scouts to assess the worth of those individuals. I then work the rest out for myself. How has the player performed this season? What does the scouting report say – would the player settle in well? Does he have the sort of mentality I am trying to develop across the squad, which is a determined one? Finally, how is the player rated across the various available attributes? At this point I refer to the Marc Vaughan Hints and Tips Guide. No, I’m not joking. The ‘Vaughan’ has been the Bible to me for about as long as I’ve been playing the game.

I understand that Marc still works for Sports Interactive, mainly with the handheld version of the game these days, but way back in the mists of time, when I was first getting into the ridiculously immersive Championship Manager 3, I used the Hints and Tips guide to help me come to terms with the blizzard of detail that was being thrown at me on every screen. It wasn’t a crib, or a cheat sheet, more a helping hand to acclimatise myself to the game. The key section for me was the suggested attributes I should check when looking at whether to sign players. For instance, where goalkeepers are concerned I ought to be checking on their Handling, Reflexes, Jumping Reach and Communication. And that’s what I’ve done ever since then. Lorenzo Montipo was signed because he was rated as at least ’10’ in each of these categories, and I also ensured his Eccentricity level was relatively low. No one wants to be in charge of the new Fabien Barthez, do they, or at least his tendency towards silliness without the accompanying ability.

We all have our ways of approaching the game, the things we do to customise it to our needs, and this is mine. I suppose you could argue that this isn’t how real life managers would do it, that in reality they can’t just interrogate an enormous database with all the information and statistics on tap (unless they can), but to me FM is a simulation and a game. Ultimately, even using my method there are no guarantees that each and every new signing will work out. There are still intangibles at play that are shielded to me until I have that guy in my grasp, just as there are for any manager. It’s here that I use the most important resource at my disposal, which is my brain. Knowing what I do about the game, and of players, bringing what I guess by now is an ill-gotten vast experience of football management, I try and make a judgement call on whether it will work. And I don’t always get it right. Not even close.

I’m reminded here of the time when Boro signed Afonso Alves for £12.5 million in 2008, a transfer record until we coughed up £15 million for Britt Assombalonga nearly a decade later. It seemed the most no-brainer of splurges. At Heerenveen the Brazilian achieved an incredible goal scoring rate of better than one per game (45 in 39 appearances, according to his Wiki page). What could possibly go wrong? Well, there was perhaps a warning sign in the fact he had never played for the bigger clubs, and that he wasn’t even on their radars – what did that say about him? After a decent second half to the 2017/18 season he scored four goals across the following campaign, a personal nightmare and also one for the team as he failed to produce any kind of the mental strength he would require to prevail in the Premier League. When we needed someone with the self-belief of Di Canio or Viduka, the innate sense that they would do the business when it mattered, what we instead had was a shrinking wallflower, someone who couldn’t take the pressure, which of course was on him for the entire year. What a terrible bit of business, almost certainly the worst we have produced in recent years and there have been plenty of stinkers along the way…

I don’t think a version of the Hints and Tips has been put together for a while now. To me it always felt like a nice bridge between playing the game from scratch and learning how it worked, to spending all my time reading those interminable lists of great players on the community websites. I have uploaded the document that accompanied FM 2005 on to the site – you can get it for yourself here. A caveat – the game has moved on in certain areas so bits of this document will be somewhat out of date; however the fundamentals – as in football itself – never really change, so you will hopefully find something useful, particularly if you are new to Football Manager and you’re quite naturally bewildered by all that information!

Back to then matter in hand, then. We will get a week’s break shortly, but before that there are two matches in quick succession. We start with a trip to Ashton Gate for Lee Johnson’s Bristol City. Despite being tipped as playoff outsiders Brizzle are stuck in mid-table and have been so all along. It’s a disappointing return from a side that on paper looks about as good as anything in the division, but we approach the fixture in good spirits. We’re in third place, confident, and everyone’s playing well enough that there seems to be genuine options from which to choose.

And obviously it’s at moments like these when football boots you up the arse. After a positive start where we test the resolve of their defence, the Robins spark off a series of attacks. In the 22nd minute, we think we have done enough to clear the ball, only for Korey Smith’s searching pass to find Austrian international Andreas Weinmann. Somehow unmarked after drifting in from the right, the striker finds a way beyond Montipo with a tight-angled pop that our keeper really should have done better dealing with. I demand passion and resolve from the players, and they respond with some good moves that test Daniel Bentley well enough, however as time progresses the greater the amount of space we are creating for them. In the 81st minute, we commit a howler when Clarke is dithering on the ball in defence. Famara Diedhiou plunders it from him, and makes no mistake when through on goal. To cap off a terrible evening’s work, Filip Benkovic makes it 3-0 when we yet again fail to deal with a clearance properly.

One of those fixtures to slink away from, tails collectively betwixt our legs, the sense of shame that comes with being so high in the table yet liable to take a licking along the way. What makes it worse is that for vast passages of play we were the better side. We commanded possession, passed well and tested the keeper more often. It’s where it counts that we let ourselves down. Matt Phillips can take all the shots in the world, but when only a third of them are on target then he needs to work out whether ‘having a go’ is the right option.

The history books might look back on this one as a case of Derby being robbed, yet there’s no point in ruminating on any sense of injustice we are carrying. It’s happened. We need to move on, in this case back to Pride Park and the visit of Huddersfield Town.

Shortly before this one the Terriers announce the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo. That’s two managers gone within a matter of months (Cowley was shown his cards in September), which even by Championship standards is quick work. That said they’re in 19th place, eight points off the bottom three and no doubt far from where they wished to be situated. As we hear of yet another managerial casualty (Forest sacking Sabri Lamouchi – oh no, what a shame, etc), the onus is on us to press our advantage and quickly return to winning ways, which we conspire to do in the second minute when Jayden Bogle scores. It’s a lovely goal from an unexpected source. Rooney launches the ball forward and finds the full-back who has space on his flank. With all the time in the world, Bogle gets into the area, beats his defender and rifles his shot into the net. I’m delighted. After some moaning Andre Wisdom has been getting the majority of game time recently, but Bogle’s the one I want to press ahead with and this has done nothing to change my mind. We make it 2-0 quarter on an hour later when Bielik heads in at point-blank range from Baker’s corner.

At this point the Huddersfield defence is at – reaches for book of cliches– sixes and sevens. It feels as though we can tease, prod and punish them at will, and we do exactly that, albeit without adding to our tally, while we are kept honest when Steve Mounie pulls one back for them deep in the second half. It’s a disappointing goal to concede, a move that starts from their goal-kick and is allowed to progress all the way to the other end with little of our usual pressing and harrying to trouble them.

But that’s as good as it gets for the visitors. We claim a 2-1 victory, a well deserved win to consign the Robins defeat into the annals, and one that keeps us in fourth place.

Derby FM20 – February 2020: Three Teams Called City

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and the attempt to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

The transfer window is closed. We spent nothing and brought in close to £5 million from the sales of Anya and Buchanan, and I can only cast envious eyes at some of the megalithic deals being struck elsewhere. Spurs made a rare show of strength, lashing £35 million on Dynamo Kyiv defender Vitaliy Mykolenko, the biggest splash made in January. Alfredo Morelos made a £30 million move from Rangers to PSG, while Manchester City lavished similar amounts in Celtic’s direction for Odsonne Edouard, and Croatian striker Bruno Petkovic’s goalscoring feats in the Champions League put him in Liverpool’s orbit. Ah, for open chequebooks like they possess, like the near £10 million  City paid to add prodigies to their Under-18s set-up.

There’s little point in worrying about it, not when we have the matter of entertaining Stoke City at Pride Park. As with most Championship clubs and their worrying policy of treating the managerial position like a revolving door, the Potters have changed their gaffer and are now being run by Nigel Clough. A man who has significant links with Derby, Clough Jr never came close to achieving the successes of his father and I have to imagine the sheer joy he must experience when he’s reminded of the magic that hasn’t been passed down through the family genes.

Stoke are shock relegation candidates, currently 22nd in the table, and it’s a surprise to me as their squad looks pretty formidable. They have the division’s best keeper in Jack Butland. Joe Allen, Tom Ince and Sam Clucas all have considerable pedigrees, and yet they’re the Championship’s lowest scoring outfit with 17 goals scored over 29 stultifying matches. It isn’t hard to see why either. There’s something inherently disjointed about their effort, as though the players all perform as individuals rather than working as a team, which is in sharp contrast to ourselves. At one point I watch us break up one of their rare forays into our half and within moments we’ve snapped back into our natural shape, the boys developing that almost telepathic ability to understand innately where each other is on the pitch. It’s lovely stuff, the almost invisible formation work that managers to love to see. We get our reward for good work very early, when Lowe crosses from the left for Baker, who in turn finds Knight, in space and ready to fire a torpedo into the net. On 50 minutes we make it 2-0 via Baker’s curled volley from 23 yards out. Both goals are special, DVD highlights reel fodder, which they probably need to be in order to beat Butland, but for all our pressure it’s a deserved return.

As the side with the fewest goals playing the team that’s conceded the least, there’s little left for the visitors to get from this one. It’s a valuable win, one we racked up without the need to play Rooney and handing a debut to Phillips. I’m most pleased for Jason Knight, who could potentially lose his place in the summer midfield overhaul but appears determined to remain a positive presence in my thoughts.

A double bill of football in Wales follows. First up is the cup replay against Cardiff, before we remain down here for a league commitment with Swansea. Travelling south-west, I learn that we are £500,000 richer as a consequence of Will Hughes playing 60 league games for Watford, which triggers a transfer clause. If only this had happened earlier, though it seems clear Will is a squad rotation option for the Hornets, who are currently bottom of the Premier League.

Cardiff City, despite being a relegated outfit, should be beatable and I name a strong eleven as I really would like to progress in the FA Cup. This won’t be easy, though. Whatever else the Bluebirds are, they’re still about as good as we are and like ourselves carry a mean-spirited defence into this game. Led By Aden Flint, the hulking centre-back who used to block out the sun for Boro, getting past them is a challenge in itself, and for the duration of regular time this one remains in a state of stubbornly fought stalemate. Their main source of goals, German striker Robert Glatzel, is marked out of the game, while we largely waste our chances. By the end of 90 minutes it’s 0-0. I have swapped around almost my entire attacking unit due to their ineffectiveness. Jatta’s had one of those games where he insists on trying to do it all, as though once he’s in the penalty area there’s no one else around him and it’s all about fortune and glory, which makes Etheridge’s life a bit easier.

In extra time, I introduce Troy Parrott, believing a fresh pair of legs in the front line will cause tired Cardiff some problems. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it didn’t work. The Irish youngster hasn’t found the net in fifteen hours of football, a phenomenal record of shooting blanks, but the tactic turns out to do exactly what it’s supposed to. Just by racing around like a headless chicken he starts pulling defenders all over the place, and with 116 minutes on the clock he produces the game’s decisive moment. Phillips has the ball on the right flank. Beating the attentions of Joe Bennett he threads it through to Parrott, who isn’t ideally placed in the box but nevertheless has space and time to turn and lash one into the top corner. It’s a vicious goal, the sort of angry strike that has hours of frustration loaded behind it, and it does the job. I demand the players waste time for the seconds that remain, and the final whistle blows. We’re through!

It’s a sterling effort from the boys. You might argue that it’s only Cardiff, but winning away from home hasn’t exactly been our forte and I’m pleased for the lads who came in and worked tirelessly. Mostly I’m happy for Tom Huddlestone, introduced for the misfiring Rooney and putting in a composed, mature performance to calm our nerves and make our times in possession count for something.

Against Swansea City, I replace Chirivella with Lewis Baker, who was rested during the Cardiff match, indeed there are some knackered players who need to sit this one out. Lee Buchanan is making his competitive debut at left-back. Jason Knight retains his place as he’s proved capable of producing a surprise or two from midfield. Relegated from the Premier League in 2018, the Swans are much better than their current place in mid-table, I feel. Rhian Brewster spearheads an attacking line-up that includes Andre Ayew and Kosovan winger Bersant Celina.

Expecting a difficult afternoon, I order us to play a balanced game and look for opportunities. We get them early. Parrott’s placed shot is saved by Woodman’s fingertips and trickles just wide of the far corner. Jatta then puts us in front when he slots home a searching cross from Waghorn. Six minutes are on the clock at this point. We set up to defend our lead and deal surprisingly effectively with Swansea’s attacks. Despite Steve Cooper’s bellowed exhortations for them to show ten minutes of passion, the home team is failing to disrupt our shape. I demand the players not to get complacent, reminding them there’s the potential for us to make it into the top two places with a win here.

The boys look ready to charge through walls for the cause, which is excellent to see, but all I require from them is to be ready for a Swansea onslaught… which never comes. The closest they get is a header from Ayew, which is on target but Montipo’s ready for it. As the half progresses and my work involves identifying the most tired legs and replacing them, it’s obvious that we have them. We know it. They know it. It finishes 1-0 to us, a priceless away victory, but at the possible cost of future concerns over fitness.

Derby have run themselves into the ground at Cardiff and here. It’s a very good run from us, yet the fixtures are coming thick and fast. We’re on our travels again in midweek, for a challenging contest with Bristol City, before returning to Pride Park at the weekend the the Huddersfield match. Rotating the squad will be the name of the game. And the promise of climbing the table doesn’t deliver. Blackburn beat Fulham, but Brentford record a 2-0 victory over Boro, which leaves us in our now traditional place of fourth. That said, we are three points off the top and there’s a small gap that’s opened between ourselves and Leeds. The grind continues…

Derby FM20 – January 2020: Deadline Day Doings

I’ve noticed a spike in hits recently, ever since I mentioned the blog on the Sports Interactive user forums earlier in the week. It feels a bit less like I’m howling into the void, so if you are new to these pages then welcome, thanks for showing up, and I hope you like long reads when it comes to Football Manager stories because that is absolutely what this is. It’s the account of my attempt to get Derby County promoted to the Premier League, though as you will see I think it’s going to take one than one season to do it, certainly in such a way to make our survival in the top flight sustainable. In the meantime, once the 2019/20 season is covered in full there will probably be enough verbiage here to make my adventures as long as a novel. What’s that you say? Why not just write a novel instead…? Well, it’s something to do while we’re all in a state of lockdown, a unique opportunity to play an FM save in exactly the way I’d really like to with time not an issue, and to cover my progress in similarly exhaustive detail here. If you want to follow it from the start, I’ve posted a nice index of chapters into which you can dip to your heart’s content.

We are entertaining Cardiff City in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Reaching this level means we have satisfied the board’s requirements, but obviously we’d like to do better than that, try to reach the competition’s latter stages and bring some real money into the club. The Bluebirds are a relegated team and have only just parted ways with Neil Harris. Steve Morison is working as the interim gaffer when we meet them. Everything is lining up nicely for a victory, and of course it’s exactly in these moments when the gods of football find fresh ways to bite you on the bum, to slap you across the chaps and order you never to dream of such things.

The visitors line up with a 4-5-1, intending to defend, and they do it really well. Everything we do leads to nought. The changes I make affect very little. We enjoy more shooting chances than Cardiff, chiefly through Bakery Jatta, but nothing works for us and keeper Neil Etheridge chooses this occasion to be filled with the spirit of Walter Zenga. Jatta’s pretty awful otherwise. The combined talents of Josh Murphy and Joe Bennett keep our star winger quiet, and Waghorn’s little better on the opposite flank. Both are replaced to no apparent effect. Rooney and Baker are good in central midfield but Troy Parrott looks a man adrift, chasing shadows in attack while Cardiff happily man-mark him out of the game.

There’s nothing I can do. The match dribbles to an apologetic 0-0 outcome and the promise of a return fixture in south Wales. This of course means we are no longer favourites to progress, but I’m hopeful that the bedding in of Pedro Chirivella within defensive midfield will have taken effect by the time we meet again and that we can prevail. The reward is a trip to Brighton in the fifth round, one of those ties that looks almost tantalisingly winnable against relegation threatened, top flight opposition.

There’s a week to wait before our next game. The transfer window threatens to ebb away with little business done, a combination of scant amounts of money in the kitty and not being altogether dissatisfied with the resources I have available. In summer we will welcome seven players, all arriving on free transfers, three defenders and four players to reshape our midfield. I am beginning to lose hope that we will ever be able to afford the £6 million release fee for Perr Schuurs, as much as I would like to make the Dutch centre-back’s stay permanent. Levante’s Ivan should cover that hole, and before I arrived the club had agreed terms with Groningen’s Mike te Wierwik, a very handy looking 27 year old. The listed player I have on my eye on is West Brom’s winger, Matt Phillips, a Scottish international, 28, who would make Duane Holmes’s future with the club a tricky consideration. To date Holmes has failed to convince me of his worth, and I would like a good alternative to Jatta for those occasions when the German is having one of his more wayward outings.

On to Luton Town at Kenilworth Road. You will remember earlier in the season we had a proper FM’ing at their hands, when we used their goal for target practice and drew 1-1. Well folks, exactly the same thing happens in the return leg. Despite playing three forwards the Hatters are on the thick end of a shellacking. We hammer them. It’s like those World War Two bombing raids over German cities that you have read about, completely devastating, but imagine that instead of laying Dresden to waste all those shells explode harmlessly outside the city and miss the important buildings. That’s what we do here. There’s an offside goal for Jack Marriott (which I’m not sure was offside, but that’s football) and a whole heap of effort, but nothing to show for it.

In the second half we finally get a breakthrough when Jason Knight drills his shot past the keeper after the ball bobbles tantalisingly around the Luton box like the most teasing of prospects. Even before I can make my changes to protect our lead Jatta is booked and gifts the opposition a free-kick inside our half. Andrew Shinnie (brother of Graeme) launches one into our area, where Izzy Brown is waiting with almost poetic inevitability to shoot home.

I’m angry at out inability to put this one to bed, and irritable over a lead that could have launched us into third place instead leaves us fifth at the end of the month. Brentford have leapfrogged us, which was always on the cards, while Leeds look as though they are in danger of missing out on the automatic places for another torturous season. On the whole I have to be happy with achieving a near two points per match record. It’s better than anyone at the club expected, but there is a growing body of drawn matches we should have won that is haunting me.

Before the window slams shut I arrange for the recall of Lee Buchanan to our first team. His half-season at Fleetwood has worked out really well in terms of his development, and with Scott Malone gone I need a decent back-up for Max Lowe. Marcus Olsson isn’t it. The prospect of anything happening to Lowe and the Swede playing five games, thereby triggering his contract extension, is enough to give me sleepless nights.

I’m expecting a struggle in holding on to Morgan Whitaker as the deadline approaches. A number of Premier League clubs are hovering, however it’s Buchanan for whom the offer comes in. Leicester want him, and horrifically enough the player flutters his eyelashes right back at them. There’s nothing I can offer the young left-back that will persuade him to stick around, and his argument – that the Foxes are a step up – is annoyingly fair enough, I must confess. So after trying to put them off by increasing the price they end up agreeing to pay the £4.6 million I demand, and they even accede to a cheeky clause whereby Buchanan will spend the remainder of the campaign with us on loan.

Meanwhile, Phillips is happy to join us on loan, with a £3.8 million release clause inserted just in case everything works out and we can make his stay a permanent one. Duane Holmes is transfer listed, about which he is unhappy, and in classic managerial fashion I put things off by loaning him out to Wigan. The Latics will pay his wages in full, and I hope he kills it there to make him loom large in a future transfer window.

With the last hours of the window waning I make an offer for Josh Maja, after Chief Scout Joe McClaren (Steve’s brother!) comes back extolling his virtues. In reality, I think Joe’s been watching Sunderland ‘Til I Die, which isn’t even publicly available on Netflix yet, but the striker looks thrilling and has built his reputation on free scoring for the Mackems before securing his transfer to Bordeaux. I can’t afford to pay his club’s full asking price and there’s no interest from the French team in loaning him out, but I am able to make one of those complicated, structured bids that will have us funnelling cash out of the treasury for months to come. Everything’s agreed, green-lit, the guy’s happy to play for us, but after all that we still come up short of what we need to pay and the board is implacable in finding the three hundred grand we would need to seal the deal.

It turns out those takeover rumours are true. Things are happening. Wheels are turning at levels much higher than where I’m operating, and in this climate of uncertainty they are tight-lipped and even tighter when it comes to releasing funds.

The future suddenly seems unsure, and everyone’s prospects – mine included – are being played out against a punishing February schedule that will take in eight fixtures. It’s all I can do to ignore the boardroom shenanigans and get on with the task in hand. The end of the season is actually in sight, and my feeling is that this month will be decisive in determining where we end up.