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…