The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and their attempts 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’m working on meeting a promise I made to Bakery Jatta upon signing him, which was to strengthen the midfield area of the squad. I have until the end of the January transfer window to demonstrate that I’ve addressed his concern, and it’s an understandable one. If the Rams have a weak link then it is indeed in midfield, a unit that contains the side’s best player – a former striker who once played for England; you might have heard of him – but also carries some real dead weight. Lewis Baker is fine, as you’d expect from someone we paid good money to sign. George Evans is just okay, a squad rotation alternative to Rooney who would absolutely struggle in the higher level we’d like to reach one of these days. Max Bird and Jason Knight are both still very young. The opposite problem is apparent when it comes to Tom Huddlestone, once a top class midfielder in the making (I remember him chiefly from Championship Manager 03/04, when he could be acquired fairly cheaply from Derby and had the potential to be a star) and now someone at the fag end of his career. Graeme Shinnie, a workhorse 28 year old who’s bang average at this level, has consistently done little to impress me. He’s valued at £4.4 million and I would love to sell him and recycle the proceeds back into squad rebuilding, but at the same time he isn’t a massive lag on the wage bill and I believe overall that he’s better playing with us than against us.
Overall it’s an area of the squad that could use some remodelling. In that sense Jatta and I have an accord, though the winger comes with a grasping, demanding sense of his own brilliance that I often find absolutely maddening. The 21 year old German has done just about enough to retain his status as a star player. His eight league goals make him our second leading scorer (after Waghorn), and there’s a busy quality to his game that can make him almost unplayable when he wants to be. At the same time there have been too many instances when he drifts away from the action, the potential for anonymous performances that must, on a lesser scale, be what it’s like to manage Mesut Ozil. You know the deal – you’re fully aware just how good he can be, but you rarely get that level out of him.
Added to all this is the simple fact we don’t have very much money left in the pot. I go cap in hand to the owner and beg for a bit of flexibility in the transfer budget. Mr Morris issues a flat refusal, claiming – correctly – the club is haemorrhaging funds, and he does it in a way that suggests the issue can’t be pushed. A glance at the annual financial picture looks like a sharp skiing descent, so there’s little doing here.
The only possible answer is to go for loan signings. My preferred option is Pedro Chirivella, a player I believe I have mentioned in these pages beforehand. The Liverpool defensive midfielder is 22, stuck in their reserves and is in the last year of his Anfield contract. I’d like to have him here and see him as a long-term replacement for Rooney, so the plan becomes to draft him in for the remainder of the season and to hope that during his stay he falls in love with the place. We aren’t alone in wanting him, so this will take careful work and timing, with the potential addition of DCFC hampers sent to his home to show him that we’re serious. Hey Pedro, come to Derby, here’s a selection of jambon and chutneys to help you do the right thing and choose us!
To try and ease the pressure a little bit, I arrange for the termination of Rushian Hepburn-Murphy‘s loan agreement. In monetary terms it’s a drop in the ocean, however from what I’ve seen he simply isn’t good enough to play at this level. It seems best for both the player and ourselves that we end our association now. With Tom Lawrence now close to returning to the side we have the potential to free Martyn Waghorn to play in attack should the situation become desperate. Such is my addled thinking with the treasury looking sparse and with sixteen league fixtures still to play.
Spanish full-back Ivan agrees to sign for us when his playing contract with Oviedo finishes in the summer. His arrival will almost certainly make Andre Wisdom surplus to requirements. Lyon beat us to the signature of Isaac Lihadji, however, which seems fair enough to me. I really wanted to add the young Frenchman, but once a Ligue One set-up rivalled us for his signature there was only one logical destination for him… is what I would resolve upon if there was any rational consideration to my thinking. As it is the dressing room has a new player’s face for its dartboard.
Krystian Bielik is booked in the first minute of our weekend match at Middlesbrough, which sets the tone for a bad tempered and niggling affair. There seems to be little interest from the boys in playing football. Their effort is focused on petulant behaviour and losing possession while being caught on the ball in the opposition half, and I’ve no idea why there’s such a malaise in our game. There is an argument for saying we’ve got it coming. Our football hasn’t been sparkling for some weeks. We’ve ground out the results recently, so when Boro go ahead we have few excuses. Irritatingly, the scorer is Patrick Roberts, the one opposition forward I specifically warned my players to pay close attention to. I even remember putting photos of Nmecha and Roberts up on the board. If this guy’s through on goal don’t worry about it too much, I advised, pointing at Nmecha. He’ll fanny about and mess up, but if Roberts is in a dangerous position you need to be on him like Joey Barton’s fist on the face of someone who’s insulted his pint. Got it?
Needless to say they don’t get it. Roberts is wide open for Boro’s opening goal. As the defenders congregate around the largely harmless Nmecha, all the striker has to do is lay off for the advancing Roberts and he’s in for simplest of shots. They add a second shortly after half-time when George Friend heads in a Roberts corner, and we’re undone. I realise to my horror that Lewis Baker is sitting on the bench, that somehow I picked Jason Knight to start instead. The change is made, and shortly after Baker fires in the free-kick that Duane Holmes clips past Stojanovic to make it 2-1. It’s Holmes’s first goal of the season, somewhat incredibly considering it’s his 26th appearance. And as far as we are concerned that’s the highlight. It stays 2-1 as we fail to find a way through.
I don’t especially mind losing to a side that’s challenging for the playoff positions, but to do so in what feels to me like a meek fashion is really disappointing. Jatta, Waghorn and Parrott produced a puff-pastry level of attacking strength, which more or less gave Dael Fry and his pals the afternoon off.
Pressure grows on us to deal with Everton as they continue to take an interest in Morgan Whitaker. Worse still, the Toffees are now managed by Carlo Ancelotti, or Uncle Carlo, one of the nicest guys in the game, who can charm his way around any potential transfer hurdle. He’ll need to sweet-talk his way into offering a lot of money in this instance. Chirivella signs for us in the meantime, an arrival that most people appear to be quite favourable with. Most importantly, the promise to Jatta has been fulfilled and he’s happy with the deal. If this translates into him upping his game, then it’s a win on all fronts.
We head into the home tie against Hull City amidst rumours of a takeover at board level. The club is remaining tight-lipped, but the uncertainty is filtering down to all of us. Scott Malone joins Oxford United for the rest of the season on loan. They’re only paying 20% of his wages, so it isn’t an especially satisfying situation – the preference would be to lose him altogether, or get more cash money for his services, but it’s another player promise fulfilled and that’s what really matters. We agree a deal for Bruno, a 29 year old centre back who will sign for free in the summer from Levante. The player’s age isn’t ideal, however uppermost in my thoughts is the need to replace on-loan Matt Clarke with a good left-sided centre back. Bruno has spent his time jumping about the two top divisions in Spain, and his promised weekly wage of £13.5k is a considerable drop on the £22k we’re paying Clarke… Always thinking with the bottom line, right?
The Tigers match is one we should win. They’re 16th, and we have a good record at Pride Park. Before the end of the first half, we’re in front after Bielik has headed Baker’s free-kick beyond George Long. As it happens though, Hull are better than their position in the league suggests. Marshalled by Herbie Kane at DM, they scrap hard and look especially pacey on the break. The contest between Wisdom and Norbert Balogh on the left wing is the key one, I feel, the Jamaican just about holding his own. Sure enough, they make it 1-1 shortly after the break. It’s a horrific goal to watch, a scrappy melee in our area that we fail to clear before Mallick Wilks races into the gap and slots into a pretty much empty net. For a time, I am able to raise my head from my hands just enough to watch the visitors threaten to overrun us. Their 3-4-3 formation is causing us all sorts of problems, though they’re overloaded in attack, which makes them liable to be caught out at the back. Wisdom makes a foray into the opposition half and shakes off the attentions of Balogh to cut the ball in to Jatta. The German somehow squeezes a shot off from a very tight angle, which turns out to be true and beats the keeper, putting us back into the lead.
It’s one we never relinquish again. Despite the scares, and the good form elsewhere from Brentford that is threatening our place in the top four, we prevail to claim all three points. I’m happy. After the Boro defeat we couldn’t be doing with another banana skin here, and especially pleasing was the debut of Chirivella, whose sold performance in defensive midfield allowed me to field a strong partnership of Rooney and Baker. This trio looks like the primary one going forward. It was also good to see Tom Lawrence return for thirty minutes on the left wing. We’ll need his sense of invention, and his innate sense of self-belief can lead to some good moments.
The last January update will cover the end of the transfer window and the month’s two remaining fixtures. We are at Luton, but before that there’s the little matter of our FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home, now confirmed as being against Cardiff and with the potential glories of the competition’s latter stages on the horizon. Dare to dream…?