Derby FM20 – September/October 2019: Daylight Robbery

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 the story begins right here.

I’m writing this during the second week of the Coronavirus lockdown. What started last week as a bit of a novelty (with apologies to those who have been afflicted) is now descending into boredom and a sense of stir-craziness. I miss going out. I… miss… work! Words I frankly never thought I’d have to type, but I think what I lament most is the sudden absence of structure. Like you I have a normal daily pattern, and it’s been disrupted. Sure I can and do work from home, but it isn’t the same. I get out for a stroll each day (I’m fortunate enough to live near the countryside), and it feels a bit like being a dog who’s suddenly taken for a walk, all that raw energy exploding into life as I get to breathe fresh air and stretch my legs. For the record I’m not totally like a dog – I don’t squat down and relieve myself on spare bits of grass, well not yet anyway. Yesterday, I popped out to shop for essentials – Frazzles, Tunnock’s Teacakes, coconut flavoured hair conditioner – and was grateful for being part of a gathering, albeit a community that kept a respectful two metres’ distance from each other. Sigh, I even miss being cut up by angry trolleys in a supermarket.

September hasn’t been kind to to Rams. After a promising August we have drawn against Cardiff and were then bent over and soundly spanked off of Leeds. I still have nightmares about Leeds. Without wishing to blow mine own trumpet, teams I manage don’t normally receive an ass whuppin’ but that’s just what it was, the kind of result I should be used to as a Middlesbrough fan, however it never gets comfortable. We need a win, and the arrival of Birmingham City at Pride Park might just provide one. Come on lads, let’s end the month on a high!

By now I’m beginning to get a reasonable fix on who can and can’t be trusted. Huddlestone is on the bench. Jayden Bogle has finally returned from injury and gets to start ahead of Andre Wisdom, who has had a couple of shockers and yet expects to be considered a regular starter. The Brummies play Lee Camp in goal. The perennial Championship standard keeper is now 35 and must have had spells with almost every second division side at some point in his run of 516 (to date) league appearances. He actually started out with us, though he left in 2007 and is on his eighth club since then. Elsewhere Harlee Dean (sounds like a DC Comics character) is a good centre back, Ecuadorian Jefferson Montero plays on their left wing, and there’s a Boro connection in the presence of non-scoring striker Lukas Jutkiewicz.

We are a goal ahead after eight minutes. Lowe, who’s playing much better now that his place in the team is at risk (it isn’t really, but a rocket up the backside never hurts), beats Collin for pace and cuts the ball across goal for Jatta, whose marker is clearly enjoying an afternoon off because he gets a free header and makes no mistake. If I have concerns that this will turn into another debacle a la Elland Road, then there’s no need to worry. The Blues have a lot of possession but anyone can fanny around on the ball in their own half. They lack any kind of bite, Schuurs and Milosevic enjoying a quiet game, and we get the more biting attacks, running at City’s defence with some ease but worryingly not pressing our advantage… Until much later, with about ten minutes to go, when Baker’s free kick from the left flank deep in opposition territory could be met by anyone among a sea of bodies but in fact ends up in the net courtesy of Alex Milosevic’s noggin.

About as simple a 2-0 win as you’re likely to see. The fans are happy. I’m happy. Let’s be honest you’re happy too, right? The table puts us in fifth place, one ahead of what the sainted Lampard achieved in 2018/19. We will do well to end the campaign in the playoff picture, but then you could say that about a number of sides that are up there. Brentford, West Brom and Forest are too good to be anywhere other than in the frame; I expect to see them stage a resurgence before too long. If I thought the Derby board would be cross about Leeds and let the result colour their thinking, then I would be wrong:

An unbelievable job, huh? My feeling is that it doesn’t take too much to impress Mel Morris and his fellow Farts of the Old variety. 16 of the 27 players now support me. Their ranks include Mr Huddlestone, and what I figured would be a season-long battle of wills finished rather tamely in the end. It’s amazing what the search for a new contract will make you do and feel, right?

We enter a heavy October schedule that contains six fixtures and a two-week international break. Time perhaps to cryogenically freeze the players in between matches to ensure a fit squad. None of the league ties look overly threatening, but there’s a small commitment with Manchester United at the end of the month that we’re looking forward to with a combination of anticipation and dread. Ole has guided the Red Devils to third, tucked in behind City and league leaders Chelsea, who are yet to drop a single point. The Lampard touch continues to weave its magic.

Promoted Barnsley at their South Yorkshire home of Oakwell are next. I tend to think of the Terriers as the perennial second tier outfit but they’ve actually been a bit more up and down than that and have paid their dues in League One a couple of times in recent years. Back up and managed by Gerhard Struber, they’re enjoying a promotion bounce and are on the same number of points as ourselves, but theirs isn’t a squad with the same kind of depth as we enjoy and I feel if we can keep Ritzmaier and Mowatt busy then we will cut off their main threats. All the same, they’re doing well and I need to respect them by naming a strong side. At the weekend we will have Luton at home ahead of the fortnight’s break, so this is the one to treat seriously.

Before a three-quarters full ground they’re a lot stiffer than they were when we beat them in the Carabao at Pride Park. The same limitations apply however. They play a diamond formation that relies on their two good midfielders breaking wide and causing problems. Wisdom and Lowe are in fine fettle though, and in the meantime we get to overload the numbers in central midfield, Rooney, Shinnie and Baker controlling things and looking for openings. Schuurs and Bielik deal with Woodrow and the nippy Brown capably enough; it’s good to see both defenders improving so quickly.

The first half is a stalemate. Barnsley can’t break us down and we are probably playing too conservatively to hit back at them. At half-time I gamble and tell the boys to adopt a more attacking approach. Despite their good league position they look ripe for the plucking, but as it is the two goals we put past them turn out to be pretty special. For the first Lowe spots Collins some way off his line and tries a shot from distance that loops over the flailing keeper and into the net. We’re into the last ten minutes when Parrott finds Lawrence in a central position just outside the area. In a cheeky mimic of a better Welsh player he hooks one in from where he’s stood, the sort of attempt that could make him look a bit silly but instead flies gracefully into the bottom corner.

2-0 doesn’t flatter us. It reflects the difference in quality, the false position of Barnsley in the playoff picture, and for that matter our elevation into third place, though we will more than take it for the time being.

The pre-break fixture has us playing Luton Town at home. Like Barnsley the Hatters have enjoyed a good start to the season and are in sixth, and the similarities continue with the fact they have (i) just been promoted (ii) been beaten by us already in the Carabao Cup. We have good reason to think that we’ll do well in this one. Everything is set up for a winning afternoon’s entertainment, and the supporters clearly agree because we play to a near-capacity crowd.

So of course nothing goes right. The end of the first half is 0-0 and the match statistics look like this:

I regret the changes I made, the decision to hand Max Bird his first start in defensive midfield and push Rooney alongside Baker; the replacement of an ailing Parrott for Marriott. But there was nothing wrong with those moves; the statistics bear out my sense that we have enjoyed a good half of football. Luck hasn’t been on our side and Marriott has missed a couple of chances that Parrott might have put away. Worse still, we win a penalty that Wayne Rooney – the most sure-footed choice imaginable – thwacks against a goalpost.

The feeling that it’s going to be ‘one of those days’ is underlined by Luton going ahead early in the second half. This is their one significant attack of the whole match. Sonny Bradley hammers home from a rare Hatters corner, and a degree of desperation creeps into our game. I urge the players forward. Parrott comes on. Rooney is removed, which just shows the sort of game he’s having – Note to self: don’t move him from defensive midfield ever again – and we finally conjure up an equaliser in the 79th minute. Lawrence saves our bacon, another luscious strike from the edge of the D that makes him appear to have had a much better outing than the rather meandering display he’s put on prior to that moment.

I think Luton will collapse at that point. Surely, you can only take the kind of pressure we’re applying for so long, right? As it is the Derby Massive seem to have tacitly agreed 1-1 is about as good as it’s going to get. We try still, but the urgency we were showing up to that moment has gone. This one’s done. And just like that, a side we beat away from home comfortably less than two weeks ago have snatched a point at Pride Park. Personally I’ve witnessed bank heists that were less of a robbery than what’s unfolded here.

Derby FM20 – September 2019: Our Boys Take One Hell of a Beating

Both in real life and on Football Manager I don’t enjoy international breaks very much. Like most people I’m more a club man than in thrall to my country, and while I appreciate the matches played by England contribute to their appearance at tournaments, which I love, I’d far rather be following my team’s fortunes during this period.

In the game, I find the fortnight of no football to be quite dull, a case of clicking through the days, coupled with biting my fingernails over hopes that the players won’t get themselves injured whilst on duty. The following Rams from our first team have been called up:

Jamaica: Andre Wisdom
Poland Under-21s: Krystian Bielik
Republic of Ireland: Cyrus Christie and Troy Parrott
Republic of Ireland Under-21s: Jason Knight
Sweden: Alexander Milosevic
Wales: Tom Lawrence

I’m especially pleased for Troy, 17 years old and facing the possibility of winning his first cap, but I confess I find the whole period quite stressful. Each news item that arrives during this time is something I instantly think will be the report of a six month layoff for a vital player… Instead I pore through scouting recommendations, mostly for League One standard players when I could really use a missing link, that final mythical piece in the jigsaw. I discard details of anyone over the age of 25, and ask for further scouting and analytical details on the others.

Max Lowe gets a new contract, which he absolutely deserves after nailing down his place at left-back and also for scoring a couple of goals recently. It’s a reminder for me to review who in the first team is in their last year. There are three – Huddlestone, Anya and Olsson. I couldn’t care less about the latter two, but Tom might be useful to keep around. At 32 he’s no longer the young firebrand, the midfield tyro who started his career here before taking in lengthy spells at Spurs and Hull, and I think it will take some careful monitoring of his ability levels, to see if any decline is setting in, before making a decision. Perhaps he’ll take a pay cut to stick around.

Our home game against Cardiff City is under the Friday Night Lights, the lights of the Sky Sports cameras that is. You’ll recall our previously televised match was a slow torture session against West Brom after Jatta got himself sent off in the first five minutes. We’re hoping to produce a better performance for the millions thousands hundreds of viewers thus time around. Jatta’s serving the last of his suspended games so Duane Holmes starts on the right wing. Clarke replaces Bielik as the young Pole returns to us knackered from his international adventures. The same’s true for Troy Parrott, so Jack Marriott is in the first eleven. Andre Wisdom is set for his first start of the season at right-back after completing his recovery from injury.

My recognition of any Bluebirds talent is more through familiarity. Three of their starters are former Boro players – left-back and former Academy star, Joe Bennett, hulking centre back Aden Flint and Albert Adomah, a crowd favourite who plays on the wing. They also have Alex Smithies in goal. Gamers of older FM editions will recall him as a good English youngster with the potential to develop into a fine keeper, potentially his country’s best. These days, he’s settled back into a decent second tier goalie, which is probably about right.

In the eighth minute, Baker comes away with the ball from a midfield tussle and finds Marriott, who slots the ball beneath Smithies for a well placed opener. I make the mistake of thinking this lot are here for the taking, an error of judgement underlined when Glatzel equalises after a further quarter of an hour when he heads in Bennett’s cross. Cardiff have the better of it for the rest of the half, a torrid affair when they trouble us on the wings again and again, Lowe suffering especially as a consequence of thinking of his thousands rather than concentrating on the game. He’s hooked at half-time, and we start gaining the ascendancy once again. But there’s nothing we can do to win the match. The visitors have a height advantage and they use it, and I’m left to reflect on the paucity of our resources. We’re crying out for someone to replace Waghorn on the left wing, who isn’t having the best of outcomes. Normally I’d swap him out for Lawrence, but he’s already replaced Holmes, the American having an even poorer afternoon.

So it’s a drawn game, a result that sends us to the top of the Championship but only for a day as the main programme puts us back in our place. There’s the small matter of an away day at Leeds United next. The title contenders have leapfrogged us by winning 1-0 away at Barnsley, and there’s little doubt this will be among the tougher tests we’ll face this season. Marcelo Bielsa and his bloody bucket… They have no injury concerns, while we can only have Graeme Shinnie on the bench when he suffers a twisted knee in midweek during an effort to reach for his TV remote. At least I can recall Jatta, and Parrott is now fit enough to start again.

I come into this one thinking we are due a bit of a hiding. We’ve been okay so far, but there’s been a fair amount of riding our luck coupled with the standard in the Championship not being very high. Leeds are promotion challengers for a reason. They can really play, and I don’t consider myself to be especially innovative in picking out Kalvin Phillips as their main threat. A bit like when Ruben Neves was playing at this level with Wolves, he quite clearly belongs in the top tier.

We go ahead very early when Parrott heads Baker’s cross beyond Casilla, but this just rouses the Whites into action. By the 20th minute they are 3-1 ahead, the third especially annoying as it results from defensive mix-ups and Helder Costa being on hand to take advantage. The match quickly turns into a horror show. We look sluggish, half a yard slower than our opponents, conceding a soft fourth before the break while at the other end they defend like dogs to keep us out. For the first time this season we don’t look very good, coming off distinctly second best, chasing shadows, and as though we have deceived everyone by masquerading as footballers and we’re only now being found out. All we win during that first period is the bookings count, as we collect three swift yellows to imply a breakdown in discipline that fortunately doesn’t quite tip over the edge.

There’s little else to do but try to limit the damage, bringing off the worst of our offenders – Waghorn, Huddlestone, Milosevic – and at least trying to approach the second period in a positive frame of mind. It goes about as well as it can really. We venture out of our own half a little more often and even string a few passes together without being harried off the ball, but Leeds press better than we do and there’s precious little fluency in our game. The crowning moment comes when Costa is in possession in our penalty area and is bundled over rather unnecessarily by Wisdom, who looks terrified and as though he wishes he was still injured. It’s an easy penalty shout, an even simpler effort by Klich to send Montipo the wrong way, and it produces a 5-1 scoreline, which turns out to be the final result.

Ahead of the cup game away to Luton Town, I single out Tom Lawrence as the player most in decline. He started the season well and usurped Waghorn in the line-up but has been poor recently, and for a player earning £30,000 per week I expect a lot better. Thankfully he accepts the bollocking, as we all attempt to regroup from the Elland Road bum-rape and advance in the Carabao.

It turns out to be good enough. The Hatters are what we were against Leeds – game but essentially inferior – and we win 2-0. Lawrence takes on board my words to him by putting on a ‘poor man’s Bale’ show, scoring himself before turning provider when he provides the assist for Scott Malone’s second. I’m particularly pleased for the full-back, who hasn’t appeared for us before this match as I felt he was so much poorer than Max Lowe. The fun stuff happens in the first half. After the break we can do the footballing equivalent of placing an outstretched palm on much littler Luton’s forehead and inviting them to lay a punch on us. They can’t.

Before rounding off September with Birmingham at Pride Park, we learn who we will take on in the fourth round. It’s Manchester United at home. At last, the glamour tie we advanced this far in the hope of making. As for predicting how it will work out, I think back to the Leeds shellacking and the immortal words of Mr T…