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 after all the planning, the worrying, the lingering suspicion that we are not good enough, the hope that I can keep Derby County in the Premier League, the liberal extent to my player sales that constantly have me wondering whether I have the right to fiddle so much with the squad… At the end of all of it the 2020/21 Premier League season begins. We’re at home and hosting Tottenham Hotspur.
To even be in the same room as a team as big as Spurs is something of a dream come true. Derby’s efforts to get themselves to this level are well documented, a project that’s taken more than a decade in reaching fruition, featuring numerous near-misses and guest starring a galaxy of would-be saviours. To someone with the calibre of today’s opponents all this must be somewhat bemusing. Their status as a Premier League outfit is undiminished. They’ve never been relegated since football started in 1992, and while they haven’t always been terrific they are as top flight as it’s possible to get.
Last season, Spurs finished fifth. They accumulated 71 points, four away from fourth place and yet eleven ahead of sixth-placed Arsenal. Jose Mourinho manages them. In his pre-match press conference he makes supportive noises about our chances and about me; in other words he knows little when it comes to either subject because we’re beneath his normal attention. In classic Spurs fashion and in complete contrast to our own hunt for talent, they’ve signed precisely no one over the summer. And you can argue they need no new faces either. Harrington Kane remains their most valuable player, now an iconic England captain and coveted by Manchester City. Giovani Lo Celso has settled into English life – taking over the Christian Eriksen attacking midfield role – like a Yorkshireman tasked with expanding on the term God’s own country. Son Heung-Min, Debbie Alli and Steven Bergwijn form a nightmare-inducing attacking line. The quality continues through the ranks, the sort of upper level set of players that would shame no club’s colours. They’re a difficult start to the campaign. Welcome to the Premier League.
Worse for me is the fact that Spurs are one of my most hated teams. My reasons for thinking this are at best tenuous. Arsenal are the ‘big club’ I feel the most affinity with, and they’re rivals to the side with the big Cock on their crest, so that might be part of it. There’s nothing much more boring than Spurs fans whingeing on about their demand for good play, because that’s what their team traditionally supplies, even though all this harks back to the double-winning season from 1960-61 when they triumphed through cavalier football. But that’s sixty years ago and since then they have just about grazed the league’s number one spot, always falling short. Besides which, if dazzling entertainment is what they want then hiring Mourinho strikes me as a less than obvious choice to deliver it. Really, the irrational loathing goes back to my University days, when I knew a Spurs supporter and he was a bit irritating. He probably wasn’t even that bad, but these things tend to stick and I’ve disliked his dumb team ever since then.
It’s a balmy summer’s afternoon as we take to the field. Pride Park is nearly at capacity, perhaps 500 short of a complete sell-out and the away fans have filled their allocation, so who on earth isn’t coming to see this…? I pick my best available line-up. Montipo takes up his traditional place in goal. Bogle’s at right-back, with te Wierik and McKenna in the middle. Max Lowe suffered a bruised head in training about a week ago and is ruled as being not quite match fit, so I take no chances and pick Alfonso Pedraza at left-back instead. Chirivella, who I’m gratified to note is the subject of a gushing piece from Football 365 (in, I might add, news-starved times), plays defensive midfield, behind the central pairing of Stoger and Hughes, the latter wearing the armband today. Hlozek and Lookman are on the wings. Esposito was removed from the Burton friendly with pulled knee ligaments and is still ruled out, so Hernandez starts in attack. The bench features Bruno, Bielik, Baker, Stendera, Smith Rowe, Jatta and Marriott.
Lord Rooney is out with a fractured toe, which he incurred at the end of July during training, when he tried to impress his teammates by doing an impression of John Barnes kicking a Lucozade Sport bottle into the bin. This is disappointing for lazy media pundits, who know very little about Derby but have been writing about Wayne for years, so all the focus about our promotion is on him. Indeed, we have taken on the unofficial title Wayne Rooney’s Derby County, which must be great news for all the other players who have made huge contributions towards getting us up. What these people don’t realise, and I do only too well, is that Lord Wayne might still be team captain but he’s a pale shadow of the vastly talented England international that he once was. Of course he expects to feature prominently once he regains full fitness, so how I use him is going to be an issue of much care. However much his powers might have faded, and they absolutely have, he’s the squad’s only outright Team Leader, a man of enormous influence, which means he has the power to create a massive stink if he thinks he’s being treated unfairly and carrying numerous people with him. Players have signed for us on the back of getting to play with Lord Wayne. It’s going to be one of the big concerns of the year for us.
The first half goes as well as you might expect, which means we are under siege for most of it. In the tenth minute, we play a slick attacking move that takes us into their penalty area. Lookman is crowded out and loses the ball and, within seconds, Spurs are carving us wide open. Son has acres of space to lope deep into our half, unchallenged as various Rams try desperately to get near him. This sort of thing never happens in the Championship, where possession is seen invariably as a hot potato that needs to be given away – hopefully to a player wearing the same colours – as quickly as possible. The Korean has time to lay off to Kane, who fights off the challenge of McKenna to take a shot. Luckily the defender has limited his space and his effort is collected safely by the keeper. And that’s the tone of it. They get chance after chance. Chirivella is a dervish alongside our defenders, trying to deal with everything. They get a string of corners, and it’s Hughes – dealing with Davinson Sanchez, clearly the player they’re aiming for – who keeps them out.
We’ve been poor in attack. I need to be reminded that we are fielding three entirely new players here. They might be better than what we had but they’re still acclimatising both to being Rams and playing in the English top flight, so I gradually switch them all. Jatta, Smith Rowe and Marriott are introduced. Slowly, we get into the game more. On the hour mark, Chirivella plays a ball out wide to Jatta, who beats Rose and fires a shot across Lloris’s goal; only fingertips from the keeper prevent the ball from landing in the far corner. For them, Bogle’s challenge on Rose in our half is determined to be a foul, though it looks okay to me. It’s the 86th minute. Lamela takes the kick, which Alderweireld gets a head to; Montipo is able to make an acrobatic catch to keep it 0-0. Straight from kick-off, we work the ball quite beautifully up the pitch. Hughes is playing a general’s role in central midfield, spraying passes around, having the vision to spot the gaps. He finds Smith Rowe, who in turn plays in the advancing Pedraza. The full-back crosses, where Jatta rises above Sanchez to head powerfully… over the bar! Only just over, but Spurs’ blushes are spared. The stadium as one does that gasp of appreciation and foiled disappointment.
So it finishes scoreless, which I am delighted with. We could have snatched it there at the end, but a piece of thievery is what a Derby win would have amounted to, and while I’m not above taking those the result is a fair one. Tottenham were bloody brilliant in the early periods of the game, threatening several times to overwhelm us, and only the discipline instilled over last season and endless training sessions kept them out. Our heads never went down. We knew this was a tough start to the season and we played with respect, treating the opposition seriously and showing signs of developing the fluidity we are going to need. The statistics give us the edge, just about, though Spurs are credited with the only clear cut chance of the game. Most impressive for me is the way we improved throughout the contest. By the later passages of play we were trading blows with them as equals, and we could have won. It gives me hope that everything will turn out all right in the end.
Will Hughes is named Player of the Match, quite rightly in my opinion. The man’s a class act, making four key passes and generally standing tall at the heart of all things. Afterwards he tells the press – we get press now! – that it is a proud moment for him to be wearing the DCFC shirt in the Premier League. He may well be currying favour with the fans, telling them exactly what they want to hear, but the guy has heart and it’s metaphysical elements like the pride he’s talking about that could, just maybe could, get us over the line.