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.
I don’t know how strongly other people think about this, but at every team I manage it’s a long-term aim of mine to develop a squad entirely made up of homegrown players. The days of sides that are produced from within are long since done, of course, but a combination of Academy products and English players (or ‘homegrown foreigners’, like Pedro Chirivella, who came from Liverpool’s youth ranks) is the dream for me. I think I look to the likes of the great Ajax teams of the past for inspiration here. The Champions League winning outfit of 1995, which started with nine Dutchmen (for the record… Van Der Sar, Reiziger, Blind, Rijkaard, F de Boer, Seedorf, Davids, R de Boer, Overmars, with Finidi and Litmanen the overseas additions) looks like an idealised and fantasy line-up. Just picture what that bunch of players went on to achieve, and no that isn’t a dig at Frank’s short-lived reign as Crystal Palace manager…
The current Derby squad contains eleven homegrown players. Of these, three – Bogle, Lowe, Hughes – have trained at the club for three years between their 15th and 21st birthdays. The others – Bielik, Chirivella, Lookman, Baker, Smith Rowe, Marriott, Lord Rooney and Carson – are homegrown on a national level. This is a reasonable ratio for a newly promoted side that’s just trying to survive, but over time I want it to improve. Hlozek will meet the criteria in three years’ time, as will Esposito if he stays with us.
Of course, the obvious issue here is that homegrown players are inevitably sought after and generally come with a premium added to their price tag. Seeing English players being passed over for transfers because there’s a similarly gifted overseas player who’s available much more cheaply is commonplace, and financially understandable, but my hope for this team is that we always prioritise just that kind of homegrown talent where we can. I signed Hughes partly because of his Derby background, with Lookman and Hlozek added along similar sentiments.
It’s why, when the scouts are banging on about Ronaldo Vieira, a defensive midfielder from Leeds who went to Sampdoria, I dispatch my Under 23s analyst, Oliver Griffin, to submit a complete dossier on him. The report reveals Vieira as becoming steadily more important to his team’s cause, considered more to be regular starter. He’s a fine athlete, similar in many of the important attributes for his position to Chirivella. They play the same role – deep lying playmaker – as DMs, and are close to each other in terms of age. Ronaldo could cost anything up to £17 million, but that shouldn’t be bank breaking for someone identified as a potential replacement for Lord Rooney, who we could have on the books for up to a decade.
Why bother, you might ask. Well, in Ronaldo’s case there’s the chance to sign someone whose first and last names are both those of past Premier League legends, but for me homegrown players bring a certain, indefinable something extra. Overseas players tend to take their time in acclimatising, and have the potential to be more mercenary. They don’t often care to whom they lend their services – as long as they’re being paid, that’s all that matters. I am not necessarily after badge kissers, but in my experience it all tends to mean more to homegrown contingents. Now, good players are good players. That’ll never change. But I’m sticking with my assertion that having a mainly homegrown squad matters, and you can expect us always to prioritise such people when it comes to adding to Derby’s ranks.
In the five days betwixt Everton and West Ham we have to deal with a couple of training ground injuries. Will Hughes suffers a tight groin, which sounds worse than it is and should only remove him for a day or two. He’ll live to fight against the Hammers, unlike Lord Rooney, who is only just reported to have recovered from his broken toe when he’s ruled out for a further fortnight. This time it’s a pulled abdominal muscle, incurred when he has been impressing the ‘Ramlings’ with his prowess on the weight machines in the club gym. This ensures there’ll be no chance of seeing him in action before September. I had pencilled him in to make his return for the Crewe game. Instead, he won’t return until after the international break.
On to that soulless edifice, the London Stadium, for our league game against West Ham United. Last season the Hammers were predicted to finish mid-table and achieved ninth, and are looking at the same again this time around. David Moyes is still in charge. He is ‘not prepared to answer that question’ when he’s asked by the media how he is going approach the game against us, which could suggest a master-plan that is being kept tightly under wraps, or no fresh preparation at all. Use your own skill and judgement of Davey’s past exploits when forming your view. Their big summer signing was Sead Kolasinac, the combustible wing-back who arrived from Arsenal for £19 million. Joe McClaren scouted him as part of his pre-game brief, and returned less than impressed. He identifies Bowen and Anderson on the wings as their main threats. The former is a player I’d love to have in our ranks, but for now it’s a distant possibility. Price too high. Wage demands too excessive. Interest in signing too low. You know the drill by now.
The big plus for us is the absence of their captain and vice-captain. Young Declan Rice wears the armband for West Ham. He is out with a pulled hamstring, while Pablo Zabaleta, the ageing Argentinian full-back, is carrying a twisted ankle. Elsewhere, the team is what they’ve been for a number of years, which is a broad mixture of very good and decidedly average ballers. Whereas my preference is to try and upgrade my team’s abilities as a whole, the Hammers spend big on stars and expect them to blend in amongst those blessed with lesser talents. For instance, Felipe Anderson and Pablo Fornais are great. They would look at home in the Arsenal line-up, but the likes of Mark Noble and Ryan Fredericks are more limited. If it works for them then it’s all good, of course, and we are talking about a top ten side here, however my warning klaxon is the memory of Middlesbrough’s relegated team in 1997, where Ravanelli and Juninho were expected to showcase their silky skills on the same pitch as a mostly Second Division defence. That imbalance proved fatal in the end.
In addition are the vast sums of money they’re throwing at these chumps. Yarmolenko earns six figures on a weekly basis, which makes it nice work for a winger who scored two goals and generated one assist across the whole of the previous campaign. We scouted Jack Wilshere with a genuine view to targeting him in the summer. I know about his history of getting injured from looking at a blade of grass the wrong way, but you never know with someone like him, do you? He’s a consummately top flight performer and there’s clearly bags of talent within him, a bit like an iceberg where seven eighths of it are reported to be beneath the surface. Maybe, just maybe… But then the report came back, and it became clear that I would be exhibiting a special streak of madness if I made a move for him. Not only is Jack viewed as a fading force whose best days are behind him at 28 years of age, and by now he’s best suited to the Championship, there would also be a commitment for us to pay him at the level to which he has become accustomed, which is £80,000 per week. I might have made the occasional transfer move that some supporters question, but clearly if I plumped for Jack – even along the lines of going for homegrown players – then the fans would have to start questioning my sanity. It’s probably best if they don’t know I also sent people out to watch Theo Walcott…
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder goes on record to suggest we aren’t good enough to stay up. I’ve no idea what any of that has to do with him, though a factor he highlights is that Derby have the youngest squad in the Premier League. That isn’t by accident. I always try to sign youthful players and would view anyone over 30 with the suspicion that they can never be anything other than a short-term solution. It adds an interesting dimension to the West Ham match, though – our average age is 24.20; theirs, at 28.13, makes them the division’s oldest group. The game is billed as youth versus experience. I hope it translates into energetic young men coming up against codgers wielding walking sticks, puffing and panting to keep up with our vigour and reminding us of how things were better in the good old days…
I’m being flippant. The disparity in average age could very well translate into seasoned professionals dealing with mistake-ridden youths, but it turns out I’m onto something here. From the start, on a rainy Saturday afternoon witnessed by more than 60,000 people, we rip into them. They’re expecting a slow opening passage, like two boxers circling each other warily before getting stuck in there, yet we probe and tease at them incessantly, and we get our reward after five minutes. We win a corner, which Stoger floats in. Completely unmarked, which in itself is ridiculous, Ademola Lookman heads straight past Fabianski for the lead. Later I will find myself watching this one again and again. There are four of our players in the box and six West Ham defenders, plus the goalkeeper. Somehow, McKenna, Hughes and Bielik are dangerous enough to keep everyone occupied, leaving Lookman free and unchallenged to place his header.
Almost exactly the same thing happens ten minutes later. Another corner, a second headed goal, this time by Juan Hernandez, who runs into the box to connect with the ball while home team players seem rooted to the spot, static. Several more minutes after that, we make it 3-0. We’ve always been good from set pieces, but this one comes from open play. Hernandez has the ball on the right of their box. He plays in Hughes who finds Hlozek nearby. Kolasinac is hovering without making a challenge, refusing to even press him into action, and the winger has all the time he likes to zip a ball across the penalty area to the advancing Lookman, who again isn’t being marked properly. This ought to be the job of Sidnei, their new signing at right-back, but he’s distant from the winger, who cushions a header into Fabianski’s far corner.
And that’s about it. Three goals in less than twenty minutes, the Hammers’ response lightweight and something we can handle. How they can play so lazily, so completely without doing anything more than going through the motions, is beyond me. There’s a crowd here that’s double the size of what we could command at Pride Park, and they’re angry, but of the players in claret only Mark Noble seems interested in sparking any kind of comeback. It’s really weird.
Early in the second period, I’m so confident that I remove Hughes, who is still recovering from his groin injury and needs to be saved for future challenges. Lewis Baker comes on. By rights he should be swamped by the level of football he’s suddenly being cast into, but he’s just fine out there, continuing our policy of dictating possession (we’ll end up with 63% of the ball). The only downside is a red card for Jayden Bogle, who’s dismissed for a two footed challenge on Anderson as he collects a rakish pass late in the game. The tackle is more about clumsiness than malice. He’s surprised by the move and reacts in a panicked way, which is kind of understandable even with five minutes left and Derby in total control.
So 3-0 it finishes, a deliriously good result that places us high in the table’s early standings. I know there will soon come a point when opposition sides start taking us seriously. We have Chelsea to come after the Crewe encounter in midweek, which has all the makings of a footballing lesson. But our target remains that of every promoted side, to reach the magic 40 points mark, and after three fixtures we are already eating into it nicely.