The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.
The dream of many football clubs must be to attain the experience of playing on the European stage. The glamour of nights away to those big, historical teams that ply their trade in some distant realm… Entertaining fans from other countries… Seeing just how far you can go… Derby County have a short but notable history of contesting the continental competitions. During their 1970s heyday, they played in two European Cups and two UEFA Cups. The best recalled was their 1972/73 run in the contest that would one day be rebranded as the Champions League. Battling through to the semi-final, they were knocked out by Juventus in a tie that had Brian Clough complaining about potential cheating. Against the Old Lady, sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? Several years later Real Madrid checked their progress, a confrontation that commanded the team’s highest ever attendance.
So there’s pedigree here, some ‘previous’. Certain clubs might take for granted that they will get to play in the Champs or Europa League on an annual basis, especially now these things have been bloated beyond the elite contested competitions that they used to be, but for us it’s a pretty big deal to be part of the story. Today’s opposition, Valencia, marks an opportunity to take on one of those much vaunted ‘glamour sides’, a storied team from the world’s best league and hovering perpetually beneath La Liga’s big three – you know who the trio are. The Bats have their own history of glory in Europe. They won this contest, back in 2004 when they were still managed by Rafa Benitez, with a couple of Champions League finals thrown into the mix also. They might not be maintaining the lofty standards they once held, but the allure of facing them is a mighty one. And it’s a pivotal tie… We’ve already won our first two group matches. Achieve victory here at Pride Park and we have almost guaranteed qualification to the knockout stage, which carries the added bonus of exceeding the board’s expectations. Valencia are the Europa League’s third highest seeds. Only Arsenal and Roma exist ahead of them, with Monaco, Athletic Bilbao and Sparta Prague more than making up the numbers. Who knows how far we can progress?
It’s a big deal then, and so’s the calibre of the Valencia team. Their captain, the 32 year old Dani Parejo is almost the perfect midfielder, a proper general at the heart of his side’s activities. Jose Gaya, a left-back valued at a staggering £51 million, is their one to watch. They’re a threat on the wings, where Carlos Soler and Portuguese star Goncalo Guedes provide width, while Rodrigo, a multi-capped Spanish striker, has the responsibility of producing their goals. Moussa Sissoko is on loan from Tottenham to provide midfield ballast. The big Frenchman is a shadow of the authority figure he once cut in older editions of Football Manager, his standards cut short thanks to those wasted years at Newcastle where he only played well according to the lustre of the opposition and the number of cameras that were they to pick up his moments on the ball, but he’s still in a stratosphere of talent that’s largely beyond us.
Time to dig in, entertain the Spaniards with good Midlands rain and a line-up built to contain. Our more exciting young midfield talents, Moriba and Lopez, are benched as we opt for steel with Hughes and Stoger operating ahead of the ever-reliable Chirivella. McKenna joins Vallejo in defence. Elsewhere the side picks itself. Esposito is chosen to lead our attack. He’s the Rams’ best player, and this is his stage, a chance to showcase his pace against a premium group of defenders led by Mouctar Diakhaby and Gabriel Paulista.
As spectacles go, it’s a largely attritional, tense affair cheered on by a capacity crowd. We both have our chances. Bogle and Pedraza struggle but refuse to bow against their virtuous wing play. Rodrigo has his chances, yet he’s covered well and Butland deals with all the tricks he can throw in the keeper’s direction. At the other end, Lookman and Esposito cause problems for the visitors, proving the eternal fact that defences can be terrified by players who are prepared and capable of running towards them at top speed.
Just before half-time, a meaty challenge from Sissoko forces Bogle off the field of play. What looks like a twisted ankle turns out to be exactly that, an injury that will remove him from selection for a month. We play the rest of the game with Bielik in central defence and Vallejo filling the right-back role. And then, towards the end of the affair, it happens. Moriba is on for the match’s latter stages, seeking a winner, and it’s the Spanish youngster who produces the nod-down for Kevin Stoger to fire in a shot from twenty-five yards out. Those with memories of last season will know that the Austrian has just this kind of rocket in his pocket, a special goal that is perhaps what we need to produce in order to get the better of our illustrious opposition.
Sure enough, after going close several times Valencia equalise almost immediately when Diakhaby steers in Gaya’s searching free-kick, but it’s a goal that looks close to offside and VAR proves this to be the case. It’s close, the red line less than half a yard beyond the yellow, but it’s unmistakably illegal and I’m grateful on this occasion for the influence of the computer referee.
The game ends with a famous 1-0 victory and the Rams in control of Group F. We’re described as being ‘in control’, though Valencia absolutely had chances of their own and I have to consider a number of ‘sweaty palm’ moments that could have resulted in it ending quite differently. Stoger claims the match ball, Chirivella also winning admirers for being commanding in defensive midfield, and Butland praised for his alertness when the Bats took their opportunities. It might be an altogether tougher affair when we go to Spain for the return game in early November, but for now we are able to celebrate this one, a fine and disciplined evening’s work.
Away from the match, I’m advised by my scouts that wonderkid Jude Bellingham has signed a new contract at Birmingham City. The deal carries a couple of interesting caveats – he can be signed for £29 million by domestic clubs that play in a higher division, a sum that drops to £22 million if the Blues fail to get promoted. We don’t possess that kind of money right now (we have £13 million available for transfers), but Bellingham is one to watch and I’m left to dream about having a central midfield pairing that can play together for over a decade if I am somehow able to place him alongside Moriba. No doubt other sides will be having exactly the same feelings as ourselves – Crystal Palace are already sniffing around. And yet you never know. Bellingham is still just 18. He fits every philosophy I’m working towards. By rights he should be a Ram in-waiting, but for now he’s something to think about as we look to progress.