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.
I’ve been talking recently about letting Kevin Stoger go, selling him while he has some serious resale value. It looks as though this isn’t going to work out. Teams have been interested to the extent of putting serious money into the mix for him, but he’s turned down their contract offers while growing disgruntled at not being allowed to move on – no one is stopping you, friend – and in the meantime I am sourcing potential replacements.
The obvious solution is to not sign anyone at all. With Adarabioyo signed we now have five centre-backs, one more than we really need. I could rebalance the situation by letting Jesus Vallejo go, but I quite like the Spaniard and think that he could have a future with us, so the more likely solution is to push Krystian Bielik into a defensive midfield role and in turn field Rolando Vieira in central midfield.
That’s certainly a thing that we can do, and Bielik will go on to play with some distinction against Southampton in his new position. Talking of the big Pole, his development is hitting a bit of a wall after he initially raised his game to Premier League standards. Coupled with this is his demand for greater playing time. Selling him has never previously been part of my plans. I envisaged a future in which Bielik was carried along with the rest of us to whatever end, but if he has reached the limit of his improvement then perhaps it’s time to consider cashing in on a player who could fetch up to £20 million in the market.
Another option is to scour the talent that’s out there and add a new face. So far we’ve sold two first teamers in January, and signed two more. I don’t want to spend for the sake of spending, and as it goes there is a world of difference between drafting in players who’ll genuinely improve us but will eat up our resources in the process, and signing ‘just enough’ types who come cheaper yet might add little – hitting the sweet spot in between both camps is the trick. In the former bracket, I would like to go to Chelsea and snap up Tammy Abraham and Ruben Lotus-Cheek, who are both transfer-listed, and perhaps throw in a cheeky loan deal for Conor Gallagher whilst I’m at it. Three English players who would enhance our ranks, but the former two each earn more than £100,000 per week, and it’s beyond our meagre budget to pay them anything like that much. At the very least, we would expect (i) Chelsea to pay a portion of their wages (ii) the players to accept a pay reduction (iii) a combination of (i) and (ii) to make it work.
As for Gallagher, he’s a long-term target, a 21 year old midfielder of enormous potential who has never quite broken into the Chelsea first team. On the plus side, he can play happily on the left-hand side of central midfield, and all the indications are that he would love to play for Derby, a place where he would actually get to make some appearances. The downer is that the Blues know they have an asset on their hands, as little as they may value him as a playing individual. The least they would want is £35 million, which is around three times more than I have to spend, so the chance of him being anything more than a loanee who wows us all temporarily is slim.
Abraham moves to Shandong, who do have the power to keep him in the fiduciary manner to which he’s become accustomed. Other people we like also go elsewhere. Sander Berge narrowly avoids being swallowed up by Spurs, who make a late move for him, offering a sum that starts at £38.5 million with various add-ons, while Dominik Szoboszlai, a tongue twister of a midfielder who we’ve been tracking for ages, moves from Salzburg to Borussia Dortmund for £40.5 million. There appears to be a gulf emerging between those I want and the ones I can realistically afford. As the transfer window bleeds away and I watch players who I admire become lusted after by rival set-ups, I can only be reminded that Derby have come a long way very quickly, and financially we need to do some catching up.
We’re off to St Mary’s at the weekend, taking on the Saints before our double header against Everton. As Josh Kirk agrees a new contract with us, ending the speculation that he will be gazumped by the blue Merseysiders, we have to plan for that most banana skin of fixtures – an away game at a club that we ought to beat, but that has the capacity to trip us up. The tale at the table top is getting tighter. Manchester United wallop Arsenal 5-0. City, Spurs and Liverpool all claim victories, so simply to remain in the conversation we have to match them. Now, I know what you’re thinking – but Mr Side, this is Derby, they aren’t expected to be riding so high… And you’d be right, however here we are and it’s incumbent on us to be part of the race for as long as possible. In February, we have the joy of away days at Anfield and Old Trafford, so the points must be banked now.
Southampton are nineteenth in the Premier League. On 15 points, it’s fair to say that things are going ill for them, and the managerial bounce that replaced Martinez with Paco Jemez from Saint Etienne has not translated into a boost up the ladder. Paco has signed two Kierans – Phillips from Cardiff, and Everton’s Dowell – for modest fees, but he’s also overseen the departure of defender Joris Gnagnon, who is now a teammate of Tammy Abraham’s at Shandong. Worse news for them is their injury list. Nathan Redmond and Danny Ings are both unavailable, so they’re up against the wall when we arrive. For us, the omens are good.
In classic fashion, when the chips are stacked in our favour we find a way to screw it up. In the twelfth minute, after some non-committal early exchanges Bertrand finds Djenepo on the left wing. Evading Bogle, he crosses into the box, where Elyounoossi nods down in the direction of Omrani, who’s covered by Bielik. The good news is that the forward is too well marked; the bad comes when the ball bounces off Bielik’s head and diverts into the net, a horrific own goal.
There’s nothing for it now but to go on the attack, try to take apart a side that we have already beaten twice this season. Steadily, we become more forward thinking, replacing players who are doing badly with good ones, revelling in the silky footwork of Ilaix Moriba in central midfield that sadly has no outlet. The teenage Spaniard-Guinean can’t do it on his own, and Forster’s goal is leading a charmed life as shots thwack off the woodwork or sail harmlessly wide. An Ojo goal in the seventy-first minute that looks perfectly good to me is ruled offside – it looks at this point like being one of those occasions. Very late in the same, Roberts sends a corner kick sailing into the area. To this point the Saints have defended well, en masse, but they’re stood watching when our tall centre-back Tosin Adarabioyo rises to nod it into the net. The new signing, a friendly giant, has his first for us, and given his height advantage it could be the first of many.
We aren’t done yet. As the seconds tick by in injury time, McKenna sends a pass out to Sheyi Ojo on the left. The Liverpool man is still seething over his disallowed goal and goes off on a run, defenders in his wake, before finishing the move with a low shot that beats Forster and billows into the bottom corner.
There’s so little time left after this that the whistle is blown pretty much as soon as the ball is returned to the centre circle. Privately I might seethe about leaving it so late to produce a winning strike against a side we ought to slap into last week, but in the end all that really matters is recording a victory, even if it took the use of Fergie Time to make it happen. It’s tight at the top. Spurs just about hold an edge, while City are threatening to fall off the pace, a bit like those mountain stages in the Tour de France when chancers peel away from the leading pack because they can’t handle the punishing rhythm that’s being set. Below them there’s an eight point gap to Arsenal, thirteen behind ourselves, so even though there’s plenty of season left it feels as though we would have to collapse dramatically to allow them to catch up with us.