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.
In the wake of our Carabao Cup win I’m faced with the demand for a new contract by Ademola Lookman. It seems the winger, having played really well and picking up his form overall in recent weeks, is quite aware of his worth and knows he is now very close to breaking into the England team. He’s looked at the players he is up against – Raheem Sterling and Jaden Sancho – and learned that his wages are quite inferior to the £325,000 and £160,000 those two take home respectively. Pay me or lose me is the demand, and given his importance to the team I have little choice but to take him to the negotiating table. Lookman comes away with a new salary of £82,000 per week, by our standards very high yet considering his comparative earnings not that much at all really.
It hammers home to me an important point about Derby. Great as it is to win things, to keep this ‘little’ side in the title picture and clinch trophies, we are doing it all on tight budgets and slender means. The Ram’s sponsorship income of £26 million puts us in tenth place in the Premier League, and that’s good, however we are raking in considerably less than the division’s real big hitters. Manchester United rake in a formidable £307 million, then it drops off considerably to the £196 million commanded by Liverpool in second, and Arsenal (fifth) are the the last to take in more than a hundred million. It will take us a while before we can get this much for hawking our brand, but it’s things like this we will need to do more savvily.
Similarly, to resolve Lookman’s new contract I adjust my budgets and put as much extra oomph into the allocation for wages as humanly possible. We now have the capacity to run a bill of £1.48 million per week, which is broadly a million in excess of what Derby were shelling out when I first joined and shows how far we have come. This puts us fifteenth in the Premier League. As with the sponsorship table, I can’t expect us to have the capacity to pay on the same level as the likes of United, City and their wealthy pals, but it’s a situation that’s going to have to improve. Already, I get the impression that certain players- Bogle and Hlozek are notable examples – are considering their desire to move to ‘bigger’ clubs. The latter is becoming in demand as Villa and Sheffield United have him on their radars, and I am going to need to think of ways to keep them on board, which basically means paying them a competitive salary.
Derby must grow. Either that, or we have peaked and we will always be a little team that’s in the shade of our rivals. I realise that we won’t get a spike in revenues overnight. Our European travels should provoke a raise in the club’s profile, which has an impact on the power of our good name, however it’s a process that will take place over time and it will be interesting to see whether Mr Morris and his cronies are on board with raising standards in line with our increased outlook.
In the back of my mind constantly is the sad history of clubs that overreached and paid the price, most notably Leeds United, who spent far in excess of their resources and have been in the football wilderness ever since. We don’t want to go that way, and Derby’s generous yet prudent board should ensure we never repeat the Yorkshire side’s mistakes. In the meantime, Lookman’s new deal has placed his value at a formidable £38 million. He’s now second behind Sebastian Esposito (a whopping £58 million) within the squad, a true asset, and sellable at the right price if it comes down to it.
The fifth round of the FA Cup takes place in midweek. It gives us a week to recover from the Manchester United match, before we embark on the twin towers of the Premier League’s final ten fixtures and the return of the Europa League. Our third round vanquishers, West Ham, were subsequently knocked out by Brighton and Hove Albion, and the Seagulls get the pleasure of an away day at Bournemouth in the latest set of ties. We’re playing them at the weekend, so I am keen to see how they get on. Brighton produce a 2-1 victory, with the bonus of Pascal Gross suffering a torn thigh muscle and being unavailable for our meeting at the weekend. Nobody likes to see a player go down with something that sounds frankly horrific, but the German is their best prospect and can’t play, so it’s all good. Otherwise they are put to the sword by the Cherries, who attack them frequently, on their own high as they seek an instant promotion from the Championship, which they look like they will get with a ten point cushion between themselves and second placed Stoke. For all their efforts, Bournemouth come up against a sea wall in the Brighton defence, led by Dunk and Ostigard. At the other end, Aaron Connolly scores the two goals that see them through. Their prize is a home game against United (beaters of Middlesbrough) in the quarter-final. Sigh, it could have been us…
It’s a mild, breezy afternoon at the American Express Community Stadium in early March. Our opposition has settled into mid-table, a sterling effort given their limited means, and we will need to pay attention to the likes of Adam Lallana, Davy Propper and Aaron Mooy, their main attacking outlets. They aren’t the most tricky obstacle that we will have to negotiate between now and May, but they’re thriving at this level for good reasons and we have to take them seriously. Before hostilities are finished we will have away days at Arsenal and Chelsea to get through, and we are taking on Man City at home, so this is one we just need to win, whatever it takes, if we are going to keep our hands in.
In the lunchtime kickoff, Liverpool go to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and play out an indecisive 0-0 result, so added to the mix is an opportunity to claw back some points. I name a starting defence of Tosin and Oxford, with Bogle and Lowe (because our appeal against Pedraza’s ban has been refused and he’s suspended for two more matches) on the flanks to form a line that’s entirely English. Vieira lines up alongside the steadfast Hughes in midfield. It’s a strong set-up, I think, and it’s quickly involved in a bad-tempered game as Brighton attempt to make up for their deficiencies with violence. By the end, Hlozek will be carried off with what turns out to be pulled ankle ligaments that will keep him out for a fortnight. Ojo wil be missing for a couple of days with a tight groin. Wilson and Lookman are taken off as a precaution; their knocks are negligible scares rather than anything requiring treatment.
Amid the fun of watching magic sponges getting flung around liberally, we prevail thanks to a seventeenth minute strike from Sebastian Esposito. Bogle gets a cross into the box, which Ostigard heads away. Hughes wins the ball from Propper just outside their box and finds Lookman, who cracks an instant shot against Dahlberg’s crossbar. Esposito is the first to the rebound. Surrounded by three players wearing the Tesco Value branded shirts of Brighton, he strokes the ball beyond the keeper and into the top corner.
The Gulls have their chances. Lallana, now 33 and very much in the autumn of his playing years, is an inspiration as their attacking midfielder and sits at the heart of most of the good things they do, though Krys Bielik does his best to deal with the Englishman’s threat levels, and we get the best of the game’s chances. Harry Wilson has a gift-wrapped opportunity that lands safely in Dahlberg’s arms, and we hang on to claim the points as time bleeds away.
I am placing a tentative final points target of 80 on us, which should be achievable – 15 more required from a possible 27. Getting it will guarantee we finish ahead of the Gunners and Chelsea, while City’s form looks too fitful to suggest they will hit the total of 84 that they could rack up if they win all their games between now and the end. We’re off to Italy in midweek for the Sampdoria match, before returning to Derby where we will roll out the red carpet for Crystal Palace.