The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.
By the time the World Cup draws to a close, I have my full squad back and everyone gets to celebrate Christmas by doing it a day early. We have our first match on Boxing Day so while you lot are over-stuffing yourselves on roast beef and York Fruits we’re training in preparation for the visit of Chelsea. Only two Rams are unavailable at this point. Adam Hlozek has been out for a few weeks with a back strain. He’s nearly recovered but we won’t risk him yet. Max Lowe has spent most of the break suffering from sprained knee ligaments, the consequence of a freak incident involving something that happened during an intense FIFA session. Don’t ask.
Before things resume, I’m dragged kicking and screaming before Mr Morris in the Pride Park Star Chamber. He has already authorised a rise in my wage budget, which wasn’t strictly necessary, and now he demands to know if I want to increase the team’s target for the season. At the moment all they’re asking for is a top-half finish, which seems unambitious for a team that is sitting in first place. I agree to upscale our outlook to qualifying for the Europa League, which comes with a less exciting increase in available monies than I’d hoped for. We now have a weekly wage budget of £2,126,980, which places us in a rather competitive position at this level. It also leaves nearly five hundred grand of wriggle room in the figures, so whilst I can’t go out and get Messi I could afford to offer some meaty salaries if I so choose. The transfer budget increases a little also, to just under nine million, though of course I have the capacity to juggle things around and increase it if the right transfer target comes along.
And he would have to very much be Mr Right. Though I have a few niggles over some players’ futures and can clearly see areas I’d like to strengthen, there’s less and less squad movement that I would wish to enact. A high quality right winger maybe. Perhaps look at the long-term futures of Scott McKenna and Patrick Roberts, two players who seem to be falling behind the general upswing of development within the group. But there’s nothing I need to do right here, right now…
Or is there? The Chelsea game hints at one massive gap in the side, one I have created myself, which is the absence of older, experienced players. We’ve got by with the league’s youngest squad so far, with Jack Butland and Will Hughes standing out as rare instances of Rams who are over 25 years old, but this one is a prime instance of when we could have used the steady hand of someone who’s seen it all before. I think back to Kevin Stoger, his exploits with Austria at the World Cup, how cheaply we let him leave to open up space for a much younger, English model, and I wonder if I made the right decision.
The Blues show up with their usual swagger. They showcase Lautaro Martinez, who’s developing into the division’s most potent marksman. Against them, we have a ground full of supporters, wintry temperatures and gale force winds, along with the BT Sport cameras, which are here to capture a top of the table confrontation. They get a spectacular.
The visitors are ahead after eight minutes. A sweeping move into our area, during which they pass our ranks like they aren’t there, ends with Pulisic sending in a cross that Martinez slips behind McKenna to tap into the net. I’m torn between blaming the Scot and feeling that it was just one of those fifty-fifty opportunities where the Argentinian got the better of his defender. Five minutes later and we’re level. This is good work from us, forcing our way back into the action when Rudiger concedes a free-kick just outside the area after bringing down Esposito. Harry Wilson steps up to take it, and curls his effort beyond Kepa. We then take control for the rest of the half. Not long before the half-time whistle, Pellegrini surges forward and hits a cross into the box. Esposito has Rudiger all over him and the ball is cleared, but only as far as Ademola Lookman, slicing his effort along the ground and beyond the keeper, who’s already fallen to the turf in what looks like confusion.
All we need to do now is hold on. We have the beating of Chelsea, so a balanced and disciplined approach is required to kill the game. Needless to say, we last two minutes into the second half before conceding. This time it’s Christian Pulisic, who has the beating of Pellegrini when he heads in from Theo Hernandez’s pinpoint cross. Poor from Luca, and we’re equally at fault in the sheer amount of space we hand over to the French wing-back. Back on to the attack we go then, which results in a comedy goal when Rudiger, under pressure from two forwards, passes back to Kepa. The keeper panics, hits his clearance almost instinctively and Lookman is about three yards in front of him, connecting with the ball to nod it home. The most expensive goalkeeper in the Premier League, ladies and gentlemen. We put up the barricades, trying to see out the remaining minutes with time wastage and keeping men behind the ball. It doesn’t work. In the eighty-ninth minute, another Theo cross is launched into the area. Despite supposed coverage from both Tosin and McKenna, Martinez is there to barrel in the equaliser from close range.
3-3 then, hardly a terrible result and certainly an entertaining one for the masses. All the same, I should be disappointed. United go to Newcastle and win 2-0. Liverpool down Arsenal, and as a consequence we have dropped to third place. That’s the standard at the top of the division. Give way at all and suddenly you’re off the pace. Try as I might, however, I can’t be hard on the boys. It was riveting to-and-fro stuff, a pulsating barnstormer of a welcome back to domestic football, and as far as I’m concerned a more experienced player or two might have been able to keep us ahead. But we don’t have such a guy, so being forced to a draw is on me ultimately.
Several days later and we’re entertaining Preston North End in the FA Cup Third Round. Memories of our defeat at this stage last season should be motivation enough for us to get the win, and in the rain of an end of December fixture we do what must be done. This one must go down as the Eddie Salcedo Show. He scores two, the first a tidy bit of individual skill as he works the ball around four comparatively static defenders before hitting the back of the net; the second comes from the penalty spot. The Italian spends the rest of the game trying everything he can to bag a hat-trick, but all he has to show for his efforts are two disallowed goals for offside. Scott McKenna volleys in a Patrick Roberts corner, and then the winger turns scorer when he collects Pelegrini’s cross and beats Earl to find the near corner.
The 4-0 win we produce is a clear sign of Derby’s superiority, our bullying of a League One team. We rack up twenty-nine shots in total, restricting PNE to scraps. Salcedo is an easy Man of the Match winner, while Roberts does very well from the right wing. This may very well be Demarai Gray’s last game for us. With Max Willian due to arrive within the next few days I have the option to extend his loan period and I pitch him in here to help make up my mind. As it is Demi does all he can to ensure that it won’t be an issue. He’s poor, wayward and wasteful, amidst a sea of Rams who really put on a show to exihibit their talents. Maybe he was never very interested in staying… Either way, his time here is at an end.
The Fourth Round draw sees our ball pulled out second. We’ll be playing this one away from home, a trip to the North-South divide to contemplate when we face Watford, who are still a Championship set-up. They were relegated just as we were going up, so I think this might be my first competitive meeting with the Hornets and that, as they say, makes it one to tick off the bucket list.