Derby FM20 – December 2021: Manchester United are Good

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 fun in December keeps on coming, with Sheffield Wednesday first before we face Manchester United at the weekend. The latter is billed as something of a title bout, and I would ask you to pause and think about that phrase for a moment before we continue.

I make a decision about Cristian Pavon and put him up for sale. By anyone’s standards it’s a hasty verdict on him, but there’s much resting on our ability to attack well and the prize at the end is to have Patrick Roberts, a talent I’ve coveted almost since walking through the doors at Pride Park. On such moments is football history made. Pav has been largely poor, indeed he’s ranked as the most lowly rated player in my team this season, but this doesn’t stop the offers from flowing through our fax machine. Eintracht Frankfurt, Fulham, Southampton and West Ham all make bids around the £10.5 million mark, which would weirdly enough generate a profit of a few mill for us, while Palace are also hovering because a misfiring Argentinian is the answer to saving their season, apparently.

Meanwhile, we have a trip to Hillsborough to get through. Playing Wednesday has handed us arguably the easiest Carabao Cup tie of the round. Liverpool, Everton and Man You are also in action, and it seems like we will inevitably face one of them before the end. A place in the semi-final is the prize for us. Managers of ‘more impressive’ teams might wring their hands over the unnecessary additional fixtures this would involve; for us, the prospect of winning some silverware trumps all other considerations. In their past, Derby have claimed the FA Cup and the league title, but we’ve never done anything in the League Cup. To add our name to the roll call of winners would be thrilling.

Mark Hughes is still in charge at Wednesday and is as bullish as ever, claiming because he’s identified Sebastiano Esposito as our main threat that he’s somehow solved us. Some fine scoutmanship there, Sherlock. We’ve played them three times under my watch. In our promotion campaign, we downed them at home and lost 1-0 away. Last year, we took them on in the FA Cup, producing a 2-0 victory at Pride Park, so confidence levels are high, though fatigue is equally an issue. It’s two days since we faced West Ham, and while I’m not the sort of pedantic, whiny manager who bleats on about fixture overload it has to stand as a concern.

Hillsborough produces a good crowd for this one, nearly 35,000 souls braving the rain to watch the action. Wednesday feature two on-loan players to watch, Liverpool’s Ben Woodburn in attack and Claudio Gomes from City operating in defensive midfield. Elsewhere, it’s a resolutely second tier group of players, while we line up with a large-scale changed eleven. Scott McKenna wears the armband, partnering Bielik in defence while Lowe and Laird play the flanks. Chirivella is a reliable presence in midfield, lurking behind Stoger and Lopez. Ojo and Wilson are on the wings and Adam Hlozek is up-front.

Despite the overhaul in personnel, the match goes as you might expect. We play with the swagger and confidence of the bigger team, dominating possession at a ratio of nearly 2:1 and producing the majority of the game’s sweet attacking moves. Kevin Stoger gives us the lead after ten minutes when he fires one in from outside the area, an irresistible pile-driver that defies Dawson in the home team’s goal. It isn’t long before we’ve made it 2-0, McKenna rising above a sea of blue and white shirted defenders to head in Wilson’s free-kick.

And that’s about it. We have more chances, hold Wednesday at arm’s length, and perhaps most importantly suffer no injuries beyond the groin problem that removes Ojo from the action, fortunately for a few days only. The semi-final will place us against Everton, over a two-legged affair scheduled for January. Norwich pulled off a shock 1-0 over Liverpool and will take on United.

It’s Manchester United at the weekend in the battle for third place. Ahead of us, Liverpool are taking on City and win 2-0 with goals from Firmino and Wijnaldum. Spurs can reclaim top spot, but they have a visit to Wolves to fulfil and this is a tricky prospect for anyone to negotiate. As for our opposition, they come into the game with Mason Greenwood in sparkling form, having netted seven from his ten appearances. He’s the kind of jet-heeled, sharp shooting forward we really fear, and we will need to be at our very best to contain him. In the summer, United spent more than £200 million on just three players. Their biggest signing was Ousmane Dembele, a £98 million capture from Barcelona. You can argue that he’s never really produced anything like the play to justify the massive fees lavished on him, though he’s started well at Old Trafford, weighing in with goals and assists aplenty, and the amount he cost puts my hand-wringing over the parlous sums involved in wrapping up the futures of Roberts and Pavon into the shade.

Heading into the game, I assume that the latter will accept at least one of the offers that are in for him, hopefully Frankfurt to minimise the risk of him coming back to haunt us. For this reason I confirm the signing of Patrick Roberts, who can’t move to Pride Park until January. If I can seal a deal for City’s other listed youngster, Tosin Adarabioyo, then I will consider that to be business well concluded.

I look at the side put out by Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer and wonder how on earth we can hope to stop them. Even the players on their bench – Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Cavani – are better than anyone we can call upon, while their first eleven is an international who’s who. De Gea. Semedo. Maguire. Lenglet. Mendy. Bentancur. Pogba. Greenwood. Fernandes. Dembele. Martial. Against them, our predominantly homegrown line-up – six Englishmen plus Welsh Wilson – looks somewhat agrarian. Sure enough, for most of the game I think we are going to lose. Bruno Fernandes floats in a thirty-fifth minute free-kick that Dembele heads beneath the diving frame of Butland to put them ahead, which could represent the opening of our defensive floodgate. They’re a slick set-up, passing smoothly and finding space, making the pitch somehow look very empty as their off the ball work is so difficult to keep up with.

As we start to pull back into it more during the second half, and with United beginning to show signs of fatigue as they too have been involved in the Carabao Cup, I start making changes. Pavon comes on for the worryingly anonymous Wilson and for once begins to make his presence felt. Willing to run at Ferland Mendy, try some tricks, essentially treating his time on the pitch as a shop window, his dribbling virtues worry the Red Devils and force them to play conservatively. In added time, as the seconds are bleeding away, Hughes finds him in a bit of space on the right. Shrugging away the attentions of Bentancur, Pavon tries a difficult volley at the near post that David de Gea somehow fumbles through his fingers and into the net. It’s an own goal.

We’ll take a 1-1 result against this lot any day. I’m asked afterwards whether equalising so late constitutes a smash and grab against a better team, but I don’t think it does. Yes, they are without a doubt a superior set of players, yet we battled for that point and took our chance to get something. Predictably, Pavon uses the opportunity to make a statement about his worth. He has another shot that fizzes across the goalline, and we are definitely more adventurous when he features. Fernandes claims the match ball. No one in our side is singled out for praise, though I think Butland does quite well to limit United’s damage, and as an overall defensive effort we can be pleased to have dealt with most of their trickery.

Spurs go on to beat Wolves at Molineux and take their (unlikely) place back at the apex of the Premier League. With little more than half a season remaining it appears the title could be down to either themselves or Liverpool, though I would expect City to come roaring back into contention at some point, and a side as talented as United can’t be happy with being placed behind ourselves. Where we’re concerned, Everton is our next destination. They’re loitering just below the top seven and hold the promise of a tough game, before December closes with a hopefully more straightforward tie against Fulham.

Derby FM20 – January 2021: A Reckoning

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.

We should have the home return against Manchester City next, but that’s been pushed back to early February as our illustrious opposition are still represented in every competition and have a welter of fixtures to play. It’s like trying to book in with an especially in-demand dentist – sorry, City are fully booked for the next few weeks, will 2 February be all right for you? Are you prepared to change the appointment at very short notice?

Naturally we’re in no rush at all to take on the blue shirts again. They are on a world tour of taking on and beating the best teams on the planet. City have won the Club World Championship, beating Sport Club do Recife in Qatar. Ajax await in the Champions League. They will be opposing Chelsea in the Carabao Cup final, are still in the FA Cup and in between all these fixtures have a Premier League crown to defend. How they are getting players fit and motivated for competitions on all fronts is anyone’s guess, and perhaps here’s a clue why we prevailed against them. Derby have the league and the cup to contest, and nothing else. It’s relatively easy for us to produce a fit eleven for each game, but if we do qualify for Europe in 2021 then that’s an entirely fresh welter of ties to plan for. A stronger squad with two good players for each position will be mandatory.

Planning for next season begins here. Without going into any further detail at this stage, I think we will need a goalkeeper, right back, centre back, defensive midfielder, central midfielder, both wings covered and another good forward. That’s eight players to be drafted in as a minimum, not counting the transfer of Maxime Lopez in the summer. We just need to be better, improved across the board, and if possible a number of those new arrivals ought to be English. I send my scouts out to take another look at Jack Butland. He’s an ideal rival for Montipo in goal, and because he’s still with Stoke he could be a relatively cheap acquisition. They’re in League One this season though they’re top right now, so hopefully prising the keeper away to play for a Premier League team should present no real obstacle.

For sure there will be much player movement in the summer, particularly if we can hold on to a place in the division’s top six, now both a staggering and yet very real prospect. Before any of that we still have a season to get out of the way of course, beginning with an FA Cup tie at home against Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls are eighth in the Championship. They’re now managed by Mark Hughes, who’s trying gamely to propel them into the playoff picture, which they really should achieve because it seems incredible that a club this big has been outside the top division for so long. Their main threat comes from Troy Parrott, on loan at Hillsborough and doing better for them than he ever lifted his legs to achieve with us. I found him a vexatious figure, a striker with all the latent talent in the world but too often vanishing from the action. He’s scored eight in 27 for Wednesday, a rather improved return than what he produced for Derby. Perhaps it’s the case that he is better suited to the 4-4-2 set-up as preferred by Sparky.

In any event the match is about as clear-cut as it gets. Within the last year we have become a front-footed Premier League outfit and we play like it, firing 26 shots at Cameron Dawson’s goal with a largely second string side and winning 2-0. They barely get a sniff, indeed their most significant contribution is when Alessio da Cruz gets sent off in the second half for two yellow card offences. Bakery Jatta and Josh Maja are our goalscorers, the latter claiming the match ball for causing the Owls defence constant problems even if on the whole he’s a bit wasteful. There aren’t too many times when he receives such a birthday gift of easy scoring opportunities and fluffs his lines more often than not, but then Maja is playing with something to prove and his adrenaline runs hot. Marco Benassi is on the field for almost the entire game and does well. He provides the assist for Jatta’s goal, which is encouraging. Emile Smith Rowe has his usual show of nothing before he’s removed in the 64th minute. He isn’t someone we’ll miss when his loan term with us finishes. I’m still wrestling with the decision whether to bring Morgan Whittaker back from Millwall. It’s a choice between regular football at the New Den, where he’s excelling, or a bit-part role here, and I have to decide either way before the end of the month.

It’s a safe victory that eases us through to the fifth round, where we will take on either Cardiff City or Preston North End at Pride Park. Unless we play ‘cups for cock-ups’ we should be reaching the quarter-final, which will be an excellent sign of progress. The tie will take place in early March, leaving clear a February schedule that reads (with a shudder) Manchester City at home, before away trips to Spurs and Manchester United, and then we get to entertain Liverpool. By anyone’s standards that’s a rough run of fixtures, though I suppose it gets them out of the way, with only Chelsea left to play from the remaining schedule.

We can only watch as players we have been scouting go elsewhere, a consequence of having zero funds left in the transfer kitty. Jack Harrison goes to Brentford for £5 million. Chelsea seek a relatively cheap back-up goalkeeper when they bid £1.7 million Liverpool’s Loris Karius. Despite memories of that Champions League disaster he would be a good pick for us. Korean outfit Ulsan snap up Nathaniel Chalobah from Watford. I harboured dreams of partnering him up again with Will Hughes for Derby, which alas will now never be. Our only bit of business is the £275,000 sale of Festy Ebosele to Ponferrada. Before agreeing the deal I was advised that the striker would struggle to ever raise his game to anything above League Two standards, so it makes sense, even though my default position is to resist the departure of any Ramlings.

After giving my stars a rest in the Wednesday game they are now being asked to produce the goods in three matches within an eight-day period, before a fortnight’s break in February. The first of these is against Everton at home.  We bested them in our first victory of the season, away at Goodison Park, so spirits are high for this fixture, one in which we once again have to be mindful of Andre Gomes, their spirited midfielder. Added to that is the fact the Toffees played in midweek. We ought to have an edge in terms of fitness. For all that, they’re eighth currently and need to be taken seriously. Whatever our exploits to date, the opposition are a prestigious top flight outfit. We have got to where we are on merit, but the situation can change quickly and on paper the opposition are superior to us, as is so often the case this season.

It’s a freezing cold Derby afternoon, -5 celsius, with light snow, a fell wind, and a semi-frozen playing surface to produce one winter wonderland of a tie. The fans are out in force, which shows a great commitment to cheering on the boys.

Esposito gets in a position to test Pickford straight from kickoff. The shot is dealt with, and that remains our best effort until late in the game. Everton get a grip on the contest and never let go, scything through our defence like butter, raining shots in on Monitpo’s goal, and we have done well to finish the first half goalless. In the second they finish us off. Bazoer beats the keeper with a screamer from outside the box, something a bit special to liven up this dismal afternoon, before Calvert-Lewin heads in Gomes’s crossed ball. For our part, we rarely seem to get going. Maja comes on for Esposito and threatens to worry the Toffees defence with his pace. Smith Rowe has a cameo and does decidedly more with his time than Lookman, though that really isn’t saying much.

We lose 2-0 after one of our more depressing and flat performances. I can’t even single anyone out for particular culpability. As a team we just never got going. We were made to look like a lower division plucky underdog, there for the taking, and we were duly undone. The Toffees were just that bit smoother, readier to press their advantage when we made mistakes, and they ruthlessly controlled midfield. Then there’s the added factor of vengeance. Derby claimed a 2-0 victory at Goodison Park back in August, so perhaps we just had this one coming to us.

One to move on from then, at least I certainly hope it is with such a punishing run to follow in February. It’s a month that could break the season, put us back in our place, and at the time of writing I feel as though we are due a reckoning.

Derby FM20 – February 2020: Fixture Pile-Up

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and the attempt to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

Heading into the crunch encounter with Fulham I am advised that Andre Wisdom is no longer concerned about his playing time, having been deployed much more regularly since the start of the year. Time to put out those club flags, Chris. Things have changed a bit since I made that promise to the Jamaican full-back. We now have Ivan joining in the summer, a direct replacement for Andre and a new contender to challenge the rise of Jayden Bogle… However, with so many matches still to play I’m going to need to keep as much of the squad as I can sweet and onside. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one I relish, keeping a close eye on team dynamics as I look to maintain a focused and loyal group of players. Only six players (Phillips, Parrott, Knight, Whittaker, Chirivella, Schuurs) have no opinion of me, and looking at those names there’s a trend – here on loan; recently promoted to the first team. The rest are in support of my work. Long may this continue.

Fulham are currently sitting atop the Championship. The Cottagers are strong favourites to go up and they’re playing to form. Aleksander Mitrovic is the leading scorer and Anthony Knockaert leads the division in assists. Scoring goals is not their problem, though in terms of conceding they are a mid-table side. The plan for them is to pummel the opposition into submitting, and clearly they’ve been rather good at it. So this will be a challenge. We rather spawnily snatched the points off them at Craven Cottage, achieving a rare shut-out, and we’re expecting the return at home to be tough going.

Which it is. Fulham are much the better side in the first half. We can only do our best against a fluid attacking unit that sweeps forward whenever it wants to. Their full-backs – Odoi and Sessengon – look especially terrifying, and Lowe and Bogle have a lot of work to do in order to stop them from overrunning us. But luck is on our side. Much like our unrewarded display against Bristol City earlier in the month, the visitors deserve better than 0-0 at half-time. We have defended doggedly, held our own and when Lowe tugs down Knockaert for a penalty Mitrovic shoots wide of the post.

I can almost hear the away fans rumbling about how this isn’t in the script. If that’s the case then they must really have cause to gnash their teeth straight after the break when Tom Lawrence puts us ahead. Bogle races to the edge of the goal-line and crosses the ball into the area, where Le Marchand is keeping tabs on Marriott but no one is there to guard Lawrence, who makes no mistake from close range. Riled and railing against the injustice, the visitors really start putting us to the sword, yet in classic fashion this just opens them up and ten minutes later we win a free kick in their half. Baker swings one in, and a messy jumble of players at the goalmouth results in Lawrence poking the ball across it for a 2-0 scoreline. Moments later, it’s 2-1 when Knockaert’s free kick just outside the box is headed home by Kongolo. A lesser team might fade at this moment, crumbling under the intense pressure, but we don’t do that. Bogle get the chance to make another cross, which Baker slams beyond Rodak to produce a final score of 3-1. Even the injury worry to Lawrence, which forces him off, turns out to be nothing more than a bruised ankle and two days’ absence.

It’s impressive work, and frustrating also. I should probably just revel in a good job well done, but instead I’m left to ruminate on our ability to do the double over the division’s best team while dropping points with casual disregard elsewhere. This is the manager’s lot, isn’t it? The glass is perpetually half-empty, and I’d argue so it should be. There’s always room for improvement. The talk of Championship football is that it’s wildly exciting because anyone can beat the other team on the day. Personally, I would prefer to be consistent. Where you see fun, fixtures that don’t follow a pattern, I just get aggravated by our inability to see off the sides we should be putting away.

Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road are next. We’re playing away against the outfit sitting in seventh place, just outside the playoff positions, so it’s another stiff challenge. They’ve conceded more than us, but they’re better goal scorers, with Ebere Eze on the left wing their main concern.

As we travel down, I’m reading a slew of reports from Joe McClaren. Our Chief Scout is in France and Italy currently, busily recommending young players who can potentially be drafted into the developmental squads. It’s mouthwatering reading, though Joe’s florid descriptions – has the potential to produce Tigana level moments of individual brilliance – are not matched by some of the video footage I watch of these boys. Now and then Joe throws one in for a laugh. He really likes the look of Federico Di Marco, a left-back playing at Verona. He appears terrific, really good, but we’d be paying more than £10 million for his services and I’m tempted to ask the scout to explain where in the world we’d produce that kind of money from.

The QPR game is a cagey chess match, short on thrills but from my point of view beautifully balanced as we match each other so well. Everyone out there is eager not to drop a bollock, the impression being that it might be decided on mistakes. The tackling is tough but fair, the passes carefully placed. There isn’t a lot for the purist to enjoy. I’m almost loving it, especially the seriousness my boys are putting into their work. It is however frustrating to see such parlous qualities in attack. Here’s an example. In the first half’s most threatening move, Waghorn is in possession and makes it as far as the QPR goal-line, a little to the left of the net itself. Marriott and Jatta have raced into the box and are demanding the ball, but the winger just holds on to it, as though there’s nothing he can do beyond eventually being harmlessly tackled and dispossessed, which is just what happens.

In the second half I think they’ve been softened up and resort to the classic managerial tactic of going for more direct balls. The risk is that we’ll lose possession more often, but you never know, it might be worth it if they panic and let one of those passes connect… In truth I’m happy enough to see us get a 0-0 result here. It would be a fair return, even though as time passes QPR are visibly tiring, having made far fewer changes to their line-up than I have (which, incidentally, I feel that you must do in order to cut down on potential injuries). In the 89th minute the pressure pays off. Lowe has a throw-in deep in their half. He picks out Marriott who in turn finds Chirivella in space just outside their box. The midfielder spots the run of Jatta, who can beat his marker and plays the pass, which results in a delightful, training ground worked goal.

While we’re snatching all three points in London the real crime is taking place miles away, where Middlesbrough entertain Leeds and win 4-0. Roberts puts in the kind of display that is made to make the mouth water, scoring and setting up two further goals as the Whites embark on their now traditional bottle job.

February ends with yet another away day, this time a short hop to South Yorkshire and Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls are now managed by Mark Hughes, someone who’s been in charge of so many teams that I’m surprised he’s never put in a stint at Pride Park. The signing fees and pay-offs that man must have racked up over the years… We’ll be playing Brighton in the FA Cup in midweek, so further squad rotation is in order. Buchanan’s back in the line-up, as is Baker while Lowe and Chirivella drop to the bench. I retain Matt Clarke for this game because he’s on loan from the Seagulls so cannot play against them.

In spite of their mid-table position Wednesday are in sizzling form. Sparky plays a 4-4-2, which you don’t see too often these days, and it’s working for them with Forestieri and Wickham in fine form up front. At Hillsborough they batter us, raining in shot after shot though we hold firm. At one point late in the second half Forestieri shoots from the sort of close range that people have cause to get up and celebrate, only for Montipo to pull off a classy fingertip save. And then we cock it up when Milosevic gives away a penalty. It’s a fair shout, one I can’t argue with as the Swede puts in an X-rated challenge on Wickham for which he’s lucky to be only seeing yellow. Barry Bannan sends the keeper the wrong way to make it 1-0. To sum up a disappointing afternoon, Matt Phillips gets a late opportunity to equalise, the kind of goalscoring chance where all he needs to do is avoid shooting straight at the keeper, and of course that’s exactly what he does. Knickers.

Despite the setback we’re winning a lot more often than we’re losing. I have concerns about the form of my strikers, their lack of goals suggesting it might even be an issue with the way I play them rather than their abilities, but otherwise it’s all good. We’re third, and if we finish in this position then I would see that as a job well done. Reading are beginning to slip a little, as predicted, claiming eight points from the month’s seven fixtures, which is poor compared with the fifteen we’ve picked up. Elsewhere, Brentford are more than matching our results and look like a good bet for promotion, whereas Leeds supporters must be thinking wistfully about the good times of the Marcelo Bielsa aegis. The continental football being ordered by Samuele Allerdici just isn’t producing for them right now, though I imagine you would write them off at your peril. After experiencing some horrific form, they have just come away from Hull with a priceless 4-3 away win, which says something about their innate character.

The Derby board, meanwhile, are dancing in the streets about what we’re achieving. It was a vision of theirs for Derby to become an established Championship outfit (which we have been for years, surely), and while the takeover discussions are still in progress it’s a good position to be in. I hope they remember this fondly when it all goes belly up, right?

Derby FM20 – December 2019: The Managerial Roundabout

We have the almost unimaginable luxury of a seven-day break before travelling to Ewood Park for our first December commitment. It’s nice and quiet. Scouting reports keep arriving for players who range from good young prospects to the kind of must-sign names that make me hope Mr Morris will release further funds for the ‘big push’. Brighton are interested in signing our young prospect, Morgan Whitaker. The winger is currently valued at £625,000, a pittance, nor do I especially want to sell someone who could develop into a rather special talent.

The Blackburn Rovers tie pits the fifth placed team (them) against the outfit in fourth (our good selves). How they are doing so well is something of a mystery, though there are clues in the identity of their manager, Tony Mowbray, who used to spend his time in charge of Boro charging up the table in the season’s first half before gently fluttering back to mediocrity when it mattered. Their ranks contain Lewis Holtby, the German international midfielder with a not very Teutonic name who is somehow still only 29 and for whom the vagaries of professional football have clearly not been as kind as they could be. They also feature Stewart Downing, the 35 year old winger who is approaching the end of a career in which he’s enjoyed frequent media batterings principally for being an iconic member within Steve McClaren’s mercifully brief England set-up. That said, the last time I remember Stewie being especially good was in the 2007/08 season, which was a while ago and since then he’s earned a lot of money for being bang average and strangely the subject of enormous transfer fees.

The most memorable thing about this one is the podcast I’m listening to while the match is playing, which happens to be showcasing obscure songs by football teams and is treating us to a tune by the players of Dunfermline Athletic that has lyrics set to the Eastenders theme. It’s hauntingly lovely, which suggests the lockdown is starting to really get to me. A moribund first half is broken early in the second by the game’s only goal, and it isn’t scored by us. A bust-up in our penalty area clears the ball to Holtby, who produces a lovely bit of skill, lifting the ball above everyone and into the path of Bradley Dack who is point-blank on goal and shoots to Montipo’s left hand side, out of his reach. There’s nothing we can do to get back on track. Even Duane Holmes, who comes for an increasingly anonymous Jatta, is busy and yet ineffectual, then I remember that it is Holmes, whose showing pretty much sums up his time here.

I was hoping for a draw here, possibly even a sneaky three points. Instead we get nothing apart from an increased gap of six to second place. It’s been a slightly worrying performance from us. Indifferent, meandering and I think fairly predictable. Even the reliable Wayne Rooney does little – Bielik, Clarke, Baker and Parrott earn points for at least trying, but elsewhere it’s been a case of going through the motions. I don’t like this. Even though I’ve said I don’t really want to go up this season so I am careful about playing too well, I at least expect to see us try.

Derby are considered to be comfortable favourites at home to Sheffield Wednesday in midweek, but – and these are the key words – need to avoid complacency. I recall them being a fine Premier League team, but as it happens this season marks their twentieth outside the top flight. How on earth has that happened? They used to be really fierce contenders, especially in the early 1990s when a cavalier outfit led by the tricky wing play of Chris Waddle took them to the table’s higher reaches and a string of cup final appearances. I’m forced in my press conference to say nice things about Owls manager Garry Monk. Trust me, my platitudes don’t reflect what I really think. The Monk ‘enjoyed’ a brief and tumultuous spell in charge of Boro, where he managed to spend a crapload on very ordinary players and then demonstrated little clue about how to use them. Do it for the old man, boys; get Monk sacked!

It takes the visitors an hour to put in a shot on our goal. I might not know everything about football management, however that lack of enterprise doesn’t appear to be a guarantee of heady success to me. We aren’t a lot better, but early in the second half Jatta heads in from a Baker corner and at that moment the points look like they’re in the bag. Milosevic needs to come off when Reach puts in an industrial tackle, and then we lose Lowe in the sort of minor injury that reminds me to pay more attention to squad rotation in the future. Jatta volleys for his second, and then Harris pulls one back quite late on from Forestieri’s cross to keep us on our toes, but on the whole this is much better stuff from us. I’m especially pleased for Jatta, who has been off his game for some weeks, as though the genius comes hand in hand with bad behaviour and without the latter we lose the former also.

The result leaves us in fourth place, a position we have occupied since October. Fulham are three points ahead of us. There’s a gap of five points to QPR in fifth. We have accumulated 40 points at the exact halfway point of the campaign, which seems to me to be a healthy haul.

News filters through that West Brom have sacked Slaven Bilic – how the mighty fall amirite? – whilst Millwall have volunteered to be the latest rung in Martin O’Neill’s slow retreat from managerial brilliance by putting him in charge. As luck would have it the Lions are our guests at the weekend. 23rd in the table, having claimed 16 points from their 21 matches, they should be fodder for us, and my temptation is to pick several players who might not normally be automatic starters in a bid to keep things fresh. In the meantime I receive the preliminary report about this year’s crop of youngsters, the bedrock of youthful talent who may one day become Derby stars. It’s not good. Save the slavering prospect of a striker who knows which direction the goal is in, the verdict is to look elsewhere for the legends of tomorrow. Phrases like not the best, poor quality and do not look like great prospects are sprinkled liberally, which at least suggests that Darren Wassall, our Head of Youth Development, has a variety of ways of saying bag of shite. That’s what I pay him for.

Rooney is pretty much run into the ground; George Evans starts in defensive midfield. The transfer-listed Malone plays in place of the recovering Lowe, which ought to represent a shop window for him, while Milosevic is injured so Bielik is back. We win 1-0. Baker scores from a delightful 25-yard free kick, which turns out to be the only highlight of a match where Millwall revert to type and tackle us fiercely, at one point forcing Jatta off with what turns out to be a negligible shin injury, while for lesser offences we pick up three yellow cards. It isn’t hard to see why they’re down in the depths. There’s very little to the London side, a hard-working and industrially tackling lot but without any kind of spark, but they have enough defensive vigour to stop us from turning our domination into a more humiliating scoreline. It isn’t a game for the ages. Our victory won’t figure much on the DVD highlights (do clubs still produce these?), but it is a win and that’s what matters.

There follows another week’s break before we take on fierce promotion challengers Reading as part of the blizzard of Christmas fixtures, then we’re into January and the third round of the FA Cup. We’re tied against Charlton, who are currently dead bottom of the Championship on seven points, a draw that could hardly be any kinder. Elsewhere, our job of work in beating Wednesday has indeed led to Monk’s sacking. This makes it very much a case of mission accomplished and now someone else will have the task of trying to breathe glory back into the South Yorkshire sleeping giant. Birmingham dismiss Pep Clotet and hire none other than Steve McClaren, which suggests once you write the words ‘Football Manager’ after your name then there will always be someone (i) dumb (ii) desperate enough to give you a job in the end.