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[FM20] Derby County - Four Seasons with the Rams

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Author's Note - this is a lengthy career story I posted on my own blog last year, when the lockdown was in full swing and I looked for things to do. I am disinclined to pay for the upkeep of the site any longer, but the account is, I hope, a pretty good one, and I would like to stick it somewhere for fans of TLDR career write-ups to enjoy. Hopefully you will get something out of it - I certainly enjoyed playing and writing it, back in that brief era when the whole country shut down and there was no football at all...


Why Derby County? I could of course manage genuine contenders like Leeds or West Brom, and there’s definitely some allure in attempting to guide the former back into the big time after all those years in the wilderness, yet as mentioned they are both sides that should go up. That means they have a lot of talent already, indeed in Kalvin Phillips Leeds have a Premier League ready baller who I would surely spend many hours trying to keep from the attention of allegedly bigger set-ups. Then there’s my own team, Middlesbrough. I’ve had a lot of fun in the past with Boro, particularly in the old days when I could fill the ranks with Swedes and win things, and most recently in a titanic FM 2010 save where I led them to Champions League glory. But I know a lost cause when I see one. The Boro job is a dog with fleas right now; anyone can see that. Why put myself through the pain of trying to do anything with the club I love when in reality I can see Coronavirus as a condition bought and paid for by Steve Gibson in an insidious attempt to put the season out of its misery. Clever bloke, Steve. If only he’d spent the money on a decent team instead.

And so Derby, and there are various reasons for taking them over, which will take in my own personal history with them, their background, where they are now and the promise they contain.

I’ll start with saying I have little love for this bunch. They’re about the same natural size as my club, albeit unlike Boro they share top billing for the hearts of Derbyites with a cricket club that I have actually been to watch play live (and a lovely lazy afternoon it was too, only partly sullied by the long journey there and back and the discovery that trying to navigate the M1 at rush hour is a complete t**t). MFC and DCFC have a similar recent history. They are both arguably too big for the Championship and not quite big enough for the Premier League, based on their facilities and fan bases. Doing no research whatsoever, I sense they have more or less similar recent records in head to heads. I can certainly recall some memorable victories over them, including a 6-1 shellacking during our 1996/97 relegation season, and a 5-1 win in 2001 that suggested, very briefly, the stories about Carlos Marinelli being the new Maradona weren’t so wide of the mark. Spoiler alert- yes, yes they were. I remember being at Ayresome Park to watch us play them on New Years Day 1991. Anyone who’s been to Teesside from November to April knows that it is absolutely bollock freezing, so imagine the joy of watching your lot play out an insipid, testicle-retracting 1-1 draw, in which the most memory-jogging element was of being stood behind goal in the Holgate stand and marvelling at the sheer bulk of Peter Shilton in the away goal…

The lack of love comes from their rather naked efforts to spend money in going up over recent seasons, mostly fuelled by jealousy because that’s exactly what Boro used to do and the sense of fun that arose from it not working. They have a track record of appointing big name managers and breaking their transfer record, only to screw it up each time, and it’s always a laugh to see that happen. In 2018/19 it was the turn of Frank Lampard, in his first managerial role and leading lazy commentators to refer to them endlessly as ‘Frank Lampard’s Derby’, as though they had no history to speak of before he gifted them with what passes for his talents. After spending the usual small country’s GDP on players, including handing a place to his old Chelsea buddy, Ashley Cole, Fat Frank oversaw a late run of good form to squeeze the Rams into sixth place. They then somewhat heroically overcame much-fancied Leeds in the playoffs before eventually losing to Aston Villa at Wembley. Frank got the Chelsea job for his efforts. Derby were left to pick up the pieces.

The big difference between County and Boro is that they have won serious honours in the past, not just a single poxy League Cup as a consequence of all that investment. They’re previous FA Cup winners, and in the early 1970s were a Division One force thanks to the Renaissance generated by one Brian Howard Clough. Before Nottingham Forest and those European Cup miracles, Cloughie was over-achieving at the Baseball Ground, getting them promoted in 1969 and winning the league title three years later. Dave Mackay added another First Division trophy before they declined again. What happened during the Clough era is the stuff of legend, like a real life Footy Man game, and it’s well worth your time looking the events up for yourself at some point. Honestly, it’s gripping reading. There’s even The Damned United movie to give you some idea of what went on. Basically try and imagine the Leicester City glory season but forty years beforehand, admittedly when the Premier League wasn’t quite the closed shop it became but nonetheless a total anomaly, particularly with big shots like Shankley’s Liverpool and Leeds under Revie to contend with.

In their post-Lampard era, a rare instance for Derby of having lost their manager for positive reasons rather than via Mel Morris’s sacking finger, the club faces an uncertain future. They still have an eye for the celebrity appointment. Wayne Rooney has signed as a player-coach. Shay Given and Des Walker are part of the small staff list. A number of players have already been sold when I arrive, but the Rams continue to spend with the best of them, snapping up Polish defender Krystian Bielik from Arsenal for a cool £7.5 million in the summer. All they want initially is for the club to avoid relegation, which ought to be more than manageable. In exchange I have an actual transfer budget of £10 million to play with, and I get to entertain the fans at Pride Park, a relatively new stadium that’s built for the top flight and can accommodate nearly 35,000 souls.

According to the season preview we are tipped to finish 14th. Leeds and Fulham are best priced for automatic promotion, whereas Charlton, Luton and Barnsley need to watch their backs. Boro are 16-1 for 11th, which is at complete odds with what I’ve seen of them.


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Summer 2019 - Arrival

Before continuing I should make something clear. I don’t rush through seasons. Football Manager is a slow and considered experience for me. A month in the game can amount to a long evening’s thinking and reading stuff. We all have our ways of approaching it. Mine is ponderous, and that will be reflected in the entries here. If you expect season summaries, covering everything in the broadest of brush strokes then you’ve come to the wrong place. What I can offer, if you aren’t already running for the hills, is a deep dive into the game. I’ll share my philosophies, how I feel the side ought to be built, the steps I take to make the players fit my tactics, my attitude towards the opposition and the future. I’m not saying that, like Aitor Karanka, I prepare lengthy dossiers for each match and expect the players to learn them by heart, but I’m pretty obsessive and this will take some time. One day I might even tell you about the media interviews I hold with myself in the bath…

Still with me? Good, let’s carry on. As mentioned in the previous post the board expects us to avoid relegation, which for a team that has been a top ten regular seems overly cautious. The first thing I do – without even taking the normally sensible step of looking at the squad – is negotiate the seasonal target to finishing in mid-table, and for this blinding ambition my transfer budget is increased to £11,933,333, with more than £50,000 now available within the weekly wage limit. We should be able to achieve that, hopefully much better than that in fact, and the money ought to  go some ways towards building a side capable of preparing for loftier future prospects. For my part I’m handed a two year contract that carries a weekly salary of £18.75k. Not bad for a new manager with a reputation little over one star, based on a background of being a nationally recognised footballer (not quite Frank Lampard, more along the lines of Nicky Butt or *shudder* Jonathan Woodgate, perhaps).


in any event, it’s a decent start. My first task is to work through the club’s staff roster. This is a mixed bag. In terms of coaching we aren’t bad, in fact we’re considered the Championship’s best in certain areas, however I have no interest in taking training so it’s important to have the best personnel I can possibly recruit for this part of the work. The scouting side of the operation is pretty average, but we are decidedly weak in our medical staff. To my horror I learn the club has one head physio – albeit a good one in Robin Sadler – but no one working under him, and this with a squad carrying a number of long term injuries. We have spaces for two more physios, so I make contract offers to Andy Renshaw and Steve Devine, neither with high reputations yet unimpeachable talents in their trade. Better still, they’re unemployed right now. Hopefully they will see their futures as being with the Rams. I offer a first team role to Portsmouth’s Under-18s coach, Mark Chamberlain, because we need someone who can specialise in teaching the technical side of the game, and I also make overtures to veteran goalkeeping coach Jim Stewart to improve this area.

Derby have a first team squad of twenty-four players. Of these, six – a full quarter of the playing complement, in old money – are injured, none for less than six weeks. The area worst hit is at right-back, where we have two fine players but both are unavailable to me. Jayden Bogle has pulled ankle ligaments (ouch!) that will keep him out for up to three months. The alternative, Andre Wisdom, has torn knee ligaments. I’ll be lucky to see him before October. Right wing is another problem area, where Ikechi Anya (torn calf muscle – four to five months) and Duane Holmes (torn thigh muscle – up to eight weeks) are ruled out. The best looking striker is Jack Marriott, a £5 million signing by Lamps, who has a pulled thigh and will do well to be ready in time for the season’s start. And then there’s Craig Forsyth, one of three left-backs in the squad, who’s out for up to two months with damaged cruciate ligaments. We’re the walking wounded. Without much walking actually taking place, truth be told.

It’s therefore important that we boost the number of physiotherapists at Pride Park. Championship campaigns are long. There are forty-six games to play, with cup matches in two competitions thrown in as an addition and these can be real money spinners so we simply can’t treat them as unnecessary distractions to be dealt with expediently. Ideally we would do well on all fronts, build a sense of momentum, of a club going places, but as a bare minimum we require two good players for each position. That’s something we don’t have right now. In certain areas – left back, striker – we’re overstocked; in others – central midfield, centre backs – we lack basic numbers, and that’s to say nothing of the quality.

Derby’s squad has an average age of twenty-six, which ideally I would like to reduce by a couple of years. If we are to aim high then I should be looking to build a side filled with potential. The players don’t need to be ‘off the shelf’ great, but they should have greatness (or even goodness) within them, so that after a couple of years’ match development and careful training they can potentially take on the added challenge of surviving in the Premier League. That means a transfer policy of scouting the lower leagues to death, hunting relentlessly for hints of latent talent we can then sharpen. Loaning players in ought to be a last resort – better to develop our own players than do it on behalf of other teams. Derby have three players who are essentially borrows – goalkeeper Ben Hamer from Huddersfield, Brighton defender Matt Clarke, and young Aston Villa striker Rushian Hepburn-Murphy. None come with future fees for permanent transfers as part of their contracts, so while we can use these players we won’t necessarily see any future benefit from them, and that’s something I would prefer to avoid.

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1 hour ago, Juan Fernando said:


Yo también estoy dirigiendo al Derby. Me gusta tu estilo profundo del juego. Yo también miro todos los detalles. Espero próximas publicaciones para seguirte. Un saludo.

Thanks dude, daily updates. My Spanish is awful so I won't even try to reply in kind, but good luck with your game.

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Summer 2019 – Reshaping Part 1

Summer break is my favourite part of Football Manager. The season itself I can find a bit stressful, truth be told, though not without its various delights, however in those between times I get the hopeful promise of building a team, tinkering to knock together a side capable of raising everyone’s expectations… Until it all gets knocked down when we start playing matches…

There’s much to do at Pride Park. We begin with the much needed influx of staff. Dr Andy Renshaw and Dr Steve Devine sign on as physiotherapists to complete our team of quacks. Neither’s reputation is especially strong, but they are about as good as it gets in their administration of treatments, and with a fragile set of lads like we have, not to mention the rigours of a long campaign to follow, they’ll be needed. We also take on George Bentley as our Heads of Sports Science. These moves propel us to having the second best medical team in the division.

On the coaching side, ex-Scotland international staffer Jim Stewart is brought in to work with goalkeepers. At 65 he brings a wealth of experience. Portsmouth’s Mark Chamberlain comes in, mainly to work on technical areas of training (we’re now the peak of the Championship in this area). His recruitment forces us to come to a mutual agreement with one of the existing coaches, and it’s Liam Rosenior who gets his marching orders, though apparently not as he agrees a new contract to work full time as a Data Analyst. I’ll be honest; I don’t really know what a Data Analyst does, but if it keeps him happy… Finally, we get David Moss to be our Director of Football. Once doing the same job at Celtic, who I would argue have been quite good over the years, I see this as a plus for us. Nick Evans is sought and signed as the new Technical Director. Again, I’m not really sure what he’s here to do, but apparently we need one and now we’ve got one. Job’s a good ‘un.

I make my first playing recruitment with the free transfer of Alexander Milosevic. I see this potentially as a bit of a coup. Clubs were lining up for the 27 year old Swedish international, and after agreeing to some promises he laid out we made him our capture. This one doesn’t come without risk. We’re Alex’s tenth club (if we count two separate stints with AIK twice). His previous experience of England comes from spending last season with Nottingham Forest, and there are bits about his game that simultaneously tantalise and terrify me. He can do everything a good ball playing defender should be able to, but there’s his history of aggression that’s a bit of a concern. In particular he has a track record of arguing with referees, which doesn’t bode too well. I like someone who’ll stand his ground as well as anyone. No one wants a set of wallflowers in their line-up. But nor do I hope for a slew of bookings and dismissals, so this could be something to look out for.

Having good centre backs is so important. Milosevic is the first of a planned two recruits in this area, and his arrival allows me to work towards removing Curtis Davies from our books. There was a time when Davies was seen as a potential England international. Aston Villa once paid nearly £9.5 million for his services. Now he’s 34, clearly waning in terms of his powers and yet earning £25k per week for what will at best amount to being around in case we’re desperate. There’s no way I can justify this. Physically he’s on the slide and, for me, we should get something for him while there’s still the possibility of getting anything at all. Here’s where fun with the Derby Board takes place. I’m happy to accept any offer to take him off the books. Valued at £475,000, I would take a fraction of that amount if it meant showing him the door, yet the old farts refuse to accept anything less than £300k with a minimal salary contribution from the club. There’s no one that desperate, is there? It turns out there is – Olympiacos, the Greek giant based in Pireas. I haul Davies into my office, starting extolling the benefits and pleasures of a good seafood diet, show him slideshows from my holidays in Greece, bang on about paradises on earth, you know the sort of thing, when eventually more out of wanting me to stop than enthusiasm for the move he agrees to leave.

You will remember me saying in my last post that I would prefer not to bring players in on loan. Well, I’ve signed a couple of players on loan. The first, Cyrus Christie, makes complete sense as we have two very good right-backs at Derby but both are injured for a time. The Irish international is with us until the next transfer window, and as a former Ram is quite happy to spend time back at one of his old haunts. I remember Christie from his half-season with Middlesbrough, where he provided an effervescent, attacking presence with a worrying propensity to forget his defensive duties. Perhaps he’s learned a bit since then.

We also take Troy Parrott from Spurs for the season. At 17, he’s very green but may very well be the best striker on the books. His arrival paves the way for selling Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay and at one point a feared forward. Now 30 and having been with us for eight years, I see Martin’s powers as fading. This was emphasised by his loan spell with Hull in 2018/19 where he shat out two goals from thirty appearances. No one is prepared to sign him permanently, but Birmingham City will loan him for the year and pay his wages in full, which is good enough for me. With Parrott in and Martin out, I’ve made a weekly saving in the wage budget of £8,000, and at this level every little counts.

It’s 6 July. I’ve been here just over a week. The coaching staff have overseen a friendly game against Young Boys, but I expect to be in charge when we take on Maidenhead for the first of our run of five pre-season encounters this month. By the time we go to Kent and visit Theresa May’s constituency for the game I want to have made a few more squad changes. There’s still around thirty grand in the wage budget to play with, and a considerable £12,000,000 lolly to spend on players, so much room for manoeuvre.

The priority position is goalkeeper. Our best existing net minder is Scott Carson, once an England international with the ignominious record amongst his four caps of being in goal for his country’s 3-2 defeat against Croatia in 2008, the infamous ‘wally with a brolly’ match that spelled Steve McClaren's last as manager and in which Scott was to blame for Krancjar’s strike. In any event he’s on loan at Manchester City for the season, which is of no use to us and little for him either as he’s only there to increase their complement of homegrown players. In his absence we’ve drafted in Ben Hamer from Huddersfield for the year. I don’t know who’s agreed this. The 31 year old is happy to be here, but he’s happily bobbins, and his understudy, Kelle Roos, is worse still. In my experience you can never get very far in football if you don’t have at least a good goalkeeper. As a Championship manager I’m not exactly expecting Dino Zoff, but some level of competency would be nice. My main area of scouting will therefore be the hunt for a decent goalie, on whom I’m prepared to invest if he looks right to me. Ah readers, I remember a Middlesbrough game in FM2010 when I discovered Nigerian international Vincent Enyeama available for around £350,000 – someone of his calibre would be just the ticket right now, or even a keeper with one good working arm. The search continues.

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Summer 2019 – Reshaping Part 2

As I think I’ve mentioned previously my track record in Football Manager 2020 has mainly been with big clubs. Things happen with the likes of AC Milan and Manchester United that simply don’t at this level, and it all boils down to money and reputation. Want to sign someone as manager of Milan? Fine! Your man has heard of the Rossoneri because he has a brain and naturally is desperate to strut his funky stuff on your stage. Things are different at Derby County, where my overtures are reacted to dubiously. Players are reluctant to play in the English second tier for a side and a manager that aren’t on their radar. I can throw cash at the situation, offering to recompense them for lending their abilities to our lowly cause, but the job of selling a Championship outfit to potential signings is not as straightforward as it was with those recognised giants.

Even transfer listed players have higher expectations of themselves than deigning to play for us. I don’t expect to recruit Douglas Costa or James Rodriguez, the most prestigious of the unwanted talent out there, but the pickings are slim when you’re a mid-table second division outfit whose glory years happened when your dad was at best a slip of a lad.

And then there’s the issue of wages. We’ve all winced at some point when we have seen the fabulous levels of wealth lavished on players who turn out to be pretty ordinary because they’ve joined a Premier League outfit. I could offer a role to Henri Saivet, the midfielder who promised a lot when he joined Newcastle and delivered little. At our level he’d be a fine acquisition, and yet he’s earning nearly £40,000 per week, so he’s priced out. Watford’s Andre Gray? £70,000 per week. Jack Wilshere, patron saint of treatment tables and once the next big thing in English football? Yours as long as you’re prepared to come close to meeting his £80,000 salary expectations; oh and don’t forget to buy a stack of new hospital bed sheets – you’re gonna need them.

Our search for a new goalkeeper takes place across the continent. What we want is someone who can start for us, is better than what we have already and is young enough to possess the potential for development. We have money to spend, so meeting a reasonable transfer fee should present no significant obstacle. As I will find during this transfer window, however, despite setting what I think is a low bar the prospect of moving to Derby is a big negative in most peoples’ eyes. The scouting reports flood back, all with various shades of recommendation but little inclination from current clubs to sell and virtually none from the players to move. We’d love to make Cameron Dawson from Sheffield Wednesday our man. He’s 24, plays second fiddle to Keiren Westwood and wouldn’t have to take a drop in division to turn out for us. No interest. I also make overtures to Newcastle’s Martin Dubravka, one of many Barcodes who is basically for sale by the man who shifts sports goods as cheap tat. Not bothered.

In the end, our hunt high and low takes us all the way to the Italian Serie B. At Benevento is a 23 year old keeper called Lorenzo Montipo, an under-21 international for his country albeit in the permanent shadow cast by Donnarumma. I dispatch Director of Football David Moss to arrange the deal. We wind up paying £3.6 million for him and offering the young Italian a £9.5k per week contract. That sounds like a lot, but I’d fund any amount of money for the right man and he absolutely improves the side.

As a postscript and a damning indictment of my attention to detail, it’s only later that I realise I could simply have recalled Scott Carson from Manchester City’s Under 23s team. As ordinary as he is (and he really is), he is still the squad’s best keeper. Oh well, live and learn, right?

To boost our midfield quality I turn to the list of the damned, the players who have been deemed surplus to requirements by their clubs. My pick is Lewis Baker, because he’s a namesake and due to no longer being wanted by Chelsea. They demand £3.2 million, and he’s after a £25k salary, a third of which will be paid by his old club. The 24 year old seems to me to be a good and natural fit. He’s also endemic of all the things that have made Chelsea something of a bastard of a set-up. Never having kicked a ball in anger for them during his seven year stay at Stamford Bridge, like most prospects he’s been doled out on a string of loans, taking in the delights of Sheffield Wednesday, MK Dons, Vitesse (two separate, season-long spells), Middlesbrough, Leeds and Reading. His success at these places has been varied, and it occurs to me that I could follow suit and arrange a loan deal for him, however I would far rather call time on his Chelsea hell and give him some stability, actually offer a permanent future for him somewhere. Nobody is suggesting that Baker will transform into a superstar; he is however a lot better than he’s been treated and ought to thrive at this level as a technical midfielder with a good passing range. The coaches see him as the second best player within this unit behind Wayne Rooney.

DoF Moss suggests signing Sunderland’s Duncan Watmore as cover for Duane Holmes. The League One winger is available for around £125,000, which is nothing, though there’s little about Watmore that indicates we’re getting our hands on the snip of the summer. The matter then slips through our fingers when the move breaks down over his salary demands. He expects us to honour the £15k per week deal he has going on at the Stadium of Light. We aren’t prepared to pay that much for an average player, so maybe we have dodged a bullet here.

With Montipo in the side we are now overloaded with goalkeepers. I have little time for Kelle Roos, the 27 year old Dutchman who I view as a health warning to Championship football. With Ben Hamer available to play back-up there’s absolutely no need to keep Roos on the books anymore so I hawk him out, eventually agreeing a £600,000 fee with Udinese. More fool them, right?

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Summer 2019 - Reshaping Part 3

The calendar of pre-season games starts with an away day at Maidenhead. We win 3-0 with goals from Waghorn, Huddlestone and Rooney, and it’s exactly as dominant as that scoreline suggests, more an excuse to build up match fitness than do anything productive. Still, the town’s quite pretty. Next up is a tie at Pride Park against Manchester United, which is certainly more of a challenge even if I can expect Ole to name a rough side. This he does, placing Mason Greenwood at the spearhead of his attack, and by half-time they’re a goal ahead, McTominay netting from a scruffy penalty area melee. I warn the players that I expect better, especially as 29,901 people have made it out to watch us and we should aim to entice them into returning. With little choice but to play a more attacking style we push forward frequently, try to make nuisances of ourselves in the opposition, contrive to do better than standing back in awe at the fact we’re taking on one of the country’s biggest teams. Nothing much happens, but the second half is a fairly even affair, and late into added time when we win a penalty. Waghorn beats De Gea to make it 1-1 and secure a morale boosting draw.

We don’t have to travel very far to take on Burton Albion, now a League One outfit coached by former Rams manager Nigel Clough. This one’s a frustrating affair. The boys pummel Garrett’s goal, raining in shot after shot, enjoying nearly three quarters’ possession, but we’re wasteful with our opportunities. After going ahead via Lewis Baker in the fourth minute, we should be out of sight but I’ve opted to field Rushian Hepburn-Murphy up front and it turns out he’s bobbins. The forward, a 20 year old on loan from Aston Villa, doesn’t look that good in training and works hard to match that assessment on the pitch, making it clear to me he will be very much third choice behind Parrott and Marriott. If only we could terminate his loan deal, or not have to pay half his wages, but it seems someone at Villa knew what they were doing when this move was arranged. Burton get a somewhat fortuitous equaliser via Sterling-James deep in the second half, but this prompts us into a flurry of reaction, which gets its rewards towards the end of the game when Milosevic heads in Waghorn’s corner ball.

The trip to Motherwell produces a 0-0 draw so insipid and highlight-free that there’s nothing about it that sticks in the memory. It’s an even affair, Krystian Bielik winning Player of the Match for defending stoutly, and keeping a clean sheet in an away game is some sort of plus, right?

Finally, we entertain Club Brugge, taking on an actual Champions League team that attracts a crowd of nearly 10,000. Brugge last won the Belgian league in 2018, and whilst I don’t know whether that says more about them or the division it’s cool to be taking on a relatively glamorous outfit, one that’s found a home for ex-Liverpool comedy goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet. Between us we produce a fairly even contest. The visitors have the better of the first period and we dominate the second, a matter that appears to be decided on whether Rooney’s involved. Once we introduce the English legend the complexion of the game changes in our favour. Here’s someone for the opposition to respect, a man capable of picking out a ranging pass that splits their defence, which is precisely how we come to win when he finds Jozefzoon with a 30 yard bullet and the winger is polite enough to hit the back of the net from close range.

I’m starting to get a very good idea of how the side ticks, though the situation is changing all the time with first team players steadily returning from injury. Marriott is just about going to make it back to full fitness in time for the season’s start. Duane Holmes isn’t far away, but Anya, Bogle and Wisdom are more distant prospects, and we happily add to the crocks when defensive midfielder Max Bird suffers a groin strain during training and is rendered unavailable for a month.

The squad changes continue, even on the eve of our opener against Huddersfield. With Max Lowe and Scott Malone available to play at left-back, we don’t need a third player and 30 year old Craig Forsyth is the one to lose out. This is partly due to his age, and getting his salary off the books, and the fact he’s been here since 2012 and in many ways represents the years of bumbling around at this level. Several clubs are willing to make a punt on him, and it’s Sunderland who eventually win his services, paying £750,000 for the privilege. I think it speaks volumes that a player considered to be one of the squad’s most influential makes a move that takes him down a division.

Unfortunately this is one of those instances when the sale of a team leader prompts uncertainty and some unhappiness in the dressing room. I only assuage Tom Huddlestone’s concerns by saying I am going to replace Forsyth with a better player, which means I need to do exactly that. The man in mind is Manuel Ugarte, an 18 year old defensive midfielder who plays currently for Fenix. There’s much about this one that is in the balance. At his age Ugarte will eventually become homegrown, and the scouts have been slavering about his abilities. But he is Uruguayan, without a cap to his name, and I think we will have to hope the Immigration Office is looking the other way if we are to get a work permit for him. But you never know. We offer £3.8 million for someone who could become a star…

The player agrees terms easily enough, but we have to wait until close to the end of the transfer window to discover whether his application for a work permit has been successful. In the meantime, we need a fourth centre back. I want Perr Schuurs, a 19 year old who comes from the famous Ajax Academy. There’s little interest from the club in accepting a transfer fee, but they are willing to let him go out on a loan, and I sneak an optional future fee of £6 million into his contract that I hope nobody notices. Everything’s agreed, and we have a potential Premier League defender on the books at a salary commitment of £1,300 per week, which incredibly is the full amount he was being paid by Ajax.

That should more or less finish my rebuilding efforts. The squad isn’t perfect of course, and it’s been a tougher job than I expected to sell Derby to potential signings, but we have at least two players for each position now, which we will need if we are to get through the season. It’s here my Assistant Manager Chris van der Weerden advises me of a promise I made to a player, one I had completely forgotten about. Upon recruiting Alexander Milosevic it seems I guaranteed I would bring in a friend to help him settle. I forgot all about it, clearly part of the package that persuaded the Swede to come to Pride Park and now something I have to honour. I haul the player into my office and ask him to suggest someone; true to form he can’t think of a single person, which is incredibly helpful. I am left to scour the Swedish scene, settling initially on either Simon Tibbling or Mattias Svanberg, both young internationals. Their clubs agree fees easily enough, but neither player is interested in negotiating personal terms, which at least doesn’t leave us hanging. I then look at Sebastian Larsson, a veteran midfielder who’s hanging out with Milosevic’s old club, AIK. My aim is to not spend a lot on someone with a limited shelf life, but as the negotiations take place we hit the wall of going to Huddersfield for the season opener. This signing, one that we don’t need apart from keeping a player whom we signed on a free happy, is going to take us right up to the deadline.

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15 hours ago, Juan Fernando said:

Buenas. Puedes explicar que táctica utilizas y cuál es el mejor rol para Rooney?. 


Thanks Juan. I play a 4-1-4-1, with a defensive midfielder. The man in that pivotal role is Lord Rooney.

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Summer 2019 - Meet the Gang

The transfer window closes in the week following the Huddersfield match, so there may be further additions to the side made at the last minute, indeed this will almost certainly happen just to meet my promises to a couple of grumpy first teamers. It isn’t easy to sign players for a club like this. Finding ballers who are (i) better than what we have (ii) willing to come (iii) affordable is a a proper challenge, hopefully one I have met, though I’ll confess my initial scheme of a massive overhaul simply did not come to pass.

In the meantime, I’m asked to do those things that indicate the season is nigh. Squad numbers have been issued. Players are registered. The groundsman has asked me for my preferred pitch size. I bet if it’s Pep Guardiola this is a cap doffing, deferential affair – Please Mr Guardiola sir, if you have a moment to cast your magnificent eyes over this morsel of a question, etc, whereas what I get is along the lines of Oi f**kstick, what’s the plan? Hmmm, I’ll show them.

Here’s the team for 2019/20:


Ben Hamer (31, English, £2.5 million value) is on loan to us from Huddersfield, no doubt arranged in the light of Scott Carson jetting off for the relative glamour of the Manchester City stiffs. The coaching staff consider him to be a “leading player for League One sides”, which comes with the obvious warning signs that Hamer is clearly not going to be a suitable first choice here. There’s nothing bad exactly, but nothing especially good either, and looking into the player’s past there have been a handful of years when he’s played as his team’s starter across a career stretching back to 2005. It’s for this reason I made it my main focus to capture a goalkeeper, more or less at any price. Extensive scouting, and a fair number of refusals, eventually brought Lorenzo Montipo (23, Italian, £4.6m) to our door, someone who should be utterly at ease in the Championship and even has the potential to develop into a Premier League net-minder. Capable of playing as an effective sweeper keeper, not earning an extravagant wage, and happy to be here, it’s my contention that you really do need a good player in this position and thankfully we now have one.


A position defined by injuries. The first choice under normal circumstances would be Jayden Bogle (19, English, £5m), a defensive wing-back from the Academy ranks who broke into our first team last season. Suffering from pulled ankle ligaments and unavailable until October, Jayden is considered to be fairly injury prone and this factor might ultimately have an adverse effect on his room for development, otherwise he has decent technical levels for a player his age and possesses the stamina to run up and down his flank for ninety minutes. It’s his lack of availability that has forced my hand into drafting in Cyrus Christie (26, Irish, £5.75m) on loan until the January transfer window. Cyrus the Virus is probably about the best we could manage as an interim player. A former Ram, now at Fulham and having been tested at the top flight, he’s a perfectly adequate wing-back. He was often caught at sea in his Premier League season, still far up the pitch as speedy counter-attacks quickly moved the action into his defensive areas, and it’s for this reason - his poor anticipation - that he’s completely unsuitable for anything more testing than the Championship, but here he should be fine. Under normal circumstances our alternative to Bogle would be Andre Wisdom (26, Jamaican, £3.7m), from the vaunted ranks of Liverpool’s Academy and a £2 million signing in 2017. Described by the staff as a good player for Championship sides, he’s an ideal fit for the squad with sound figures in all the right areas. His wage (£23,000 per week) is an issue, as I would prefer not to be paying so much to someone who will be second choice once everyone is fit and well, but he’s a decent asset to have for the time being. Torn knee ligaments will rob us of his services until the end of August.


Our first choice is Max Lowe (22, English, £3.5m), a homegrown product that says a lot about Derby’s ability to churn out first team footballers. Max is a great wing-back, about as good at passing as he is at tackling and able to put in a decent cross, which will be useful to us. He’s only taking home £3.5k per week, so I expect salary discussions will be an issue at some point in the future. The back-up was a toss-up between Craig Forsyth and Scott Malone (28, English, £875k), and it was the latter’s age and willingness to accept a squad rotation role that saw me keep him and sell the other. In truth neither player is really good enough for us. At some point we will have to address the thorny issue of drafting in a player of real ability to take us forward, and there’s a dependency on Max to remain hale and hearty, but for now Scott should be okay. He’s a low injury risk and can do most things well enough, albeit with no expectation on him to surprise us. Some bright spark saw fit to pay this journeyman £20k per week, probably a fall-out from his spell in the Premier League with Huddersfield, and it’s this factor aligned with his limited ability that has him on borrowed time.


A unit that needed some work, with two decent defenders and one very old and over every hill former star man. The latter, Curtis Davies, needed to be sold as only ‘more seasoned’ gamers like me will remember having him in our teams back when he was a promising young gun with a career of endless possibilities to look forward to…

Before I joined the club, Krystian Bielik (21, Polish, £4.1m) was the Rams’ major signing, a £7.5 million acquisition from Arsenal. A good bit of business that I probably would have quailed from making due to the scale of the outlay, the teenage Pole is homegrown, has fantastic levels of potential and is already perfectly calibrated for Championship football. He was clearly acquired as a star in the making and he has all those qualities, along with strong attributes in marking and tackling, packaged in a 6′ 2″ frame that could make him the ideal long-term stalwart. It’s a different story with Matt Clarke (22, English, £6.75m), as he’s on loan to us from Brighton and considered to be good at this level. Of a similar build to Bielik and very good at heading, it’s to be hoped that these two represent a considerable wall for opposition attackers.

Signings were needed to augment this unit. I can’t expect two centre-backs to last the full rigours of a season and so the hunt has been on for a couple of additions. One, Alexander Milosevic (27, Swedish, £5.75m), was brought in very early on a free transfer. The Swede is a much travelled and experienced addition, for whom we had to outbid a number of teams in sealing the acquisition. I have also made a number of promises to him in order to gain his signature, which makes me slightly regret not paying more attention to these details. It used to be the case that every English side needed some Scandinavian influences and we have it now. Alex has been capped for his country on seven occasions and looks like being a sound signing, with caveats highlighting his occasional laziness and reputation for arguing with the referee. It won’t be dull, at least.

We have also brought in Perr Schuurs (19, Dutch, £2.6m), a promising member of the talent production line that is Jong Ajax. I don’t want to sign players on loan and would far rather buy them outright, however Perr would have cost us a nebulous amount so in his case there’s a clause in the loan agreement that allows us the option of a £6 million fee if he works out. It’s a ‘try before you buy’ situation, in other words. Another tall defender who is turning heads with his appearances for the Dutch international U21s, the issue is a lethargy in his game that is a symptom of his lack of natural fitness. This can be worked upon. Technically he looks like he has what it takes, if he so chooses to hone his talent.


A mixed bag of a unit, Derby’s complement of midfielders contains one of the best players in the division and a living legend of the English game, through to the standard Championship group that needs an injection of talent.

Lewis Baker (24, English, £4.2m) represents that injection, a midfielder on the Chelsea loans carousel who was transfer-listed and more than capable of handling football at this level. With his young age and potential to make in the top flight, Lewis is the ideal capture for me, though the amount of travelling he’s done and failure to make any sort of impact at Stamford Bridge are slight concerns. His passing is an asset, and he is fit, and those are his strong cases for succeeding with the Rams.

I’m making Max Bird (18, English, £3m) available for loan, due principally to the lack of first team opportunities he is likely to enjoy this season. Versatile and capable of playing naturally in a defensive or central midfield role, he’s far more of an asset than a liability. It’s because he’s behind too many other players that has prompted me to put him out there. He’s up against George Evans (24, English, £1.5m) for DM, currently a readier but ultimately more limited player who is probably in the right place to be second fiddle. The difference is that Max could grow into something a bit special; George has done most of his growing, and the results don’t suggest a star in the making.

These two plucky youngsters are charged with steadily snatching game time from Tom Huddlestone (32, English, £2.1m), the veteran's veteran, a deep lying playmaker who has been playing first team football since 2003/04. Tom's story is one of touching greatness, starting his career right here before earning a big move to glamorous Tottenham, hobnobbing with the likes of Bale and Modric, picking up a few England caps, then a spell with Hull and finally right back where he started. His adventures in the top flight make him one of our higher earners and a team leader, in possession of fine technical assets at this level, albeit physically beginning to wane. He's in the last year of his contract, so in an ideal world Max or George will steadily make his future as a Ram untenable and he can refocus on coaching, but we'll see, right?

Jason Knight (18, Irish, £3.8m) is, like Max Bird, a homegrown midfielder who has only just been promoted to the first team. With more Under-21 caps for Ireland than appearances for Derby, this is his chance to impress, something of a pocket rocket in a box to box role with great natural physical assets and room for development elsewhere. I suspect we will struggle to hold on to him if he grows as expected, and if we don’t show signs of progress at the same time. Ten years his senior, Graeme Shinnie (28, Scottish £4.7m) is a free signing who’s making his first moves in England after a career spent with Aberdeen and Inverness Caley Thistle. A regular starter with those clubs and rated as important here, Graeme has been capped six times by Scotland and is considered essential enough to the cause to be named as vice-captain. A good man to have in the ranks and superb as a team player, the only concern is his high aggression level that could make him a target for card-happy referees.

All this is mere a supporting act to the main player at Derby. Step forward Wayne Mark Rooney (33, English, £4m), a bona fide superstar who was the focal point for his country for the best part of a decade and remains England’s record goalscorer. These days Wayne has steadily fallen back from his old position as the side’s spearhead and is now most likely to be used as a defensive midfielder – his passing is fantastic, his vision miraculous at this level. Wayne is of course far too good to be playing in the Championship. We’ve got him because he’s working a dual role as a first team coach, but he rightly holds the captaincy and retains his star power. The latter is reflected in his Premier League salary of £50,000 per week, and his presence within our lowly ranks is no doubt reflective of Wayne’s status as a first team regular from the age of 16, all that football taking its inevitable toll on his body.

Attacking Midfielders

An area hit by injury, notably on the right side where we will not see anything of Ikechi Anya (31, Scottish, £350k) before November. For a fringe player Ikechi is earning £28,000 per week, which is a crazy amount, and it isn’t even as though he looks that good when he’s fully fit. The high wage is a consequence of signing him from Premier League Watford, where he was still active. We paid £4 million for him in 2016 and steadily since then he has figured less and less, until now he is probably of a League One standard. Bloody hell Derby, talk about money to burn… The more obvious starter, thankfully, is Duane Holmes (24, USA, £3.9m), an American international from, er, Wakefield, who is in the latter stages of his recovery from a torn thigh muscle. This, coupled with his holidaying, has robbed me of his services so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do. Memories are stirred of another Holmes from Derby, Lee Holmes, who was one of the latent stars of the game in Championship Manager 2003/04 edition, but Duane’s quite a different animal and our best hope of having a winning presence on the right wing. The unavailability of this pair has left me relying on Florian Jozefzoon (28, Surinamese, £3.3m), the rarity of a Surinamese footballer playing in England and a stunningly average one at that. For some reason ‘Flo’ has been declining in recent months, despite supposedly being in his prime years. I’m tempted to find a new home for him before too long. In the case of Anya he’s in the last season of his contract, one I would be a total stupidface if I even considered renewing. Alas his injury means we just can’t shift him in the short term.

There’s more quality on the left wing, thankfully, where it’s a toss-up between two players who deserve regular football and have quite possibly filled in on both flanks in an effort to maximise their talents. Tom Lawrence (25, Welsh, £4.1m) is an international footballer who operates as an inverted winger and brings a fine level of technique to the table. Unfortunately those years of playing alongside Gareth Bale have made him a star in his own head, with a temptation to go on Ronaldo-style mazy dribbles that in his instance lead nowhere. Mate, Ronaldo and Bale can do this because they have amazing ability – you play for Derby in the Championship for a reason. Martyn Waghorn (29, English, £4.5m) is about as second tier as it gets. He started at Sunderland before being part of the pre-promotion Leicester set-up, then taking in spells at Wigan, Rangers and Ipswich before coming here. I think he’s about as talented as Lawrence, and he can run up and down his wing all day, albeit not very quickly though there are signs of flair that imply he can pull off something unpredictable.


A unit filled with sufficient personnel that I was able to consciously uncouple from Chris Martin, once a free scoring forward (note the use of the word ‘once’) and ship him out to Birmingham. We have a loanee of our own, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy (20, English, £750k), ‘gifted’ to us by Aston Villa who know a cruel joke when they see one because frankly he looks a bit gash. There’s much room for improvement here. The coaches see him as a future Premier League striker, but for me the Championship is too high a level for him at this stage in his career and a player we have signed as a regular starter will do well to get any football in the first team. 

The only permanently signed forward in the side is Jack Marriott (24, English, £3.8m), who cost us £5 million back in 2018 on the back of a superb year’s work with Peterborough. Looking slightly less sure-footed at this tier, Jack can nevertheless develop into a good player and the rest is up to him. He certainly has the pace, and he can finish, but his squad rotation status is probably a correct reflection of his current abilities. It rests therefore on Troy Parrott (17, Irish, £9m) to score our goals. There’s a precariousness about relying on someone who isn’t even a grown-up yet, but our young loanee from Tottenham pretty much has it all, is our best natural finisher whilst his 6′ 2″ frame makes him good in the air. There’s very little possibility that Spurs will sell someone they view as a genuine prospect for future stardom, so much as I once signed Carlos Vela to propel Middlesbrough into the Premier League back in FM 2010 here I’m depending on Troy to produce the goods. Vela scored goal after goal before sodding off back to Arsenal and eventually moving to Real Madrid. Can we expect anything like this quality from the youngster?

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August 2019 - Terriers and Transfer Deadlines

After much planning, a busy pre-season and many thousands of words written, it’s at last time to enter the 2019/20 Championship season. I’ve put it off long enough and we’re here – the moment of truth. My destiny… Or at least a trip to the John Smith’s stadium to face Huddersfield Town.

The Terriers are freshly relegated from two seasons in the Premier League. Their fall last year was so pronounced that no one has them tipped to go back up, or even to make it into the playoffs. They’re rated as being good enough for mid-table, looking at a similar position to ourselves, and with the likes of Mooy and Billing moved to new clubs that might be fair enough.


We assemble with what I consider to be our best available line-up. Considering they’re at home, Huddersfield’s formation – a flat back five, four across midfield and a lone gunman – looks designed to contain us, to hold us at arm’s length, a defensive set-up that suggests we’re hardly in for a classic tie. And so it goes for the first 25 minutes, as we play with a balanced mentality, can’t beat their defence and the ball bobbles about non-commitedly in midfield, like a fella who is unable to decide whether to have fish and chips or a pizza for his tea.

It transpires that the Terriers are softening us up, letting us get more adventurous before striking. I demand greater positivity, which opens up gaps for them to exploit. With 27 minutes on the clock, Andy King lollops into our half and picks out Toffolo on the left wing. In some space because Cyrus Christie is presumably thinking about what to have for his own post-match meal, the left-back is able to get into our box. It takes this long for Christie to reach him, miss his tackle and allow Toffolo to get a cross off. This meets the beautifully placed and predatory Lewis O’Brien, who has time to rifle his shot past Montipo and into the top corner.

Two minutes later and O’Brien’s scored again, only this time he’s clearly offside and we remain just about in the game. We make it to the break, the players get a bollocking and are ordered to attack more. The second half turns into an exercise in attrition. We tease, probe and pick at the Huddersfield defence, which has the numbers to hold off our less than heavyweight offensive play. I switch things around. Parrott, Jozefzoon and Waghorn are swapped out for Marriott, Holmes and Lawrence. I can appreciate the former’s callowness in failing to break through, but the latter two haven’t produced anything like an acceptable performance and the Surinamese right winger in particular has been terrible. I make to a note to myself to focus the last couple of days of the transfer window on his position, and watch as we force an equaliser on the 76th minute mark.

It’s the culmination of frequent attacking. Rooney is playing quarterback, picking out teammates at will. Shinnie and Baker are running riot in central midfield as the players ahead of them find space. A nice bit of interplay between the pair results in Baker haring into the penalty area and picking out Tom Lawrence on the edge. Rather than try to find someone through the sea of legs the winger tries a punt and produces a strike of accuracy and wonder that sizzles beyond Jonas Lossl to make it 1-1.

After that we continue to press, but the urgency ebbs away as a draw seems the fairest of results. There’s a fair amount to be happy about. We have 53% possession and the majority of shots on goal. The 92% pass completion is excellent, even for a Tiki Taka approach that ought to be producing a high rate. Most of all I’m happy that we grew in confidence as the game developed. That telepathic understanding every good side needs seemed to be in evidence, so I’m cautiously optimistic with our performance. Lawrence is named Player of the Match for causing so much trouble during his thirty minutes on the field.

Our pick as the Monday night match means we now have three days to arrange any late transfers. My priority position is right wing, with additional hopes to prove to Milosevic and Huddlestone that I can (i) sign a pal for the former (ii) strengthen the side for the latter. The obvious answer is to bring in a Swedish winger, perhaps see what the likes of Selakovic and Bakircioglu are up to these days. The obvious choice, Niclas Eliasson at Bristol City, is going to cost a flipping fortune and, following a scouting mission, turns out to be more comfortable on the left wing. In the end I ask the scouts to find someone from Sweden – anyone! – who is prepared to sign, hopefully on cheap terms. They come up with Marcus Olsson, a 31 year old left-back, who has no current club after being released by none other than Derby County. Red-faced, I thrash out a deal to bring Olsson back. He’s willing to sign a one year contract on £15,000 per week, a lot more than I would ideally pay him, a fringe player with an automatic additional season’s extension should he appear in five matches for us. Daylight robbery that, mate, but we’re close to the deadline and there’s little we can do but welcome him back. With any luck he’ll spend the year haunting our reserves before vanishing into the night.

Not the ideal capture, but at least he costs us nothing beyond the £700,000 we’re going to pay him just to keep a first teamer happy. The search for a winger takes on epic proportions. The majority of players we look at, those who’ll realistically have any interest in being here, are no better than what we have already. Jonathan Leko of West Brom is ideally aged at 20 years old, but his club would want more money than we could ever afford. Huddersfield’s Elias Kachunga is a Democratic Republic of Congo 27 year old who almost fits the bill but demands the sort of salary that has me asking him if he’s aware who we are and which division we play in. Most prospects simply don’t want to know. I’d really like to recruit Gaizka Larrazabal, 21 and a breakthrough prospect with Athletic Bilbao, but it’s clear he would rather quit football than bring his game to the English midlands. The gorgeously named Bright Oyasi-Samuel of QPR has no interest in signing for us and in any event his team would only ever let him personally refuse our overtures in return for a king’s ransom.

The trail eventually leads us to Hamburg SV in the German Second Division, and a 21 year old named Bakery Jatta who the scouts believe would be a superb acquisition. Better still the player is prepared to sign for us, though we pay handsomely for the privilege, handing £3 million to his club and spunking £33,500 on his weekly spends. All the same, it’s a problem solved. What can possibly go wrong with a player whose first name conjures up the best early morning aroma in human history?

Jozefzoon goes off on loan to SM Caen for the season, because there’s no time to find a permanent home for him. In the meantime I approach the disgruntled Tom Huddlestone and ask him what he thinks of the Jatta signing? He’s still unhappy, so much so that he now considers he and I to be mortal enemies. I don’t even get the chance to impress him when the January window comes around. As far as he’s concerned we’re done here. If these were nobler times it would be a glove across the face and pistols at dawn. The worry is that Huddlestone’s one of the side’s top influencers. I have Rooney’s support, but not his.

In my experience squad dynamics are just about as important as anything. It’s no surprise to have a group of players that’s ambivalent and even sceptical about me at this point in my career, but if they start turning against me then it’s going to be an uphill battle to bring them back onside. The obvious remedy is to go on a good run and earn my managerial spurs, persuade the players into thinking they may be going somewhere with me making the decisions. The next few games suddenly take on a critical quality. Win and Huddlestone’s personal enmity might not matter very much; hell, even he might feel better about working for me. Lose and the whole house of cards could collapse…

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August 2019 - Bittersweet Victory

After the draw against Huddersfield there’s a collective feeling that we can do better. Next up are Swansea City at home, my first opportunity to prove I have what it takes before the Derby fans at Pride Park. It’s nearly a capacity crowd on this pleasant August afternoon. I name almost the same starting eleven, what I believe to be my best available line-up, with the obvious change of replacing the on-loan Jozefzoon with new signing Bakery Jatta. From the start we’re into them, attacking hard, pressing and choking the life out of any rhythm they try to produce. This is good work. The Swans are at least decent, with a couple of players valued at over £10 million, including Andre Ayew on their right wing, and exciting Liverpool loanee Rhian Brewster in attack. We do everything but score a goal. Our set pieces are threatening, designed to give Clarke and Milosevic shooting chances, while Baker in midfield is enterprising without currently having an end product.

In the 25th minute their keeper Woodman punts the ball towards Bidwell, only it’s intercepted by Jatta, who beats the full-back from the halfway line, dribbles up the pitch and into the area, and finally unleashes a strike that smacks satisfyingly into the top corner. It’s a cracker of a goal, from a player who already looks exciting and will hopefully develop into something special. And that’s the game’s highlight. I keep things positive, determined to keep Swansea on the back foot, and it works. They have a handful of shots, only one of which is on target, while we put them to the sword throughout. Only once do we come close to doubling our lead quite late on, when Rodon’s sloppy clearance finds Baker on the edge of the area, who shoots just wide of the post. Despite the scoreline it’s dominant stuff from the Rams, a very decent start before our home fans.

We’re at home again for the visit of Fleetwood Town in the Carabao Cup First Round. The board want us to make it as far as the third phase, and I agree that cup games are a potential money spinner for the club. We have a big squad; time perhaps to dip into it for what ought to be a straightforward affair against League One opposition. Before the game their manager, professional thug wannabe Joey Barton, suggests an upset might be on the cards. Their side is filled with veterans like Ched Evans and 35 year old Glenn Murray, and they sit in first place, so they do indeed have the experience and some ability, but do they have the legs?

In my dealings with the press I aim not to upset the apple cart. I have a 100% attendance record with the media, remain calm and try to make out we’re all great mates beneath the surface, even if in reality I could barely care what they think. Only once have I used these occasions to slag off a fellow professional, when I had a pop at Mido for some reason or other, mainly because in my opinion the bloke’s a c**t. Otherwise I adopt the Steve McClaren approach of speaking a lot and saying very little, all my real talking done on the pitch, which is just how it should be. Fortunately for me, Derby isn’t like managing Manchester United. Whereas in that game they solicited my opinion about pretty much everything at Old Trafford – Mr Side, Mr Side, Pep Guardiola has been praising the colour blue very heavily; given his reaction what’s your favourite colour? – here they aren’t all that bothered.

For the vast majority of this tie it goes to form. Despite making a number of changes and starting with my enemy, Tom Huddlestone, we’re simply a lot better than Fleetwood. This is underlined when Huddlestone scores in the 12th minute, a volleyed shot from the edge of the D after he’s there to collect Lawrence’s head-down. The rest of the first half contains many more attempts from us, but no addition to our account, and it takes until the hour mark for us to make it 2-0 when Troy Parrott slots home his first following a messy clearance by the opposition keeper. Barton orders his team to show more passion, prowling his technical area with pursed lips and clenched fists in a way that suggests there may be violence in store for his players if they don’t improve. Ched Evans pulls one back for them in the 68th minute. Shinnie is warned for a foul, giving them a free kick 30 yards out. Connolly takes it, lashing in a defence splitting ball collected by the striker for the most prosaic of goals. It’s the sort of routine, training ground practised effort that has me using the last of my substitutions to bring on Milosevic for Schuurs, for me the defender who looks most overawed by the occasion.

But that’s about it from them. The Fishermen commit to fouls and unsportsmanlike play in lieu of the talent gap, and at one point I’m forced to remove Jatta for an ankle injury that fortunately turns out to be only bruised and not too serious. We have a chance very late to put a third past Cairns, but Holmes shoots concerningly wide from a point-blank position. We have to take the 2-1, a result I find a little disappointing considering our clear superiority, and I tell the lads exactly that. Being a bunch of Snowflakes they naturally aren’t happy with my feedback, and I’m made to haul Huddlestone into my office because he’s annoyed about my negativity. This I see as an opportunity to get a player who’s opposed to me back onside, so I offer to be a bit more positive in the future, and that gets the desired reaction.

It’s a frustrating evening on the whole, one where we could have truly laid into Fleetwood and perhaps dragged more supporters to the ground in the future (we don’t even get 12,000 for this encounter). The encouraging signs are that a side containing five changes from the Swansea match prevailed and in places looked very good, with Huddlestone and George Evans particularly impressing me. Parrott scored, which is a handy monkey to get off the young striker’s back. We dominated with 67% possession and 91% of our passes completed, indeed the only area where we were inferior was in headers won, which I’m aware is an Achilles heel within the side generally. Round Two will have us taking on Barnsley at Pride Park towards the end of the month, so barring a cock-up I feel we ought to at least satisfy the board’s requirements for this competition.

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August 2019 - Determination

The Derby save isn’t the only game I’m running on Football Manager. I’ve been coaching Manchester United in a save that’s been going since I first bought the 2020 edition, and at times when I’m not updating this one I go back to Old Trafford. 

My tendency with the more modern iterations of FM is to take over big clubs, usually teams that are bubbling under the title winning positions and with the potential to make that leap – it just takes my obvious spark of managerial genius to get everything clicking into place. Not for me the lower league start; I’ve played these beforehand, but in my experience they take up more time and I can’t be bothered to invest it anymore. Manchester United are a great team to try because they’re still in their post-Sralex slump. They have some really good players as a starting point, but the important factor is the pots of cash they’re willing to throw at a successful manager. In other words it’s a sandbox challenge, an opportunity to reshape the United ranks however you see fit.

A United save I'm playing is now in its third season. I’ve sacked off the likes of Smalling, Jones, McTominay, James and even Martial. The midfield is amended to the point that only Pogba of the original complement remains. He now plays alongside Tonali, Bentancur, Pellegrini and Berge. Chiesa and Sancho are my wingers, Erling Haaland my main goal threat with Rashford and Greenwood also on hand to help us get to the top. I’ve won two league titles, an FA Cup and the Europa League. We would have made the 2021 Champions League final but for a bit more luck – we won the first leg of the semi against Barcelona 2-0, but a couple of late injuries in the away tie had us playing with ten men and that’s when Messi and the lads struck back.


As you can probably tell I don’t rush through my saves. I like to scrutinise and ponder over things, analyse where things went wrong and, yes, slap my own back in imaginary interviews when it’s all going my way. But the United and Derby games very different beasts. The former are so well resourced that I can pretty much weed out who I no longer want at will, knowing I’ll be able to replace them with better players. The money means I can even explore the mentality of potential signings to make sure I can end up with a determined group. This, I think, is important. The dream is to have a squad that is similarly hungry for honours to United’s 1999 treble winning team. Those of you who are old enough to remember them should recall their fierce will to win, the sheer nerve that meant no matter how beaten they seemed to be you couldn’t keep your eyes off them for a moment. This was a team that was 3-1 down on aggregate to Juventus in Turin during the second leg of their Champions League semi-final, only to roar back with three goals to clinch their place in the showpiece, let alone losing 1-0 to Bayern going into injury time during the final…

The rest is of course history. Mentality is one of those hidden factors that matters so much. Contrast this team with Arsenal, particularly after The Invincibles season. Think of some of the ballers Arsene Wenger had to play with. What a hell of a side that was – Henry, Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg, Reyes, Flamini, Fabregas, Van Persie, Toure, Campbell, and their funky mates – and they could have gone on to dominate football, only the focus changed. What seemed to matter were the game’s aesthetics, producing glorious examples of beautiful football while the results and honours slipped away.

I can’t affect those quick changes that make all the difference at Pride Park. I just can’t afford to, neither are the ‘right-minded’ players happy to sign up. Can you blame them? They’re determined, and they see a team that’s happily bummed around the upper mid-table of the Championship without actually making the final push for so long. What’s in it for them? It makes having Wayne Rooney such a boon. He’s from the Old Trafford stable of born winners, willing and able to keep going when there are seconds left on the clock. We have a few others like him, but too many are more balanced in their personalities. ‘Balanced’ is fine, it’s nice even, but when you’re going into the final ten minutes, the scoreline’s 0-0 and the result really matters, can you depend on these people?

So that’s the long-term challenge, obviously if I’m allowed to stay here and make the changes needed. Mentally, they’re a decent bunch. Their sense of vision, off the ball work and flair play are rated highly within the division, however we aren’t very brave, and our critical determination levels are good enough to be 22nd, which isn’t good at all. If league tables depended on this we’d be relegated. It needs to improve.

Back to the game, and our weekend tie away to Stoke City. You will recall that team morale is currently on a knife edge. I had a run-in with Tom Huddlestone, who hates me, over my positivity about team performances. My view is to push this lot, to not accept anything less than full commitment, which personally I thought was somewhat lacking in our victory over Fleetwood, but he feels all that matters was that the game was won and the players deserved a collective pat on the head, perhaps a lollipop for being big, brave boys. My reaction is to pick Huddlestone for Stoke; either he’ll play his heart out and prove me wrong, or he’ll turn out to be exactly the over the hill ball of mediocrity that I suspect he is ahead of selling him in January.

The Potters are 19th. They should be much higher than that, given their status as a relegated team and their determination to hold on to much of their squad. Ryan Shawcross is injured, which should be that bit better for my prospects of keeping my players free from injury, but they can still call on the likes of Barreto, Allen, Ince and Clucas, and they have Jack Butland between the sticks, for my money the best keeper at this level. Jatta’s knock against Fleetwood means he isn’t as fit as I would like and can only make the bench, and I start Duane Holmes, who is lacking match sharpness. Frank Lampard warns me to respect Tom Ince. I respectfully suggest he should invest his time in looking after his own team – it’s a bit like being Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, and having my illustrious predecessor Tony Blair constantly offering advice and reminders of better times when he was in charge. Sod off, mate.

The first half ends with us 1-0 up. Quality overall is lacking, if I’m honest, but Stoke seem happy to produce lightweight attacks and let us push at them. They’re dependent on the talents of Butland, which is just about enough to keep us out as we make the majority of the play. Shortly before the break, Alexander Milosevic heads us in front from a Baker corner, the sort of set piece move we’ve worked on to death in training.

The only real negative is having to replace Bielik with Milosevic due to a suspected injury. Otherwise I’m able to tell the boys not to get complacent, ensuring this is framed like a plea and not a demand because I don’t want to upset their little feelings. If this was a Premier League match I would be spending the second half biting my fingernails in anticipation of a reaction from the opposition, but here there’s very little to worry about and we can keep playing the way we did before half-time. Ince is marshalled out of making any kind of difference by Rooney and elsewhere they’ve the collective strength and force of powder puff. We even add a second in the 86th minute. A Stoke throw-in deep inside their half is intercepted by Christie, who finds Rooney. He plays it sideways to Baker, who picks out Waghorn with an intelligent raking pass. The winger makes it nearly to the byline and cuts left to Lowe. The cross is made, meeting Parrott’s head who produces a knock down for the advancing Bakery Jatta (on at the expense of the knackered Holmes). Criminally unmarked, the German has the entire net at his mercy and makes no mistake. Excellent. There’s time for a bit of a scare moments later when Verlinden heads in a reply, only to be ruled offside but still enough for me to ask the players to waste time and play more cautiously. All the same, 2-0 at the evocatively named bet365 is a fine result. I tell the lads exactly that, and I mean it too.

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August 2019 - Of Baggies and Bees

I’m aware how slowly this game is moving, glacial even by my standards, and so this post is dedicated to closing out August and the four remaining matches that feature within it.

Fixtures come thick and fast at this level. We have three days to prepare for another tough tie at home to Bristol City, and it seems only sensible to give the players a day off from training to recover their fitness. The transfer window is closed in England but still open within Europe as a whole. I wonder if anyone will improve on Manchester City’s £41 million splurge on former Arsenal defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin; I mean, what sort of world is it where Le Coq is king? Brizzle will be without Korey Smith and Jay Dasilva, two English players who are pretty good by Championship standards. We still have no Wisdom, Bogle or Bird, and the physio team isn’t even bothering to discuss Anya, who’s still a long way away (in more ways than one). City are strong opposition. Lee Johnson has been in charge for four years, an eternity at this level, and seems to be in a spiral of perpetually building his side for success. They can call on Nakhi Wells, Tomas Kalas and Henri Saivet, the latter a player we scouted with a semi-serious view to drafting him in.

I feel as though we needn’t have worried as we go 2-0 up in the first ten minutes. Both goals arise from breaking up the Robins’ play. For the first, Benkovic and Williams are faffing about with the ball and allow Troy Parrott to pinch it from them. With only the keeper to beat, he slots the ball into the corner. Two minutes later Lewis Baker opens his account with a delightful volley, again arising from City meandering in possession. I’m sat on my bench thinking football is so very easy, and for much of the half it is, until Kasey Palmer pulls one back in the 27th minute from a corner we fail to deal with, which is enough to put me back in my place. Strangely enough the reply appears to be enough to make the away team think they’ve done their jobs for the evening. Time for a half-time brew, perhaps? We make it 3-1 with 70 minutes on the clock when Krys Bielik nets from close range at the culmination of a messy goalmouth tangle following a Baker free-kick, and that turns out to be the final result. It’s a tie that statistically looks fairly even, a similar amount of possession and a comparative shot count, but either through more incisive attacking or just wanting it more we have a fairly straightforward outing. I even have the luxury of taking Rooney off for the last quarter or an hour to save his precious legs.

We have the early televised match on Saturday, at home for the considerable challenge of West Bromwich Albion. Tipped for promotion and managed by Slaven Bilic, they bring a squad of highly valued players that includes unlikely England international Jake Livermore and onetime future hot prospect Charlie Austin, a £4 million summer signing after he failed to make the step up. There seems to be an optimistic mood in the dressing room before the game, a consequence of our good start, and when I tell the players I expect them to pick up from where they left off they appear to show signs of being motivated by my words.

It’s at times like these you know you’re in for a rough session. Bakery Jatta shows off the darker side of his game when he clatters two footed into the back of Kieran Gibbs in the first few minutes. That earns him a dismissal and puts us on the back foot for the rest of a long, long match. Long before Semi Ajayi gets their goal from a corner, West Brom have mounted attack after attack and we’ve collected a further five bookings. Discipline has been thrown out of the window. When I should be urging them to focus I’m instead begging the players to calm down.

In the second half Lawrence comes off for Duane Holmes, who can at least add some balance by moving into the middle. Jack Marriott is introduced for Parrott and we show a little bit more adventure. A couple of Marriott shots give Sam Johnstone a chance to earn his keep, whilst at our end Montipo pulls off a few heroics to keep it 1-0. But there isn’t a lot what can do to get anything from the match. The Baggies know they can exploit our weakness on the flanks, build on their wide superiority all afternoon, and on a more incisive day could have caused further damage.

Derby were top of the table before this debacle, but a complete programme of Championship action shuffles us back down to reality and into sixth place. We’re on the same number of points (ten) as Leeds, Middlesbrough, Blackburn, Fulham and Barnsley, and by chance it’s the latter we’ll be taking on for our midweek Carabao Cup clash.

Despite Barnsley’s good start I see this one as an opportunity for some squad rotation. I don’t do this for fun. Rooney, Baker and Clarke are feeling the impact of our constant cycle of games and could use the rest. Holmes remains short of match fitness, so Lawrence starts outside his natural position on the right wing; Waghorn comes in to play the left-hand side. The Tykes’ main threat comes from central midfielder Alex Mowatt, who’s scored twice from his five appearances. They field pretty much their best eleven, which makes sense but also means they have some tired legs out there. We’re relatively fresh in comparison, which emphasises the deeper pool of players I have to work with.

And it works! The only downside is a knee injury to George Knight that instantly removes him from the field of play; fortunately it’s just twisted rather than incurring worse damage and he should be available again within a week. Otherwise we put three past Brad Collins in a first half blitz. I put this down to superior quality and fitness, and of course superb management. The assault starts after quarter of an hour. Lawrence’s corner is cleared from the area, but only out to Max Lowe who’s marauding down the left wing. Totally unmarked, the full-back is able to place his shot – a rare treat from the ever-present Lowe. Twelve minutes later, Lawrence steals the ball from Cobbaut and finds Jack Marriott, the striker shrugging off the unromantic attentions of Sollbauer to shoot past Collins. I’m pleased for Marriott, the forward whose effectiveness has been dulled by injury. Martyn Waghorn makes it 3-0 from the spot when Baker is bundled over clumsily by Ludewig in the area.

A very pleasing evening’s bit of business, and we learn we’ve avoided the big boys in the third round to be tied away to Luton. This cup run could have a little more life in it yet.

August closes with a journey down to the Big Smoke to take on Brentford. The Bees are a promotion possibility and have spent a truckload in attempting to underwrite their bid. A cool £27.5 million has been lashed out on the best part of a whole new team. Pontus Jansson, Ethan Pinnock and Bryan Mbuemo are the pick of their arrivals as they boost their credentials. They’re currently in second place, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see them stay in the upper echelons throughout the campaign. So it’s a tough one we’re anticipating, a game in which Andre Wisdom could technically take part after recovering from injury, though no doubt his match fitness will be awful. Rushian Hepburn-Murphy has a thigh strain and can’t be used. Nobody sees this as a massive loss. As we prepare for the game I discover that Manuel Ugarte, for whom we once had a work permit application turned down, has been signed by Sevilla. His loss, though the move suggests he belongs in a higher tier than we could offer him.

Jatta has been banned for a further two matches, which robs us of his services for this one and for Cardiff at the end of the international break. Parrott, picked for possibly his first Republic of Ireland cap at the tender age of 17, is back in the line-up, while at the other end of the international scale the much-needed Rooney makes his return.

At the break we’re 1-0 ahead. Max Lowe has scored another special – clearly you leave a left-back unmarked at your peril as he lashes home his second powerhouse in consecutive matches. The Bees have had slightly the better of it elsewhere in a closely fought tie between evenly matched sides, nothing less than you’d expect from an ambitious team playing before their home fans. We’re anticipating a second half onslaught, but I’m reticent about becoming too cautious. Instead we put a second past Raya when Martyn Waghorn heads in Christie’s crossed ball. Brentford have their chances, but they can’t find a way past Bieliek, Milosevic and Montipo and they’re struggling to find any rhythm with our press working well. All I need to do is time waste more often, play carefully and replace lads who are looking knackered. 2-0 is a fantastic final scoreline and underlines a very positive start to the season.


The table makes for good reading. Derby are third, and if we can maintain anything like this form then we will be able to reflect on a good season indeed. Remember, the target is mid-table so we are presently bucking the odds and this is mirrored on the board’s praise in their end of the month meeting:


Even the squad dynamics make for good reading – Tom Huddlestone no longer sees himself as my enemy (calloo callay, etc) and of the 27-man squad 14 support me and 13 have no real opinion, so things are moving in the right direction. September contains just three league games, plus the Luton cup match, and in the meantime all we need to do is get through the Interlull without suffering further injuries. Yeah, good luck with that.

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September 2019 - Our Boys Take One Hell of a Beating

Both in real life and on Football Manager I don’t enjoy international breaks very much. Like most people I’m more a club man than in thrall to my country, and while I appreciate the matches played by England contribute to their appearance at tournaments, which I love, I’d far rather be following my team’s fortunes during this period.

In the game, I find the fortnight of no football to be quite dull, a case of clicking through the days, coupled with biting my fingernails over hopes that the players won’t get themselves injured whilst on duty. The following Rams from our first team have been called up:

  • Jamaica: Andre Wisdom
  • Poland Under-21s: Krystian Bielik
  • Republic of Ireland: Cyrus Christie and Troy Parrott
  • Republic of Ireland Under-21s: Jason Knight
  • Sweden: Alexander Milosevic
  • Wales: Tom Lawrence

I’m especially pleased for Troy, 17 years old and facing the possibility of winning his first cap, but I confess I find the whole period quite stressful. Each news item that arrives during this time is something I instantly think will be the report of a six month layoff for a vital player… Instead I pore through scouting recommendations, mostly for League One standard players when I could really use a missing link, that final mythical piece in the jigsaw. I discard details of anyone over the age of 25, and ask for further scouting and analytical details on the others.

Max Lowe gets a new contract, which he absolutely deserves after nailing down his place at left-back and also for scoring a couple of goals recently. It’s a reminder for me to review who in the first team is in their last year. There are three – Huddlestone, Anya and Olsson. I couldn’t care less about the latter two, but Tom might be useful to keep around. At 32 he’s no longer the young firebrand, the midfield tyro who started his career here before taking in lengthy spells at Spurs and Hull, and I think it will take some careful monitoring of his ability levels, to see if any decline is setting in, before making a decision. Perhaps he’ll take a pay cut to stick around.

Our home game against Cardiff City is under the Friday Night Lights, the lights of the Sky Sports cameras that is. You’ll recall our previously televised match was a slow torture session against West Brom after Jatta got himself sent off in the first five minutes. We’re hoping to produce a better performance for the millions, erm, thousands, um, hundreds of viewers this time around. Jatta’s serving the last of his suspended games so Duane Holmes starts on the right wing. Clarke replaces Bielik as the young Pole returns to us knackered from his international adventures. The same’s true for Troy Parrott, so Jack Marriott is in the first eleven. Andre Wisdom is set for his first start of the season at right-back after completing his recovery from injury.

My recognition of any Bluebirds talent is more through familiarity. Three of their starters are former Boro players – left-back and former Academy star, Joe Bennett, hulking centre back Aden Flint and Albert Adomah, a crowd favourite who plays on the wing. They also have Alex Smithies in goal. Gamers of older FM editions will recall him as a good English youngster with the potential to develop into a fine keeper, potentially his country’s best. These days, he’s settled back into a decent second tier goalie, which is probably about right.

In the eighth minute, Baker comes away with the ball from a midfield tussle and finds Jack Marriott, who slots the ball beneath Smithies for a well placed opener. I make the mistake of thinking this lot are here for the taking, an error of judgement underlined when Robert Glatzel equalises after a further quarter of an hour as he heads in Bennett’s cross. Cardiff have the better of it for the rest of the half, a torrid affair when they trouble us on the wings again and again, Lowe suffering especially as a consequence of thinking of his thousands rather than concentrating on the game. He’s hooked at half-time, and we start gaining the ascendancy once again. But there’s nothing we can do to win the match. The visitors have a height advantage and they use it, and I’m left to reflect on the paucity of our resources. We’re crying out for someone to replace Waghorn on the left wing, who isn’t having the best of outcomes. Normally I’d swap him out for Lawrence, but he’s already replaced Holmes, the American having an even poorer afternoon.

So it’s a drawn game, a result that sends us to the top of the Championship but only for a day as the main programme puts us back in our place. There’s the small matter of an away day at Leeds United next. The title contenders have leapfrogged us by winning 1-0 away at Barnsley, and there’s little doubt this will be among the tougher tests we’ll face this season. Marcelo Bielsa and his bloody bucket… They have no injury concerns, while we can only have Graeme Shinnie on the bench when he suffers a twisted knee in midweek during an effort to reach for his TV remote. At least I can recall Jatta, and Parrott is now fit enough to start again.

I come into this one thinking we are due a bit of a hiding. We’ve been okay so far, but there’s been a fair amount of riding our luck coupled with the standard in the Championship not being very high. Leeds are promotion challengers for a reason. They can really play, and I don’t consider myself to be especially innovative in picking out Kalvin Phillips as their main threat. A bit like when Ruben Neves was playing at this level with Wolves, he quite clearly belongs in the top tier.

We go ahead very early when Troy Parrott heads Baker’s cross beyond Casilla, but this just rouses the Whites into action. By the 20th minute they are 3-1 ahead, the third especially annoying as it results from defensive mix-ups and Helder Costa being on hand to take advantage. The match quickly turns into a horror show. We look sluggish, half a yard slower than our opponents, conceding a soft fourth before the break while at the other end they defend like dogs to keep us out. For the first time this season we don’t look very good, coming off distinctly second best, chasing shadows, and as though we have deceived everyone by masquerading as footballers and we’re only now being found out. All we win during that first period is the bookings count, as we collect three swift yellows to imply a breakdown in discipline that fortunately doesn’t quite tip over the edge.

There’s little else to do but try to limit the damage, bringing off the worst of our offenders – Waghorn, Huddlestone, Milosevic – and at least trying to approach the second period in a positive frame of mind. It goes about as well as it can really. We venture out of our own half a little more often and even string a few passes together without being harried off the ball, but Leeds press better than we do and there’s precious little fluency in our game. The crowning moment comes when Costa is in possession in our penalty area and is bundled over rather unnecessarily by Wisdom, who looks terrified and as though he wishes he was still injured. It’s an easy penalty shout, an even simpler effort by Mateusz Klich to send Montipo the wrong way, and it produces a 5-1 scoreline, which turns out to be the final result.

Ahead of the cup game away to Luton Town, I single out Tom Lawrence as the player most in decline. He started the season well and usurped Waghorn in the line-up but has been poor recently, and for a player earning £30,000 per week I expect a lot better. Thankfully he accepts the bollocking, as we all attempt to regroup from the Elland Road bum-rape and advance in the Carabao.

It turns out to be good enough. The Hatters are what we were against Leeds – game but essentially inferior – and we win 2-0. Tom Lawrence takes on board my words to him by putting on a ‘poor man’s Bale’ show, scoring himself before turning provider when he provides the assist for Scott Malone’s second. I’m particularly pleased for the full-back, who hasn’t appeared for us before this match as I felt he was so much poorer than Max Lowe. The fun stuff happens in the first half. After the break we can do the footballing equivalent of placing an outstretched palm on much littler Luton’s forehead and inviting them to lay a punch on us. They can’t.

Before rounding off September with Birmingham at Pride Park, we learn who we will take on in the fourth round. It’s Manchester United at home. At last, the glamour tie we advanced this far in the hope of making. As for predicting how it will work out, I think back to the Leeds shellacking and the immortal words of Mr T, and I can only see pain.

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September/October 2019 - Daylight Robbery

September hasn’t been kind to to Rams. After a promising August we have drawn against Cardiff and were then bent over and soundly spanked off of Leeds. I still have nightmares about Leeds. Without wishing to blow mine own trumpet, teams I manage don’t normally receive an ass whuppin’ but that’s just what it was, the kind of result I should be used to as a Middlesbrough fan, however it never gets comfortable. We need a win, and the arrival of Birmingham City at Pride Park might just provide one. Come on lads, let’s end the month on a high!

By now I’m beginning to get a reasonable fix on who can and can’t be trusted. Huddlestone is on the bench. Jayden Bogle has finally returned from injury and gets to start ahead of Andre Wisdom, who has had a couple of shockers and yet expects to be considered a regular starter. The Brummies play Lee Camp in goal. The perennial Championship standard keeper is now 35 and must have had spells with almost every second division side at some point in his run of 516 (to date) league appearances. He actually started out with us, though he left in 2007 and is on his eighth club since then. Elsewhere Harlee Dean (sounds like a DC Comics character) is a good centre back, Ecuadorian Jefferson Montero plays on their left wing, and there’s a Boro connection in the presence of non-scoring striker Lukas Jutkiewicz.

We are a goal ahead after eight minutes. Lowe, who’s playing much better now that his place in the team is at risk (it isn’t really, but a rocket up the backside never hurts), beats Collin for pace and cuts the ball across goal for Bakery Jatta, whose marker is clearly enjoying an afternoon off because he gets a free header and makes no mistake. If I have concerns that this will turn into another debacle a la Elland Road, then there’s no need to worry. The Blues have a lot of possession but anyone can fanny around on the ball in their own half. They lack any kind of bite, Schuurs and Milosevic enjoying a quiet game, and we get the more biting attacks, running at City’s defence with some ease but worryingly not pressing our advantage… Until much later, with about ten minutes to go, when Baker’s free kick from the left flank deep in opposition territory could be met by anyone among a sea of bodies but in fact ends up in the net courtesy of Alex Milosevic’s noggin.


About as simple a 2-0 win as you’re likely to see. The fans are happy. I’m happy. Let’s be honest you’re happy too, right? The table puts us in fifth place, one ahead of what the sainted Lampard achieved in 2018/19. We will do well to end the campaign in the playoff picture, but then you could say that about a number of sides that are up there. Brentford, West Brom and Forest are too good to be anywhere other than in the frame; I expect to see them stage a resurgence before too long. If I thought the Derby board would be cross about Leeds and let the result colour their thinking, then I would be wrong:


An unbelievable job, huh? My feeling is that it doesn’t take too much to impress Mel Morris and his fellow Farts of the Old variety. 16 of the 27 players now support me. Their ranks include Mr Huddlestone, and what I figured would be a season-long battle of wills finished rather tamely in the end. It’s amazing what the search for a new contract will make you do and feel, right?

We enter a heavy October schedule that contains six fixtures and a two-week international break. Time perhaps to cryogenically freeze the players in between matches to ensure a fit squad. None of the league ties look overly threatening, but there’s a small commitment with Manchester United at the end of the month that we’re looking forward to with a combination of anticipation and dread. Ole has guided the Red Devils to third, tucked in behind City and league leaders Chelsea, who are yet to drop a single point. The Lampard touch continues to weave its magic.

Promoted Barnsley at their South Yorkshire home of Oakwell are next. I tend to think of the Terriers as the perennial second tier outfit but they’ve actually been a bit more up and down than that and have paid their dues in League One a couple of times in recent years. Back up and managed by Gerhard Struber, they’re enjoying a promotion bounce and are on the same number of points as ourselves, but theirs isn’t a squad with the same kind of depth as we enjoy and I feel if we can keep Ritzmaier and Mowatt busy then we will cut off their main threats. All the same, they’re doing well and I need to respect them by naming a strong side. At the weekend we will have Luton at home ahead of the fortnight’s break, so this is the one to treat seriously.

Before a three-quarters full ground they’re a lot stiffer than they were when we beat them in the Carabao at Pride Park. The same limitations apply however. They play a diamond formation that relies on their two good midfielders breaking wide and causing problems. Wisdom and Lowe are in fine fettle though, and in the meantime we get to overload the numbers in central midfield, Rooney, Shinnie and Baker controlling things and looking for openings. Schuurs and Bielik deal with Woodrow and the nippy Brown capably enough; it’s good to see both defenders improving so quickly.

The first half is a stalemate. Barnsley can’t break us down and we are probably playing too conservatively to hit back at them. At half-time I gamble and tell the boys to adopt a more attacking approach. Despite their good league position they look ripe for the plucking, but as it is the two goals we put past them turn out to be pretty special. For the first Max Lowe spots Collins some way off his line and tries a shot from distance that loops over the flailing keeper and into the net. We’re into the last ten minutes when Parrott finds Tom Lawrence in a central position just outside the area. In a cheeky mimic of a better Welsh player he hooks one in from where he’s stood, the sort of attempt that could make him look a bit silly but instead flies gracefully into the bottom corner.

2-0 doesn’t flatter us. It reflects the difference in quality, the false position of Barnsley in the playoff picture, and for that matter our elevation into third place, though we will more than take it for the time being.

The pre-break fixture has us playing Luton Town at home. Like Barnsley the Hatters have enjoyed a good start to the season and are in sixth, and the similarities continue with the fact they have (i) just been promoted (ii) been beaten by us already in the Carabao Cup. We have good reason to think that we’ll do well in this one. Everything is set up for a winning afternoon’s entertainment, and the supporters clearly agree because we play to a near-capacity crowd.

So of course nothing goes right. The end of the first half is 0-0 and the match statistics look like this:


I regret the changes I made, the decision to hand Max Bird his first start in defensive midfield and push Rooney alongside Baker; the replacement of an ailing Parrott for Marriott. But there was nothing wrong with those moves; the statistics bear out my sense that we have enjoyed a good half of football. Luck hasn’t been on our side and Marriott has missed a couple of chances that Parrott might have put away. Worse still, we win a penalty that Wayne Rooney – the most sure-footed choice imaginable – thwacks against a goalpost.

The feeling that it’s going to be ‘one of those days’ is underlined by Luton going ahead early in the second half. This is their one significant attack of the whole match. Sonny Bradley hammers home from a rare Hatters corner, and a degree of desperation creeps into our game. I urge the players forward. Parrott comes on. Rooney is removed, which just shows the sort of game he’s having – Note to self: don’t move him from defensive midfield ever again – and we finally conjure up an equaliser in the 79th minute. Tom Lawrence saves our bacon, another luscious strike from the edge of the D that makes him appear to have had a much better outing than the rather meandering display he’s put on prior to that moment.

I think Luton will collapse at that point. Surely, you can only take the kind of pressure we’re applying for so long, right? As it is the Derby Massive seem to have tacitly agreed 1-1 is about as good as it’s going to get. We try still, but the urgency we were showing up to that moment has gone. This one’s done. And just like that, a side we beat away from home comfortably less than two weeks ago have snatched a point at Pride Park. Personally I’ve witnessed bank heists that were less of a robbery than what’s unfolded here.

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October 2019 - Points Dropped

It might only be October, but this is the time to start scouting players ahead of the January transfer window. Who do we want? Who’ll go?

In reality I’m secretly happy enough with the size and shape of our squad. Each position has a good(ish) player and a decent (more or less) alternative choice, so from here we are looking at developing the team’s overall quality. Now that I’ve been here longer than three months I am starting to form lists of the must-keep players, the ‘please leave now’ crowd, and those who are in between the two posts. It looks a bit like this:


Obviously I haven’t included any of the loanees in this list, of whom there are six. Christie is here until the transfer window and his purpose for being in the squad is no longer applicable. I would terminate the agreements for Hamer and Hepburn-Murphy myself if I could. Clarke and Parrott are great but won’t stay, and that leaves Perr Schuurs, the young Dutchie who we can sign permanently for £6 million. He’s making a good case for being worth the outlay, yet it’s a significant sum of money and I’m reticent for now.

Sifting beneath the names of great players whose contracts are winding down and would no doubt sooner retire than come here – Modric, Silva, Chiellini, Cavani – we reach the hinterland, the clutch of potentially available names on whom we are keeping avaricious tabs. There’s Pedro Chirivella, currently bumming around Liverpool Under-23s who could be the long-term replacement for Rooney. Aubrey Modiba is a 24 year old full-back who plays his international football for South Africa and at club level with SuperSport United. We could answer a defensive question or two with Wolves’ Max Kilman, 22 years old and with a couple of substitute appearances in the Premier League. The scouts reckon Kilman has no interest in joining us, but that’s just because he hasn’t got to know us yet.

In the meantime, the Interlull rumbles on with little happening beyond some minor scrapes. Troy Parrott is only good enough for the Ireland Under-21s this time – hopefully an easier ride for him, while Alexander Milosevic is dropped from the Sweden side, which personally I find a little on the harsh side.

Action resumes with a visit to the Valley and promoted Charlton Athletic, currently slap bang in last place having accumulated 5 (five) points all season. That things aren’t going well for them is underlined by the fact a quarter of the 13,500 crowd is made up of our fans, never a good look for a team playing at home. Once the match starts we get to find out why. The Addicks will contribute well enough, but it would take an effort laced with incompetence and ill fortune for us to mess up here, and we don’t with a 3-0 victory. The key to it is possession. The home team don’t like being pressed; it makes them cough up the ball, attempt panicky wayward passes that invariably hand control to us, and we take advantage. We open in the 36th minute when Bogle’s throw-in on the right finds Marriott, who dashes almost unchallenged to the by-line and crosses for Martyn Waghorn’s headed goal. Shortly after the break, Charlton are struggling to clear the ball from their own half. They’re trying to play out of defence, something for which they don’t appear to have the ability, quite honestly. Lowe robs possession from Hemed and crosses for Bakery Jatta, who like Waghorn has a simple header to make. Max Lowe’s not done. He collects a lovely cross-field ball from Rooney and, in space on the left, has time to play a diagonal shot that beats the keeper completely.

So it’s a lovely and easy win, about as straightforward as they get at this level, though it’s not very often we’ll be gifted the points as kindly as we are here. For their part Charlton resort to being outmatched in classic style by using violence. The cards fly with the increased ferocity and frustration of their tackling. This does for Tom Lawrence, the showboating winger who is clattered into clumsily and hard by ageing defender Douglao, and is stretchered off with what turns out to be a broken foot. We’ve lost one of our best players for up to four months; the only thing we can do is send him to the specialist and plan for life without him for a significant period. Time for Waghorn to make the decisive step up, and I’m perhaps fortunate that I can promote 18 year old Morgan Whittaker from the youth team to provide support.

The midweek home tie against Wigan Athletic is the month’s ‘Luton Town’. It’s one we ought to be winning with little sweat exerted and some ease, but it ends 0-0, a reflection of our complete failure to break down a limited side that’s happy to put all their players behind the ball. There’s little to the Latics. They know how to defend doggedly though, and for our part we approach it lazily, as though we expect to turn up and be handed the points in a nice envelope with a handwritten message from the opposition manager. Martyn Waghorn obviously chooses the occasion to produce his worst performance of the season, doing very little and making me appreciate just how long we are going to be without Tom Lawrence. To underline how bad this one is, Wigan even try to do us a favour by getting Dujon Sterling sent off for a second yellow, and we fail to take any kind of advantage.

It’s not the worst result we’ve ever produced, but it vexes me when a home win is on the cards and we turn out to lack the killer instinct required. The plus side is that we are ensconced in third place, five points off second but very much in the playoff picture still.

October’s last league commitment is a trip to the far side of the country to take on Hull City. There’s something about travelling east along the M62, passing exits to civilised places like Leeds, York and Pontefract, and feeling as though you’re going to end up driving straight into the North Sea, don’t you think? Nothing wrong with Hull, of course; it’s just this weird place that seems to exist at the very end of the world and speaking as someone from Teesside that’s something of a claim to make. Of course, there’s still the sight of the Humber Bridge to enjoy, this enormous edifice that looms impressively in the eyeline once you hit the city and can’t fail to stir the imagination.

In the last ten years Hull have been in the Premier League on three separate occasions. All have taken place since we were last up there, our relegation in 2007/08 – you’ll recall with some amusement, I’m sure, our complete collapse, ending the season with a record low 11 (eleven) points – marking our last stay and therefore leaving the opposition with a much prouder recent history than we can boast. After two matches in quick succession and Manchester United to come in midweek, I’m forced to make wholesale changes to the first eleven. Equally it’s tempting to throw this one, or at least be satisfied with an honourable draw away from home. The Tigers aren’t a bad side, though we’re fortunate that their best player, Jarred Bowen, has joined West Ham in the top flight and left them a jungle beast significantly without teeth.

Sure enough it’s goalless at half-time. We’ve been the better team, and Rooney is in a position to marshal things from his position in defensive midfield, but there’s a rustiness to our play. We miss Lewis Baker, who’s been tremendous so far. Marriott for Parrott is a poor and wasteful change. Malone at left-back is a retrograde step from the far deadlier Max Lowe. The second half is little better. I risk bringing on some of the starrier names from the bench, and Jatta scores in the 87th minute only for the goal to be ruled offside. It’s another 0-0, a respectable result but in my view two points dropped. Whittaker gets his first team debut when he comes on, which is nice. Knight demonstrates why he should be on borrowed time at Pride Park, and besides the defence only Rooney shines and is named Player of the Match. I expect it’s an irritating afternoon for him, this top flight legend who must feel as though he’s truly slumming it here. Put it this way, if aliens landed on earth and you wanted to show them video highlights of earth-bound entertainment, this match is at the opposite spectrum of what you would be screening for their titillation.


The end of the month Championship looks like this, with the Rams at the right end of the table but for my money drawing more often than I would like. The big positive is our defence, along with Leeds the stingiest in the division. Montipo is the best goalkeeper for achieving clean sheets, with eight. On the flip side, Yorkshire’s finest lead the table for goals scored with 31. We’ve racked up 19, which is good enough for ninth place.

I’m not entirely unhappy with this. It should be the first priority of any manager to keep things tight defensively. I’ve worked hard to shore up our resources at the back, spending heavily on a good keeper and adding two centre-backs who represent quality at this level. At the same time, the clear indication is that future work needs to be focused on boosting our attacking options. There are two games here that we really had no excuse not winning, as obvious a sign as you like that we lack bite in our forward areas, failing to break down teams that turn up with an aim to defend and getting away with it.

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October 2019 - Bouncing Busby Babes

Before we hit the Manchester United match I should share a secret with you. C’mere, this isn’t for anyone else to hear so I need to whisper it… I don’t want us to get promoted this season. There. I’ve said it.

No wait, there’s method in my madness. It’s something I’ve been dwelling on for a while. While I’m aware that Derby have lingered in the Championship for a long time and that our efforts to go up have taken on embarrassing proportions with celebrity managerial appointments and massive amounts of money spent, the simple reality is that I don’t think we’re good enough to survive a Premier League campaign. I look at the sides that are in the promotion picture and I can see some that clearly belong there, or at least are much closer than we are – Leeds are the obvious team, West Brom also, while Fulham, Forest and Stoke are in much better shape for prevailing in the top flight.

Currently we are some way short. If we somehow do go up in May I will have to spend a fevered summer spreading out the monies made available to me by the Board in signing players en masse, constructing almost an entirely new squad because that’s what it will take even to have the merest possibility of a chance. I don’t want to scare the fans but I don’t want to lie to them either. There are a few players who I think could cope, and you probably know yourself who they are without needing me to start listing names. But quality, specifically the quality required to produce anything better than weekly humiliations, is in short supply.

I see our promotion effort as, at an absolute minimum, a two-season job, and potentially something that will take three if it’s to be done properly. The entire point of spending a bit more on players like Baker, Montipo and Jatta has been to sign young stars with the potential to improve, ideally to become ready and capable once we make it to the promised land. I want to be able to do that again in summer 2020, maybe even extend that task to the following season, so that when we do make it back to where we belong we can give a good account of ourselves and make the supporters proud.

You look at the teams that have gone up in recent seasons and I think you see a pattern that separates those that stay and others hurtling straight back down. The likes of Bournemouth and Brighton were arguably half way there already when they went up, and could build on an existing fine squad that had the capacity to grow into its elevated climes. They didn’t lavish exorbitant sums to gamble on staying up; just about everything was there already. You get the occasional side like Wolves and Southampton who have no business being anywhere other than the Premier League. I see Leeds as being in that group also.

Then you get the other kind, Fulham and Aston Villa in recent years who go up, realise they aren’t good enough and go on mental spending sprees to try and become Premier League-ready. A number of seasons ago Boro made it back under Aitor Karanka and were in much the same boat. The promoted squad was based on good second tier players who would be instantly swamped in the top flight. So they did what anyone would and signed some stars. Negredo was here for a season. They spent heavily on Marten de Roon. Sure enough they were relegated at the first time of asking, because these few very good players were grafted on to a Championship squad that just wasn’t equipped to handle the yawning gulf in quality.

It makes my job a difficult one. As manager I obviously want to win as many games as possible. In 2018/19 Frank Lampard squeezed Derby into sixth place and then won an unlikely playoff semi-final over Leeds, the latter no doubt crushed after failing to go up automatically. So I should be looking to at least equal that achievement, and if that means staying loosely where we are in the table and showing promising signs that we are moving in the right direction then I’ve probably done a good year’s work. Achieve the dream at the first time of asking, however, and I think I’m right in anticipating a very tough season ahead of us.

Going up requires money. Lots of it, so matches like this – a showpiece against one of the largest clubs in the world – are essential, a licence to print cash that the Board will hopefully be generous enough to recycle back into squad building. For their part, United are third in the Premier League, having accumulated a proud 18 points from their first nine matches. That’s only good enough to put them six points behind the front runners, City and Chelsea neck and neck at the top of the tree. A jamboree summer of spending (£198 million out, £59 million in) has gifted them the considerable talents of Bruno Fernandes, so far their highest rated player. Anthony Martial is their leading scorer, and Juan Mata is high in the assist charts. All this softens the blow that they will likely lose Paul Pogba before too long. The self-appointed Rolls Royce midfielder, in my eyes a pampered prince, has requested a transfer and is available for £82 million. Paris Saint-Germain are very interested. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

On to Manchester United then, the biggest game of the season so far by some distance. Clearly we are coming into this one as underdogs, and to make matters worse Ole names a pretty strong team to face us. Martial is their striker, supported by Rashford and James on the wings, but it’s in central midfield where they are scariest, Bruno Fernandes lining up alongside Paul Pogba to form a partnership worth around £150 million. They’ve come to win, in other words, and they are prepared to respect us in their attempt, which says something.

I used a number of second stringers against Hull because I would really like to get a result here, or at the very least bow out having shown the best of what we can do. No one can knock you for losing when you’ve put everything into it, can they? But this one is pretty much settled as early as the second minute when Jayden Bogle is red carded for his tackle on Rashford. I’m watching the incident again and again – the guy got the ball. It’s a horribly harsh dismissal, I believe a booking at worst, but it forces me to remove Graeme Shinnie for Matt Clarke so that we at least have a functional defence. As though we haven’t been stymied enough, Bakery Jatta gets himself sent off for almost an identical offence shortly after, only this time he clatters into Rashford’s legs. It’s a clear case for taking an early bath and the referee doesn’t hesitate.

Bloody hell. Even with eleven men on the pitch we had an outside chance and needed to play cautiously. With ten the odds lengthen considerably, and now down to nine, with seventy minutes remaining on the clock, it’s going to be a turkey shoot and there’s nothing we can do apart from defend. Which we do. A lot. By the game’s (and I use the word ‘game’ very loosely at this point) close we have achieved the grand total of one shot on target. United have run us ragged, made Montipo’s life hard and only put two past him for a 2-0 away win. James and Rashford are the scorers.

So it is with a whimper that we exit the Carabao Cup. We’ve advanced a stage further than the board required and they are happy, and we enjoyed a capacity crowd, which will hopefully figure well on the balance sheet. But to go out like this, ill discipline to give ourselves no chance, is unforgivable. Jatta is fined a week’s wages for earning his second red card – no complaints from the German, just a promise to work harder on improving his aggression. I appeal against Bogle’s dismissal, which was very much the catalyst for what followed, but it’s rejected, quite unfairly I think. To add a note of black comedy, Bogle comes in to see me and demands a new contract. It’s difficult to swallow the non-family friendly words I really want to use in response; instead I say something about sorting it out in the summer.

We’re entering a five-game November without two first team players – heaven knows how long Jatta is going to be suspended for. He’s like our own version of Cantona, only shittier and without all the Gallic charisma. Without him we’ll be relying more heavily on Duane Holmes, a decent American winger but one who’s joints are held together with tissue paper. There’s a glimmer of good news with the physio’s report that Ikechi Anya is fit again, however here are the salient points from the coach’s report on him:


I don’t think I have ever seen the words ‘total collapse’ in relation to one of my own players before. Anya is considered the sixth best option we have for the right wing, behind several players who aren’t even naturals for the position. Although we could potentially use him in Jatta’s absence and with Lawrence out for months, I’m angry enough to transfer list the useless lump, and then I sit back, waiting for the offers to (absolutely not) come rolling in.

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November 2019 - One Out…

The two overriding aims for this season are league respectability and getting rid of deadwood players, and trying to do well in the cups… The three overriding aims for this season are league respectability, getting rid of deadwood players, and trying to do well in the cups, and achieving popularity with the DCFC board and fans… The FOUR overriding aims for this season… Oh, you get the general idea.

Certainly it’s a hope that I can trim the ranks a little, remove players who just have no future at Pride Park. The plan is to create enough room and capacity within the wage budget to replace them, to steadily bring in higher calibre stars who will help us for the final big push towards the top flight, whilst at the same time Derby is a renowned centre for producing good footballers and there’s a lot of potential here. Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe are young regular starters who are homegrown from within the club. Jason Knight and Max Bird have risen from the Academy and into the first team, and Tom Huddlestone is at the tail end of a lengthy career that started right here.

Scott Malone comes in to see me during this period to ask if he can be loaned out. The left-back isn’t getting as much football as he’s been promised, he argues, and he needs more time on the pitch. Ignoring the obvious (I’ve guaranteed him nothing), I suggest we look to sell him permanently and he agrees. He’s sad that it’s come to this, but he assents to hand in a transfer request. I’ve no idea why he’s down-hearted about it. The 28 year old will never be anything better than a squad player at this level. The coaches think his standard is more suited to the league below, so recouping much, let alone all, of his £1.3 million value will be a challenge. Sheffield Wednesday are sniffing, but not yet to the tune of putting their money where their beady eyes are.

Still, there’s no rush, nor is there any requirement to replace him if he does end up going in the January transfer window. We still have Marcus Olsson on the books, very much a fringe player and someone who we must use carefully – if he makes five league appearances he earns an automatic twelve month contract extension, which I would prefer to avoid. The ideal scenario is that Malone goes in a couple of months’ time, Olsson finishes in the summer and we give the back-up place to Lee Buchanan, who’s currently developing his talent on loan at Fleetwood.

You will recall at the end of October that I was hawking Ikechi Anya around with little hope of selling him. Well, blow me but Dundee FC make us an offer, a £130,000 bid that is a little short of his alleged value and will commit us into paying him £10,000 per week until the end of his Derby contract in June. I can’t bite their hands off quickly enough. The monies involved are negligible really, but Anya is ridiculously draining £28,000 a week from our coffers. If the Dark Blues like the look of a 31 year old Scottish winger who gets injured a lot, and if footballers on the verge of ‘total collapse’ bring them to the edge of orgasmic delight then who am I to deny them the pleasure? Incidentally I’ll hear nothing against Dundee. For anyone who thinks it’s just the surname of a cinematic Australian adventurer from the 1980s, or the answer to a quiz question about obscure former Liverpool signings, then I should retort that it’s the home of DC Thomson, the mighty publishing house responsible for birthing The Beano and The Dandy into the world. People of a certain age have a lot to thank them for.

When not flimflamming about player sales or continuing to garner an ‘A+’ rating by the Derby board, I’m managing the side through its match commitments. First up in November are Middlesbrough at home, a tie that has obvious sentimental meaning for me. Boro aren’t far behind us in the table. Jonathan Woodgate has them playing fine, expansive football, a tonic after the rather prosaic Tony Pulis era though they’re not really good enough to pull it off consistently. Nevertheless they have the better of the first half against us, while I keep an eye on possible future signings Lewis Wing and Marcus Tavernier, young midfield talents who could do a good job here if they aren’t priced out of our range. After respecting the opposition a bit too much I demand that we attack harder and more often, which pays off shortly after the break when Parrott finds Martyn Waghorn on the left, who evades Spence’s close attentions and shoots low past Stojanovic in the Boro goal. He makes it 2-0 in the 81st minute. A Rooney corner is met by Whittaker in the box. The winger, who’s on for the injured Holmes, shrugs off the attention of two markers and finds Huddlestone. His shot is parried, but the ball falls to Waghorn who makes no mistake from close range. There’s time for Patrick Roberts to pull one back, but the win is a relatively comfortable one.

The only downside is Duane Holmes having to withdraw after a nasty collision with Paddy McNair. I’ve complained before about the American winger’s paper-thin stamina. He incurs a groin injury that will rule him out for several weeks, the only saving grace being that McNair emerges with a knee problem that involves a similar period of rehabilitation. The timing is beautiful during Bakery Jatta’s period of suspension, though happily it turns out the additional matches he misses are for future League Cup ties only. That means we’ll have the German back for our trip to Nottingham Forest, and heck we’re gonna need him.

To the untrained eye there’s little that’s significant about Derby taking on Forest. We’re both Midlands outfits, but that’s about it, right? Wrong! This is the famous Brian Clough derby, named in honour of the legendary manager who guided both teams to league title glory in the 1970s. His considerable shadow looms over this one. It’s thanks to Clough that Derby County are on the footballing map at all really, and I wonder if the big man is looking down from the afterlife what he makes of both his babies being in the second division. Knowing him, he will no doubt be very happy that neither of us have been able to cut it without his influence. For now that is, of course…

We travel the arterial road between the two cities – the Brian Clough Way, no less – to take on a side that should be doing well but turns out to be struggling in 14th place. Their league position is illusory. Forest are better than mid-table tedium. They have one genuine big fish, the on-loan Portuguese forward Jota who’s undoubtedly slumming it at this level. The players are warned to treat him with respect, and then I get to watch in horror as he puts two past us.

Unexpectedly we dominate the home team during the first half. They seem content to soak up our pressure and I try to turn the screw by increasing our positivity. This naturally opens up gaps, which they exploit increasingly before Jota finds the back of our net from a Carvalho free-kick. This isn’t in the script. We’ve wasted our chances so far, so in rising desperation I introduce Jack Marriott for Parrott, expecting little because it’s a bit like trading in a Mercedes and walking away with a Fiat Cinquecento. It’s not really that bad, and Marriott goes on to prove his worth several minutes after his arrival. Collecting a Wisdom throw-in, he races to the byline and crosses, meeting Waghorn’s head beautifully for a quick equaliser.

Both sides trade blows for a while. I’d be happy enough with a draw, if I’m honest, but I see my dreams crumble when Jota scores again, this time poking the ball across the line after Da Costa’s speculative shot teases the senses right before the gaping net and we comically fail to clear it. Wisdom is at fault here. All he has to do is hoof the ball away; instead he dithers and we get punished for it. Marriott’s quick reply is ruled offside, a correct decision I admit grudgingly, and we leave it until late in added time before finally making it 2-2. Bakery Jatta has done precious little in this one. I’m beyond annoyed that the expensively acquired winger either gets sent off or puts in largely disinterested performances, and this is one of the latter. Like Tom Lawrence, another show-boater who can turn it on when he feels like it, Jatta always has a bit of brilliance within him. He puts in a 93rd minute cross so virtuous that Marriott pretty much has to do little apart from protrude a limb to guide the ball beyond Samba, and that’s exactly what he does.

Honour intact and having thrilled the supporters with a match that ebbed and flowed, provoked tears of dismay and of relief, we leave with a sense of pride. There have been positive signs that these players are showing a gritty refusal to know when they are beaten. We’ll need that after the upcoming international break. Once that’s done with we’ve got match after match, fixture commitments coming thick and fast. There are points to grab, league places to consolidate and a demand from me that we don’t let things slip.

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November 2019 - A Good Cottaging

Three matches to report on in closing out the month. We start a week of action by entertaining Preston North End, a clash watched by nearly 30,000 souls. The Lilywhites give the impression of being solid citizens of the Championship practically forever, though there are four years of League One football in their recent history. Currently they’re managed by Steve Thompson, who’s ‘enjoying’ a caretaker role following the dismissal of Alex Neil and ahead of the slightly retrograde step of appointing Tony Pulis (believe me, I’m a Boro fan; I know!). We should win this one and so you can imagine my sense of joy when Scott Sinclair has them ahead after six minutes. One of those players routinely discarded by Manchester City during their record over the last decade of spending a lot of money on hit and miss talent (file under ‘Jack Rodwell’), Sinclair still has something to offer the world. Collecting a rakish Pearson pass on the left wing, he cuts in and beats Bogle with errant ease before picking out the bottom corner with his shot and making Montipo look flailing and foolish.

It’s one of those moments of rare genuine quality that makes me wonder if we are really cut out for this, and fortunately it happens only once. A bit of regrouping and we are back on level terms, Martyn Waghorn dispatching a penalty after Jatta has been scythed down in the PNE box. Ten minutes later and it’s 2-1. Lowe’s long pass from the left flank finds Jack Marriott, who shrugs off the attentions of Davies and volleys beyond Rudd, the keeper left on one knee as though worshipping a very good goal from an unlikely source.

The second half is one of those slightly nervy affairs when I fret over whether we can hold on to our lead. I shouldn’t worry. The visitors do what second tier outfits resort to as a matter of course and start putting in frustrated bad tackles. A period of football pockmarked with fouls, yellow cards and disjointed passages of play is settled, finally, when Marriott is beautifully placed in front of goal to latch on to Holmes’s cross and turn it in for a 3-1 victory.

So one we should win, which indeed we do win, and in the course of achieving that look in pretty decent shape. I come away with slight concerns about the fluctuating form of Jatta, the decidedly indifferent numbers being posted by Graeme Shinnie and Sinclair’s ability to make Bogle look hapless before the winger is removed with a potential knee injury (good lad, Jayden). Despite those caveats it’s sound work. Lowe, Clarke and Baker have all played well. Marriott, on for Parrott who always returns from international breaks exhausted after being worked to death by the Irish Under-21s, has taken the match ball and deserves it.

In midweek first are playing third as Leeds go to Reading. We’re in London, up against the second placed side, Fulham, who are tipped for promotion and can showcase the division’s highest rated player, striker Aleksander Mitrovic. I know, right? The Championship is patronised, raved over for its competitiveness, but the playing standard isn’t as high as all that and elsewhere the Cottagers have quickly receded from the clutch of expensively bought players that got them relegated from the Premier League. Harry Arter’s here. So is Anthony Knockaert, and while our 1-0 victory is in the vein of a smash and grab effort we do our jobs well on the whole. No one expects anything from us and neither do I. The contest is for the Cottagers (fnar!) to turn in a showpiece spectacle before their home supporters, and on a dark, wet evening they fail to produce the goods.

I reintroduce Parrott to the line-up and switch Shinnie out, starting with a central midfield pair of Rooney and Baker, and Evans as our DM. The goal comes in the 39th minute. Up until then it’s been an unlovely display from both contenders. The two sides are defensively responsible and waste no time in massing players behind the ball whenever there’s a sense of trouble. That’s fair enough, though I expected more adventure from the home team and if it wasn’t ourselves against whom they are titting about so much I’d be disappointed by the absence of spectacle. The decisive moment starts with a goal kick and takes in just about every Derby player on the pitch, a flowing passage of smooth teamwork, looking for their fellows and finding space. It threatens to come to naught when Waghorn’s wayward pass is intercepted by Sessegnon, but the full-back’s flick to Odoi in central defence is picked off by the advancing Troy Parrott, who slips through the line and beats Rodak in the Fulham goal. It’s a rare moment of goodness within a moribund half, and a personal vindication for the young striker, who’s racked up ten hours without a goal before scoring here.

If I expect the promotion contenders to come roaring back after the break then I’m in for a pleasant surprise as the resurgence never arrives. Milosevic keeps Mitrovic happily quiet with a sticky man-marking job and Fulham just can’t find a way through. More and constant pressure, is what I would suggest to their manager if I wasn’t directly profiting from their wasteful and quiet evening’s work. There’s an argument for suggesting we stole the honours here, but it doesn’t feel like an undeserved win. Reading beat Leeds too in reducing the gap at the table’s summit to four points.

We travelled to the Smoke on Tuesday. London comes to Derby at the weekend for the visit of Queens Park Rangers. Hey, remember when this lot were considered briefly to be one of the richest clubs in the world, backed by Formula One moguls and instigating a Four-Year Plan that would deliver glory to the set-up? That ended well, didn’t it? In fairness QPR are not the bankruptcy-threatened organisation they were before the takeover, and in the intervening years they’ve enjoyed more success than we could ever have dreamed of, taking in top flight football and even having a supporting role in the Premier League’s defining Aguerrrooooo! moment.

As for the match, having downed Fulham there’s no reason to think we won’t win here. Apart from the enterprising young Bright Oyasi-Samuel there’s little in the opposition ranks that I fear, while for us Parrott has his scoring boots back on and there’s a mood of heavy optimism enveloping the city. And it’s in just these moments that we play out one of the least memorable 0-0 draws you will ever see. Very little happens. Even Wayne Rooney has one of his quieter outings, as though he’s been putting in sterling work all month and fancies a day off. The defence plays well. Parrott has a few shots. QPR come close once or twice. But that’s about it, an eminently forgettable performance and in many ways one that puts us back in our place. We were beginning to dream – the gods of the football were like, don’t ever…


If anything we have consolidated our fourth placed position in November. There are now seven points between us and fifth, and it seems a miniature breakaway group has developed within the table’s upper reaches. As far as individual performances go, Montipo’s two recent shut-outs in goal have put him back at the head of the rankings for clean sheets, with ten. Lewis Baker is our only participant in the division’s top twenty players by average rating. That suggests both a good team effort elsewhere, and also concerning levels of inconsistency from the boys.


The board remains delighted – fourth is a big improvement on the season’s aim of finishing mid-table, and if we remain here by the time the campaign closes I think it will give me the licence to keep on keeping on. 19 of the first team’s 28 players now support me, with no opposition to my stylings, and even the squad’s cohesion levels are beginning to show signs of a positive  upturn. This element has been dire since I began. Hopefully with my regime settling in and the club working to a consistent plan it will improve further still.

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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 Whittaker. 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 playing consistently well 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 with us.

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 Bakery 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 Kadeem 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 *****. 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. Lewis 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.

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December 2019 - Nothing to See Here

In the week leading up to Reading we lose two defenders to minor injuries. Perr Schuurs has a twisted knee (shouldn’t be going around doing the twist then), and Matt Clarke gets a cold and is convalescing at home with Netflix his medicine. The team physios are advising me not to pick Tom Lawrence, who’s still around four weeks away from a complete recovery. Thanks guys, I’m not a loony so I won’t be making that mistake.

I’m not expecting to get much from the Royals match. They’re in second place, the consequence of a typical Reading season in which they can either get promoted or finish 23rd; they are just that kind of set-up. A mere three points behind leaders Leeds, they are also the second best at scoring goals, with those strikes spread out across a number of players rather than focused on a star forward. For them it’s a good effort; as far as we’re concerned it makes them very hard to defend against, the sort of opposition that has you uncertain whether you can ever possibly block all their routes to goal. In the meantime we remain rooted in fourth and barring disaster should see out 2019 holding our position in the table. Igor Stimac is the latest in a line of former Rams who are going public with their admiration of our progress. It was Paulo Wanchope the other week, while spirit mediums have established that Steve Bloomer in the netherworld is reportedly happy with how things are going.

Will we be the side that got dumped on from a great height by Leeds, or the heroes who beat Fulham thanks to some solid rearguard defending and successfully taking advantage of a speedy counter-attack? The answer is of course neither. It turns out that Reading are a team high on confidence but short on actual ability. Whereas we lost heavily to the Whites because they were simpler better than us, at the Madejski we can prevail through solid work and breaking up their forays into our half. There’s little about this that’s pretty, and like many hyped games between promotion challengers the resulting action justifies none of the build-up. It’s cagey, often dissolving into midfield melees that end in little decisive happening.

After a first half, the footage of which has been requested by sleep therapists seeking a solution, the second opens up a little more. Both teams make their switches, just as we start collecting bookings. The Royals gain most of their mileage from breaking out, which is the sort of thing I would expect if we were the home team, quite honestly. Twice, we win corners from which the be-hooped Reading players get the ball and start haring up the field, only to have their moves broken up or Montipo doing his job in goal. It ends 0-0, a result I see as a mission accomplished.

It’s then back to Derby, a few days to celebrate a quiet Christmas, before going on our travels again, up north this time to take on Wigan Athletic. Nothing of any note happens, apart from another promise I am forced to make to one of my players, Andre Wisdom, who is demanding more playing time. It’s a fair request. Of my available right-backs I’ve favoured Jayden Bogle, who’s younger, homegrown and clearly has the brighter future, however there’s no really good reason for not using the Jamaican international more often. It even occurred to me, when both were injured and I was picking the on-loan Cyrus Christie exclusively, to make a bid for him and sell Wisdom in January, but in reality the two players are about as good as each other and in the latter’s case he still has that ‘former Liverpool player’ sheen that might add a couple of quid to his value. Christie’s due back at Fulham at the start of next month. He’s been absolutely decent for us.

The Latics are 19th in the table, a fixed point in lower mid-table tedium with just that added dash of being close enough to the bottom three to make things boringly interesting (if that phrase makes any sense whatsoever). Back in October we ground out a 0-0 draw so lacking in action that highlights from the match have become supporting material for Film Studies courses exploring the exquisite angst of the existential. And we produce exactly the same display here. I start to get why Wigan are where they are in the table – it’s non-football, just breaking things up and showing little ambition of their own. I’m warned to pay special attention to 19 year old French midfielder Maxence Caqueret, so Rooney is tasked with nullifying any effect he can produce but this turns out to involve watching mostly sideways passes. It doesn’t even make any difference when I demand we become more attacking, added to which the home team’s desire to help when Joe Gelhardt is sent off in the 81st minute. Nothing can stop this from rolling gently to a full halt, a frankly lazy-minded job of work played before a half-empty stadium, people who are mainly there in an effort to leave the house for a couple of hours. It’s a display worthy of apology. Sorry supporters, this should produce a bit of entertainment but what you’ve just watched is anything but…

December closes with Charlton Athletic at home. The visitors have been rooted to the foot of the table since the back end of December. They’ve accumulated a grand total of seven points and look as ready to go down as a heavyweight fighter facing Mike Tyson during his destructive pomp. We have this lot again in the FA Cup in January, and we need a win here. Brentford and QPR are busy bridging the gap to fourth place, and while I’m as reticent as ever about getting promoted I would like to hold on to this position in the table.

Jack Marriott is suffering from a virus so we are forced to place Rushian Hepburn-Murphy on the bench, and Morgan Whittaker gets his first ever start in the side as Martyn Waghorn has run himself into ground. It isn’t easy ineffectually running up and down the left wing game after game, you know. In the 24 minute, after a period of sustained pressure we break the deadlock when Rooney picks out Bakery Jatta in the area, who fires a fine volley diagonally beyond Amos to put us ahead. The winger is in a rare ‘justifying his place in the line-up’ mood when he’s involved again ten minutes later, providing the cross for Lewis Baker’s spectacular volley. The goal looks great. Baker has hit it from 24 yards out and those sort of strikes always get the crowd going, though in fairness the Addicks defence has a lovely Plasticine-like pliability about it. Those guys just helpfully move themselves out of the way.

Back on track and on top of the game, I instruct the players to produce more of the same after the break, something they fail to do as the collective attitude seems to be that their job is done here. They’re half-right in fairness. My boys’ languid approach invites Charlton back in to the match, but it’s a bit like being bashed about by a small puppy, that is until Macauley Bonne has the ball in the back of our net during the match’s latter stages. Any suggestion that this might provoke some late-period concern evaporates when Ben Purrington is sent off for a second yellow, and 2-1 it remains.


And that’s December. With victory over Charlton we leapfrog Fulham into third place, though the top two remain five points distant. I would imagine one of the chasing pack will eventually rouse themselves into action and oust Reading, who are completely out-performing all expectations, but I don’t think we will be that team. Maybe West Brom will start playing their way back into form. The sacked Bilic has finally been replaced with Kurban Berdyev, a 67 year old from Turkmenistan whose greatest past exploits were with Rubin Kazan of the Russian Premier League. For Leeds, Marcelo Bielsa has taken his bucket with him to the top flight where he is now managing Wolves. The league leaders have called on one Samuel Allardyce, in fairness a veteran manager with a great track record of getting teams promoted, but at the expense of any sense of excitement.

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January 2020 - Contracts and Promises

Happy New Year! Nothing bad can possibly happen in 2020, right? At Pride Park, we wave goodbye to Cyrus Christie and Ikechi Anya. The Irish international right-back has reached the end of his loan term with us, having put in a good spell of work when both our incumbent players were out with long-term injuries. As tempting as it might have been to offer him more football, we were spending £20,000 per week on his wages and once Bogle and Wisdom were back it was money for nothing, so he leaves with our thanks. Cyrus played six league games for us, getting one assist for a very respectable performance rating of 7.10. Anya departs for Dundee, having played less and less following his £4 million move from Watford in 2016. Injuries and outright crapness put paid to him making an appearance this season, but Frank hadn’t used him at all in 2018/19 either, and on the whole you would have to assess this as a failure in the annals of Derby signings. We’re still paying him ten grand per week until the end of his contract in the summer, however he was getting £28,000 while he was here so that’s a significant saving…

And the hole in our wage budget means we can make some serious moves for players who will be available for free in the summer. While TNS are fluttering their eyelashes at our unwanted midfielder Alex Babos, which should say everything about his value, we offer contracts to five players. At the moment, our negotiations are being played against the potential efforts of other teams doing business of their own, so there are no guarantees that we’ll get these boys, however each one would make a significant improvement to our ranks, I feel. They are:

  • Ivan – 26 year old right-back who’s currently playing for Levante. He would come in to replace Andre Wisdom. There are several Spanish clubs eyeing him, but ours is the only offer right now.
  • Christian D’Urso – Italian midfielder, 22, doing a fine job for Cittadella in Serie B and who would give the side a bit of attacking spark from operating as a Mezzala.
  • Dirk Proper – Derby’s youth ranks are a bit short of quality overall, so this 17 year old might provide some answers. He’s a roaming playmaker at N.E.C. Nijmegen to whom we would need to offer some time on loan as part of the package.
  • Marc Stendera – we really like the look of this 24 year old advanced playmaker, a German playing for Hannover 96 who’s been capped at Under-21 level and who offers the tantalising prospect of being a specialist at corner kicks. Good crosser too.
  • Isaac Lihadji – I think we’ll do well to get this guy, a transfer-listed 17 year old from Marseille who’s been attracting the attention of bigger clubs than us. Tottenham are keeping an eye on him. A right-sided inverted winger who’s viewed as having the potential to become the new Florian Thauvin, we’re up against Lyon and can only hope the kid fancies a move to the romance of the English midlands in furthering his career.

In the meantime there are new contracts of our own to consider. I didn’t bother touching this area at the start of the season. My preference was to get a gauge of the players I was working with before making any decisions, and I’m glad I did. Tom Huddlestone is the most glamorous of the names nearing the end of his current deal, but I’m disinclined to keep him around. Though our personal differences are a thing of the past, there’s nothing Tom can do to mask his decline as a footballer. Now 33, having been involved in first team action since breaking into the Derby side back in 2003, it’s about time we parted ways, though he’s been a good club servant so I smooth over any disappointment by funding him to go on a coaching course.

The only player to be offered a contract at all is Louie Sibley, an 18 year old midfielder who could develop into something half-decent. The rest are being hung out to dry. In the end they just aren’t good enough, so there is some future work to do in bringing in a fresh complement of budding youngsters, but hopefully we will be in a better situation for the overhaul.

There’s no winter break in England, so the new year brings a fresh swathe of match commitments, beginning with Barnsley at Pride Park. The Tykes were at one point hitting the table’s higher reaches, but since then have naturally fallen away and are now sitting in 21st place. Only carelessness can stand in the way of us recording a win here, and of course we are quite capable of playing exactly the listless football that results in the visitors going in front towards the end of the first half. There are no excuses. Not even having to replace Parrott (a suspected injury, turns out to be a scratch rather than a bite) with Hepburn-Murphy should stop us from inflicting damage on Barnsley, but they make it 1-0 when Milosevic fells one of their warm bodies in our penalty area and Conor Chaplin scores from the spot. It somehow irritates me even more that we immediately respond, equalising from kick-off with Martyn Waghorn shooting Jatta’s cross beyond Collins. So we can do it when we feel like it, can we?

The dressing room turns into an arena of outright, unbridled bollocking at the break. Teacups are smashed. I know I will need to place an order for more crockery afterwards, a consequence of trying to emphasise how angry I am with the breaking of defenceless mugs, but I make my point. Hepburn-Murphy turns out to be exactly as useless as I suspect him to be. The on-loan Villa striker gets the ignominy of being subbed off after being introduced from the bench, as I move Waghorn into his position and place Whitaker on the left wing. But it works. As our attacking gets more frenetic late in the game, Lowe’s cross finds Bakery Jatta in point-blank range, who despite being surrounded by defenders gets off a shot that beats the keeper. Several minutes later, Whitaker’s long-range shot clatters off the post and Waghorn is the quickest to react for his second of the game. It finishes 3-1.

Marc Stendera agrees terms with us and will join in July. I could sign him now but for the £400,000 we have left in the transfer budget, which gives us zero room for manoeuvre. The obvious remedy would be to terminate Hepburn-Murphy’s loan deal, but he’s earning a princely £3,000 per week here so it’s a drop in the ocean. Talking of which, I’m visited by back-up keeper Ben Hamer, who is unhappy that he hasn’t played a second of football for us. I’ll be honest, I quite forgot he was even here and I’m happy to end his loan agreement. Some bright spark before me was willing to offer him regular game time, the kind of grass-faced thinking that would have landed us in a bit of a mess. This of course leaves us without a second keeper, but the situation is resolved when I recall Scott Carson from his on-loan hell with Manchester City. Like Hamer the England international keeper hasn’t touched a ball in anger for the Bluenoses, and it isn’t likely to get any better for him here, but at least it’s a quick fix for us.

Before facing Charlton in the cup we receive the news that Christian D’Urso and Dirk Propper are going to become Rams in the summer. I review the promises I have made to my players and come across a couple of items that will need to be addressed before too long. Scott Malone wants to be sold, the trouble being that no one will come to close to paying his value, which stands currently at £850,000. Most of that would be funnelled back into the transfer budget, so there’d be more than just the left-back who benefited from selling him. I drop the price to £700,000 and cross my fingers – at the moment, it looks as though there might be some takers if it was on loan terms, but that would just put off the issue. Apparently, I made an agreement with Bakery Jatta to strengthen our midfield. That will be difficult with the resources we have left to play with, though I agree we could do with the extra bodies in this area. Something to work on…

The Board expect us to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup, which I agree is what we should be able to do with Charlton Athletic visiting us. Just like in the Carabao Cup, there’s the chance here to get an illustrious opponent in subsequent rounds and fill the coffers, so we would like to do well.

Watching this one, having made a raft of changes because of tired legs within the side, it strikes me how Troy Parrott’s efforts on goal can be an exercise in slow torture. The striker isn’t celebrating his 18th birthday until February so I appreciate that I’m criticising a boy, yet all the same some of these chances are being handed to him on a plate and he keeps doing anything but connect with the ball in such a way that it hits the back of the net. It’s incredible, almost as though he would rather fluff than score. George Evans is removed early with a bruised thigh, so Wayne Rooney has to come on and once he does we steadily exert complete control of the game. I have to make further changes at half-time and shortly after action has resumed Matt Clarke fires us into the lead, having been best-placed after the ball bobbles away from a tussle of players in the Addicks box. Jason Knight produces a wonder goal from 19 yards out later to make it 2-0, and even Lyle Taylor’s reply – quite a sweetly placed shot that sails beneath the falling Montipo – can’t really alter the destination of the outcome.

A 2-1 victory over a team we basically bullied into submission then, a match in which we dominated across just about every area. It hasn’t been vintage stuff. As always the meandering around when in possession drives me to distraction. Even on a cold, wet afternoon in a stadium that is half full, it can be maddening, though in the end I’m grateful to have progressed. In the fourth round, we will be at home against either Cardiff or Cambridge United, the pair having drawn 1-1 at the Abbey Stadium so will need a replay to determine their – and our – fate.

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January 2020 - Hunting Midfielders

I’m working on meeting a promise I made to Bakery Jatta upon signing him, which was to strengthen the midfield area of the squad. I have until the end of the January transfer window to demonstrate that I’ve addressed his concern, and it’s an understandable one. If the Rams have a weak link then it is indeed in midfield, a unit that contains the side’s best player – a former striker who once played for England; you might have heard of him – but also carries some real dead weight. Lewis Baker is fine, as you’d expect from someone we paid good money to sign. George Evans is just okay, a squad rotation alternative to Rooney who would absolutely struggle in the higher level we’d like to reach one of these days. Max Bird and Jason Knight are both still very young. The opposite problem is apparent when it comes to Tom Huddlestone, once a top class midfielder in the making (I remember him chiefly from Championship Manager 03/04, when he could be acquired fairly cheaply from Derby and had the potential to be a star) and now someone at the fag end of his career. Graeme Shinnie, a workhorse 28 year old who’s bang average at this level, has consistently done little to impress me. He’s valued at £4.4 million and I would love to sell him and recycle the proceeds back into squad rebuilding, but at the same time he isn’t a massive lag on the wage bill and I believe overall that he’s better playing with us than against us.

Overall it’s an area of the squad that could use some remodelling. In that sense Jatta and I have an accord, though the winger comes with a grasping, demanding sense of his own brilliance that I often find absolutely maddening. The 21 year old German has done just about enough to retain his status as a star player. His eight league goals make him our second leading scorer (after Waghorn), and there’s a busy quality to his game that can make him almost unplayable when he wants to be. At the same time there have been too many instances when he drifts away from the action, the potential for anonymous performances that must, on a lesser scale, be what it’s like to manage Mesut Ozil. You know the deal – you’re fully aware of just how good he can be, but you rarely get that level out of him.

Added to all this is the simple fact we don’t have very much money left in the pot. I go cap in hand to the owner and beg for a bit of flexibility in the transfer budget. Mr Morris issues a flat refusal, claiming – correctly – the club is haemorrhaging funds, and he does it in a way that suggests the issue can’t be pushed. A glance at the annual financial picture looks like a sharp skiing descent, so there’s little doing here.


The only possible answer is to go for loan signings. My preferred option is Pedro Chirivella, a player I believe I have mentioned in these pages beforehand. The Liverpool defensive midfielder is 22, stuck in their reserves and in the last year of his Anfield contract. I’d like to have him here and see him as a long-term replacement for Rooney, so the plan becomes to draft him in for the remainder of the season and to hope that during his stay he falls in love with the place. We aren’t alone in wanting him, so this will take careful work and timing, with the potential addition of DCFC hampers sent to his home to show him that we’re serious. Hey Pedro, come to Derby, here’s a selection of jambon and chutneys to help you do the right thing and choose us!

To try and ease the pressure a little bit, I arrange for the termination of Rushian Hepburn-Murphy‘s loan agreement. In monetary terms it’s a drop in the ocean, however from what I’ve seen he simply isn’t good enough to play at this level. It seems best for both the player and ourselves that we end our association now. With Tom Lawrence now close to returning to the side we have the potential to free Martyn Waghorn to play in attack should the situation become desperate. Such is my addled thinking with the treasury looking sparse and with sixteen league fixtures still to play.

Spanish full-back Ivan agrees to sign for us when his playing contract with Oviedo finishes in the summer. His arrival will almost certainly make Andre Wisdom surplus to requirements. Lyon beat us to the signature of Isaac Lihadji, however, which seems fair enough to me. I really wanted to add the young Frenchman, but once a Ligue One set-up rivalled us for his signature there was only one logical destination for him… is what I would resolve upon if there was any rational consideration to my thinking. As it is the dressing room has a new player’s face for its dartboard.

Krystian Bielik is booked in the first minute of our weekend match at Middlesbrough, which sets the tone for a bad tempered and niggling affair. There seems to be little interest from the boys in playing football. Their effort is focused on petulant behaviour and losing possession while being caught on the ball in the opposition half, and I’ve no idea why there’s such a malaise in our game. There is an argument for saying we’ve got it coming. Our football hasn’t been sparkling for some weeks. We’ve ground out the results recently, so when Boro go ahead we have few excuses. Irritatingly, the scorer is Patrick Roberts, the one opposition forward I specifically warned my players to pay close attention to. I even remember putting photos of Nmecha and Roberts up on the board. If this guy’s through on goal don’t worry about it too much, I advised, pointing at Nmecha. He’ll fanny about and mess up, but if Roberts is in a dangerous position you need to be on him like Joey Barton’s fist on the face of someone who’s insulted his pint. Got it?

Needless to say they don’t get it. Roberts is wide open for Boro’s opening goal. As the defenders congregate around the largely harmless Nmecha, all the striker has to do is lay off for the advancing Roberts and he’s in for simplest of shots. They add a second shortly after half-time when George Friend heads in a Roberts corner, and we’re undone. I realise to my horror that Lewis Baker is sitting on the bench, that somehow I picked Jason Knight to start instead. The change is made, and shortly after Baker fires in the free-kick that Duane Holmes clips past Stojanovic to make it 2-1. It’s Holmes’s first goal of the season, somewhat incredibly considering it’s his 26th appearance. And as far as we are concerned that’s the highlight. It stays 2-1 as we fail to find a way through.

I don’t especially mind losing to a side that’s challenging for the playoff positions, but to do so in such a meek fashion is really disappointing. Jatta, Waghorn and Parrott produced a puff-pastry level of attacking strength, which more or less gave Dael Fry and his pals the afternoon off.

Pressure grows on us to deal with Everton as they continue to take an interest in Morgan Whitaker. Worse still, the Toffees are now managed by Carlo Ancelotti, or Uncle Carlo, one of the nicest guys in the game, who can charm his way around any potential transfer hurdle. He’ll need to sweet-talk his way into offering a lot of money in this instance. Chirivella signs for us in the meantime, an arrival that most people appear to be quite favourable with. Most importantly, the promise to Jatta has been fulfilled and he’s happy with the deal. If this translates into him upping his game, then it’s a win on all fronts.

We head into the home tie against Hull City amidst rumours of a takeover at board level. The club is remaining tight-lipped, but the uncertainty is filtering down to all of us. Scott Malone joins Oxford United for the rest of the season on loan. They’re only paying 20% of his wages, so it isn’t an especially satisfying situation – the preference would be to lose him altogether, or get more cash money for his services, but it’s another player promise fulfilled and that’s what really matters. We agree a deal for Bruno, a 29 year old centre back who will sign for free in the summer from Levante. The player’s age isn’t ideal, however uppermost in my thoughts is the need to replace on-loan Matt Clarke with a good left-sided centre back. Bruno has spent his time jumping about the two top divisions in Spain, and his promised weekly wage of £13.5k is a considerable drop on the £22k we’re paying Clarke… Always thinking with the bottom line, right?

The Tigers match is one we should win. They’re 16th, and we have a good record at Pride Park. Before the end of the first half, we’re in front after Krystian Bielik has headed Baker’s free-kick beyond George Long. As it happens though, Hull are better than their position in the league suggests. Marshalled by Herbie Kane at DM, they scrap hard and look especially pacey on the break. The contest between Wisdom and Norbert Balogh on the left wing is the key one, I feel, the Jamaican just about holding his own. Sure enough, they make it 1-1 shortly after the break. It’s a horrific goal to watch, a scrappy melee in our area that we fail to clear before Mallick Wilks races into the gap and slots into a pretty much empty net. For a time, I am able to raise my head from my hands just enough to watch the visitors threaten to overrun us. Their 3-4-3 formation is causing us all sorts of problems, though they’re overloaded in attack, which makes them liable to be caught out at the back. Wisdom makes a foray into the opposition half and shakes off the attentions of Balogh to cut the ball in to Bakery Jatta. The German somehow squeezes a shot off from a very tight angle, which turns out to be true and beats the keeper, putting us back into the lead.

It’s one we never relinquish again. Despite the scares, and the good form elsewhere from Brentford that is threatening our place in the top four, we prevail to claim all three points. I’m happy. After the Boro defeat we couldn’t suffer another banana skin, and especially pleasing was the debut of Chirivella, whose sold performance in defensive midfield allowed me to field a strong partnership of Rooney and Baker. This trio looks like the primary one going forward. It was also good to see Tom Lawrence return for thirty minutes on the left wing. We’ll need his sense of invention, and his innate sense of self-belief can lead to some good moments.

The last January update will cover the end of the transfer window and the month’s two remaining fixtures. We are at Luton, but before that there’s the little matter of our FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home, now confirmed as being against Cardiff and with the potential glories of the competition’s latter stages on the horizon. Dare to dream…?

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January 2020 - Deadline Day Doings

We are entertaining Cardiff City in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Reaching this level means we have satisfied the board’s requirements, but obviously we’d like to do better than that, try to reach the competition’s latter stages and bring some real money into the club. The Bluebirds are a relegated team and have only just parted ways with Neil Harris. Steve Morison is working as the interim gaffer when we meet them. Everything is lining up nicely for a victory, and of course it’s exactly in these moments when the gods of football find fresh ways to bite you on the bum, to slap you across the chaps and order you never to dream of such things.

The visitors line up with a 4-5-1, intending to defend, and they do it really well. Everything we do leads to nought. The changes I make affect very little. We enjoy more shooting chances than Cardiff, chiefly through Bakery Jatta, but nothing works for us and keeper Neil Etheridge chooses this occasion to be filled with the spirit of Gordon Banks. Jatta’s pretty awful otherwise. The combined talents of Josh Murphy and Joe Bennett keep our star winger quiet, and Waghorn’s little better on the opposite flank. Both are replaced to no apparent effect. Rooney and Baker are good in central midfield but Troy Parrott looks a man adrift, chasing shadows in attack while Cardiff happily man-mark him out of the game.

There’s nothing I can do. The match dribbles to an apologetic 0-0 outcome and the promise of a return fixture in south Wales. This of course means we are no longer favourites to progress, but I’m hopeful that the bedding in of Pedro Chirivella within defensive midfield will have taken effect by the time we meet again and that we can prevail. The reward is a trip to Brighton in the fifth round, one of those ties that looks almost tantalisingly winnable against relegation threatened, top flight opposition.

There’s a week to wait before our next game. The transfer window threatens to ebb away with little business done, a combination of scant amounts of money in the kitty and not being altogether dissatisfied with the resources I have available. In summer we will welcome seven players, all arriving on free transfers, three defenders and four players to reshape our midfield. I am beginning to lose hope that we will ever be able to afford the £6 million release fee for Perr Schuurs, as much as I would like to make the Dutch centre-back’s stay permanent. Levante’s Ivan should cover that hole, and before I arrived the club had agreed terms with Groningen’s Mike te Wierwik, a very handy looking 27 year old. The listed player I have on my eye on is West Brom’s winger, Matt Phillips, a Scottish international, 28, who would make Duane Holmes’s future with the club a tricky consideration. To date Holmes has failed to convince me of his worth, and I would like a good alternative to Jatta for those occasions when the German is having one of his more wayward outings.

On to Luton Town at Kenilworth Road. You will remember earlier in the season we had a proper FM’ing at their hands, when we used their goal for target practice and drew 1-1. Well folks, exactly the same thing happens in the return leg. Despite playing three forwards the Hatters are on the thick end of a shellacking. We hammer them. It’s like those World War Two bombing raids over German cities that you have read about, completely devastating, but imagine that instead of laying Dresden to waste all those shells explode harmlessly outside the city and miss the important buildings. That’s what we do here. There’s an offside goal for Jack Marriott (which I’m not sure was offside, but that’s football) and a whole heap of effort, but nothing to show for it.

In the second half we finally get a breakthrough when Jason Knight drills his shot past the keeper after the ball bobbles tantalisingly around the Luton box like the most teasing of prospects. Even before I can make my changes to protect our lead Jatta is booked and gifts the opposition a free-kick inside our half. Andrew Shinnie (brother of Graeme) launches one into our area, where Izzy Brown is waiting with almost poetic inevitability to shoot home.

I’m angry at out inability to put this one to bed, and irritable over a lead that could have launched us into third place instead leaves us fifth at the end of the month. Brentford have leapfrogged us, which was always on the cards, while Leeds look as though they are in danger of missing out on the automatic places for another torturous season. On the whole I have to be happy with achieving a near two points per match record. It’s better than anyone at the club expected, but there is a growing body of drawn matches we should have won that is haunting me.


Before the window slams shut I arrange for the recall of Lee Buchanan to our first team. His half-season at Fleetwood has worked out really well in terms of his development, and with Scott Malone gone I need a decent back-up for Max Lowe. Marcus Olsson isn’t it. The prospect of anything happening to Lowe and the Swede playing five games, thereby triggering his contract extension, is enough to give me sleepless nights.

I’m expecting a struggle in holding on to Morgan Whitaker as the deadline approaches. A number of Premier League clubs are hovering, however it’s Buchanan for whom the offer comes in. Leicester want him, and horrifically enough the player flutters his eyelashes right back at them. There’s nothing I can offer the young left-back that will persuade him to stick around, and his argument – that the Foxes are a step up – is annoyingly fair enough, I must confess. So after trying to put them off by increasing the price they end up agreeing to pay the £4.6 million I demand, and they even accede to a cheeky clause whereby Buchanan will spend the remainder of the campaign with us on loan.

Meanwhile, Phillips is happy to join us on loan, with a £3.8 million release clause inserted just in case everything works out and we can make his stay a permanent one. Duane Holmes is transfer listed, about which he is unhappy, and in classic managerial fashion I put things off by loaning him out to Wigan. The Latics will pay his wages in full, and I hope he kills it there to make him loom large in a future transfer window.

With the last hours of the window waning I make an offer for Josh Maja, after Chief Scout Joe McClaren (Steve’s brother!) comes back extolling his virtues. In reality, I think Joe’s been watching Sunderland ‘Til I Die, which isn’t even publicly available on Netflix yet, but the striker looks thrilling and has built his reputation on free scoring for the Mackems before securing his transfer to Bordeaux. I can’t afford to pay his club’s full asking price and there’s no interest from the French team in loaning him out, but I am able to make one of those complicated, structured bids that will have us funnelling cash out of the treasury for months to come. Everything’s agreed, green-lit, the guy’s happy to play for us, but after all that we still come up short of what we need to pay and the board is implacable in finding the three hundred grand we would need to seal the deal.

It turns out those takeover rumours are true. Things are happening. Wheels are turning at levels much higher than where I’m operating, and in this climate of uncertainty they are tight-lipped and even tighter when it comes to releasing funds.

The future suddenly seems unsure, and everyone’s prospects – mine included – are being played out against a punishing February schedule that will take in eight fixtures. It’s all I can do to ignore the boardroom shenanigans and get on with the task in hand. The end of the season is actually in sight, and my feeling is that this month will be decisive in determining where we end up.

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February 2020: Three Teams Called City

The transfer window is closed. We spent nothing and brought in close to £5 million from the sales of Anya and Buchanan, and I can only cast envious eyes at some of the megalithic deals being struck elsewhere. Spurs made a rare show of strength, lashing £35 million on Dynamo Kyiv defender Vitaliy Mykolenko, the biggest splash made in January. Alfredo Morelos made a £30 million move from Rangers to PSG, while Manchester City lavished similar amounts in Celtic’s direction for Odsonne Edouard, and Croatian striker Bruno Petkovic’s goalscoring feats in the Champions League put him in Liverpool’s orbit. Ah, for open chequebooks like they possess, like the near £10 million City paid to add prodigies to their Under-18s set-up.

There’s little point in worrying about it, not when we have the matter of entertaining Stoke City at Pride Park. As with most Championship clubs and their worrying policy of treating the managerial position like a revolving door, the Potters have changed their gaffer and are now being run by Nigel Clough. A man who has significant links with Derby, Clough Jr never came close to achieving the successes of his father and I have to imagine the sheer joy he must experience when he’s reminded of the magic that hasn’t been passed down through the family genes.

Stoke are shock relegation candidates, currently 22nd in the table, and it’s a surprise to me as their squad looks pretty formidable. They have the division’s best keeper in Jack Butland. Joe Allen, Tom Ince and Sam Clucas all have considerable pedigrees, and yet they’re the Championship’s lowest scoring outfit with 17 goals scored over 29 stultifying matches. It isn’t hard to see why either. There’s something inherently disjointed about their effort, as though the players all perform as individuals rather than working as a team, which is in sharp contrast to ourselves. At one point I watch us break up one of their rare forays into our half and within moments we’ve snapped back into our natural shape, the boys developing that almost telepathic ability to understand innately where each other is on the pitch. It’s lovely stuff, the almost invisible formation work that managers to love to see. We get our reward for good work very early, when Lowe crosses from the left for Baker, who in turn finds Jason Knight, in space and ready to fire a torpedo into the net. On 50 minutes we make it 2-0 via Lewis Baker’s curled volley from 23 yards out. Both goals are special, DVD highlights reel fodder, which they probably need to be in order to beat Butland, but for all our pressure it’s a deserved return.

As the side with the fewest goals playing the team that’s conceded the least, there’s little left for the visitors to get from this one. It’s a valuable win, one we racked up without the need to play Rooney and handing a debut to Phillips. I’m most pleased for Jason Knight, who could potentially lose his place in the summer midfield overhaul but appears determined to remain a positive presence in my thoughts.

A double bill of football in Wales follows. First up is the cup replay against Cardiff, before we remain down here for a league commitment with Swansea. Travelling south-west, I learn that we are £500,000 richer as a consequence of Will Hughes playing 60 league games for Watford, which triggers a transfer clause. If only this had happened earlier, though it seems clear Will is a squad rotation option for the Hornets, who are currently bottom of the Premier League.

Cardiff City, despite being a relegated outfit, should be beatable and I name a strong eleven as I really would like to progress in the FA Cup. This won’t be easy, though. Whatever else the Bluebirds are, they’re still about as good as we are and like ourselves carry a mean-spirited defence into this game. Led By Aden Flint, the hulking centre-back who used to block out the sun for Boro, getting past them is a challenge in itself, and for the duration of regular time this one remains in a state of stubbornly fought stalemate. Their main source of goals, German striker Robert Glatzel, is marked out of the game, while we largely waste our chances. By the end of 90 minutes it’s 0-0. I have swapped around almost my entire attacking unit due to their ineffectiveness. Jatta’s had one of those games where he insists on trying to do it all, as though once he’s in the penalty area there’s no one else around him and it’s all about fortune and glory, which makes Etheridge’s life a bit easier.

In extra time, I introduce Troy Parrott, believing a fresh pair of legs in the front line will cause tired Cardiff some problems. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it didn’t work. The Irish youngster hasn’t found the net in fifteen hours of football, a phenomenal record of shooting blanks, but the tactic turns out to do exactly what it’s supposed to. Just by racing around like a headless chicken he starts pulling defenders all over the place, and with 116 minutes on the clock he produces the game’s decisive moment. Phillips has the ball on the right flank. Beating the attentions of Joe Bennett he threads it through to Parrott, who isn’t ideally placed in the box but nevertheless has space and time to turn and lash one into the top corner. It’s a vicious goal, the sort of angry strike that has hours of frustration loaded behind it, and it does the job. I demand the players waste time for the seconds that remain, and the final whistle blows. We’re through!

It’s a sterling effort from the boys. You might argue that it’s only Cardiff, but winning away from home hasn’t exactly been our forte and I’m pleased for the lads who came in and worked tirelessly. Mostly I’m happy for Tom Huddlestone, introduced for the misfiring Rooney and putting in a composed, mature performance to calm our nerves and make our times in possession count for something.

Against Swansea City, I replace Chirivella with Lewis Baker, who was rested during the Cardiff match, indeed there are some knackered players who need to sit this one out. Lee Buchanan is making his competitive debut at left-back. Jason Knight retains his place as he’s proved capable of producing a surprise or two from midfield. Relegated from the Premier League in 2018, the Swans are much better than their current place in mid-table, I feel. Rhian Brewster spearheads an attacking line-up that includes Andre Ayew and Kosovan winger Bersant Celina.

Expecting a difficult afternoon, I order us to play a balanced game and look for opportunities. We get them early. Parrott’s placed shot is saved by Woodman’s fingertips and trickles just wide of the far corner. Bakery Jatta then puts us in front when he slots home a searching cross from Waghorn. Six minutes are on the clock at this point. We set up to defend our lead and deal surprisingly effectively with Swansea’s attacks. Despite Steve Cooper’s bellowed exhortations for them to show ten minutes of passion, the home team is failing to disrupt our shape. I demand the players to not get complacent, reminding them there’s the potential for us to make it into the top two places with a win here.

The boys look ready to charge through walls for the cause, which is excellent to see, but all I require from them is to be ready for a Swansea onslaught… which never comes. The closest they get is a header from Ayew, which is on target but Montipo’s ready for it. As the half progresses and my work involves identifying the most tired legs and replacing them, it’s obvious that we have them. We know it. They know it. It finishes 1-0 to us, a priceless away victory, but at the possible cost of future concerns over fitness.

Derby have run themselves into the ground at Cardiff and here. It’s a very good run from us, yet the fixtures are coming thick and fast. We’re on our travels again in midweek, for a challenging contest with Bristol City, before returning to Pride Park at the weekend the the Huddersfield match. Rotating the squad will be the name of the game. And the promise of climbing the table doesn’t deliver. Blackburn beat Fulham, but Brentford record a 2-0 victory over Boro, which leaves us in our now traditional place of fourth. That said, we are three points off the top and there’s a small gap that’s opened between ourselves and Leeds. The grind continues…

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February 2020 - Robbing Robins

I have been asked about how I go about scouting players, particularly in reference to the number of dudes I have tapped up to join us on free transfers in the summer. At the risk of losing any respect from the thread's reader(s) I will confess that I use the Player Search facility in Football Manager as a matter of course. I know to some people that this almost constitutes cheating the game, that I should rely on scouting reports alone, and perhaps if I was managing in the lower leagues I would do just that.

My justification is it would be easy enough for any manager to learn which players have contracts that are being wound down, and to then ask the scouts to assess the worth of those individuals. I then work the rest out for myself. How has the player performed this season? What does the scouting report say – would the player settle in well? Does he have the sort of mentality I am trying to develop across the squad, which is a determined one? Finally, how is the player rated across the various available attributes? At this point I refer to the Marc Vaughan Hints and Tips Guide. No, I’m not joking. The ‘Vaughan’ has been the Bible to me for about as long as I’ve been playing the game.

I understand that Marc still works for Sports Interactive, mainly with the handheld version of the game these days, but way back in the mists of time, when I was first getting into the ridiculously immersive Championship Manager 3, I used the Hints and Tips guide to help me come to terms with the blizzard of detail that was being thrown at me on every screen. It wasn’t a crib, or a cheat sheet, more a helping hand to acclimatise myself to the game. The key section for me was the suggested attributes I should check when looking at whether to sign players. For instance, where goalkeepers are concerned I ought to be checking on their Handling, Reflexes, Jumping Reach and Communication. And that’s what I’ve done ever since then. Lorenzo Montipo was signed because he was rated as at least ’10’ in each of these categories, and I also ensured his Eccentricity level was relatively low. No one wants to be in charge of the new Fabien Barthez, do they, or at least his tendency towards silliness without the accompanying ability.

We all have our ways of approaching the game, the things we do to customise it to our needs, and this is mine. I suppose you could argue that this isn’t how real life managers would do it, that in reality they can’t just interrogate an enormous database with all the information and statistics on tap (unless they can), but to me FM is a simulation and a game. Ultimately, even using my method there are no guarantees that each and every new signing will work out. There are still intangibles at play that are shielded to me until I have that guy in my grasp, just as there are for any manager. It’s here that I use the most important resource at my disposal, which is my brain. Knowing what I do about the game, and of players, bringing what I guess by now is an ill-gotten vast experience of football management, I try and make a judgement call on whether it will work. And I don’t always get it right. Not even close.

I’m reminded here of the time when Boro signed Afonso Alves for £12.5 million in 2008, a transfer record until we coughed up £15 million for Britt Assombalonga nearly a decade later. It seemed the most no-brainer of splurges. At Heerenveen the Brazilian achieved an incredible goal scoring rate of better than one per game (45 in 39 appearances, according to his Wiki page). What could possibly go wrong? Well, there was perhaps a warning sign in the fact he had never played for the bigger clubs, and that he wasn’t even on their radars – what did that say about him? After a decent second half to the 2017/18 season he scored four goals across the following campaign, a personal nightmare and also one for the team as he failed to produce any kind of the mental strength he would require to prevail in the Premier League. When we needed someone with the self-belief of Di Canio or Viduka, the innate sense that they would do the business when it mattered, what we instead had was a shrinking wallflower, someone who couldn’t take the pressure, which of course was on him for the entire year. What a terrible bit of business, almost certainly the worst we have produced in recent years and there have been plenty of stinkers along the way…

I don’t think a version of the Hints and Tips has been put together for a while now. To me it always felt like a nice bridge between playing the game from scratch and learning how it worked, to spending all my time reading those interminable lists of great players on the community websites. The most recent accompanied FM 2005 - Google it. A caveat – the game has moved on in certain areas so bits of this document will be somewhat out of date; however the fundamentals – as in football itself – never really change, so you will hopefully find something useful, particularly if you are new to Football Manager and you’re quite naturally bewildered by all that information!

Back to then matter in hand, then. We will get a week’s break shortly, but before that there are two matches in quick succession. We start with a trip to Ashton Gate for Lee Johnson’s Bristol City. Despite being tipped as playoff outsiders Brizzle are stuck in mid-table and have been so all along. It’s a disappointing return from a side that on paper looks about as good as anything in the division, but we approach the fixture in good spirits. We’re in third place, confident, and everyone’s playing well enough that there seems to be genuine options from which to choose.

And obviously it’s at moments like these when football boots you up the arse. After a positive start where we test the resolve of their defence, the Robins spark off a series of attacks. In the 22nd minute, we think we have done enough to clear the ball, only for Korey Smith’s searching pass to find Austrian international Andreas Weinmann. Somehow unmarked after drifting in from the right, the striker finds a way beyond Montipo with a tight-angled pop that our keeper really should have done better dealing with. I demand passion and resolve from the players, and they respond with some good moves that test Daniel Bentley well enough, however as time progresses the greater the amount of space we are creating for them. In the 81st minute. We commit a howler when Clarke is dithering on the ball in defence. Famara Diedhiou plunders it from him, and makes no mistake when through on goal. To cap off a terrible evening’s work, Filip Benkovic makes it 3-0 when we yet again fail to deal with a clearance properly.

One of those fixtures to slink away from, tails collectively betwixt our legs, the sense of shame that comes with being so high in the table yet liable to take a licking along the way. What makes it worse is that for vast passages of play we were the better side. We commanded possession, passed well and tested the keeper more often. It’s where it counts that we let ourselves down. Matt Phillips can take all the shots in the world, but when only a third of them are on target then he needs to work out whether ‘having a go’ is the right option.

The history books might look back on this one as a case of Derby being robbed, yet there’s no point in ruminating on any sense of injustice we are carrying. It’s happened. We need to move on, in this case back to Pride Park and the visit of Huddersfield Town.

Shortly before this one the Terriers announce the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo. That’s two managers gone within a matter of months (Cowley was shown his cards in September), which even by Championship standards is quick work. That said they’re in 19th place, eight points off the bottom three and no doubt far from where they wished to be situated. As we hear of yet another managerial casualty (Forest sacking Sabri Lamouchi – oh no, what a shame, etc), the onus is on us to press our advantage and quickly return to winning ways, which we conspire to do in the second minute when Jayden Bogle scores. It’s a lovely goal from an unexpected source. Rooney launches the ball forward and finds the full-back who has space on his flank. With all the time in the world, Bogle gets into the area, beats his defender and rifles his shot into the net. I’m delighted. After some moaning Andre Wisdom has been getting the majority of game time recently, but Bogle’s the one I want to press ahead with and this has done nothing to change my mind. We make it 2-0 quarter on an hour later when Krystian Bielik heads in at point-blank range from Baker’s corner.

At this point the Huddersfield defence is at – reaches for book of clichés– sixes and sevens. It feels as though we can tease, prod and punish them at will, and we do exactly that, albeit without adding to our tally, while we are kept honest when Steve Mounie pulls one back for them deep in the second half. It’s a disappointing goal to concede, a move that starts from their goal-kick and is allowed to progress all the way to the other end with little of our usual pressing and harrying to trouble them.

But that’s as good as it gets for the visitors. We claim a 2-1 victory, a well deserved win to consign the Robins defeat into the annals, and one that keeps us in fourth place.

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February 2020 - Fixture Pile-Up

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 Terence 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 Lewis 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 mouth-watering 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 Bakery 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 the Rams 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?

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