Derby County’s Managerial Merry-go-Round
This hasn’t necessarily been the easiest of years for the supporters of Derby County. On the twenty-ninth of December last year, the Rams were in second place in the Football League Championship, behind Middlesbrough at the top of the table but four points clear of third-placed Hull City. We all know what happened next. Derby slumped to an eventual fifth placed finish in the table, and were then beaten in the semi-finals of the play-offs by the team that they’d been ahead of as the clocks rang in the new year.
Modern professional football being modern professional football, a fifth placed finish in a competitive division and losing in the play-offs had been enough to do for two managers over the course of the season. Paul Clement, who’d been in the position since the start of June 2015, was sacked in February with the team in fifth place in the table – he’s since found more, and arguably better, work since then as one of Carlo Ancelotti’s three assistant coaches at Bayern Munich – and Darren Wassall, who was promoted from his position as the club’s academy director to see the club through to the end of the season, returned to his position at the end of the season following the failed play-off bid.
Enter Nigel Pearson. On paper, Pearson and Derby seemed like a good match. An East Midlands club that had been away from the top flight for longer than felt comfortable, the appeal to Derby County of acquiring the services of the man who had taken Leicester City into the Premier League and, according to some, could claim at least a degree of the credit for building the team that Claudio Ranieri took to the Premier League title at the end of last season should be obvious. Perhaps, though, it was too obvious. Pearson’s stay at the club turned out to be an especially unhappy one. With Derby reckoned to be amongst the clubs capable of getting promoted this time around, Derby have stuttered and stalled in the league so far this season, and a row between Pearson and the club’s owner Mel Morris over the use of drones to observe training sessions led to the manager leaving the club last week. At the time of writing, Derby County are in twentieth place in the Championship table.
The man chosen to replace Pearson is one that is familiar, not only to Derby County supporters, but to all of us. After a year and five months away from Pride Park, Steve McClaren is back. McClaren had, of course, been sacked by the club in May of 2015 – he was Paul Clement’s predecessor – and his return to the club has been met with mixed reviews, largely on the basis of the circumstances surrounding his previous departure from the club. On the twenty-fourth of February 2015, Derby had been top of the Championship. They were five points ahead of third-placed Ipswich Town, but an appalling run of form in the closing stages of the season saw just two wins – against the division’s two bottom clubs, Wigan Athletic and Blackpool – from their final thirteen matches and a slump which meant that not only did Derby miss out on automatic promotion, but also a place in the play-offs.
McClaren sought to place responsibility for this loss of form on injuries to key players, but the local press and some supporters believed that there had been another factor at play, namely the constant speculation linking McClaren to then-vacant Newcastle United job. We may never know what exactly what was going on behind the scenes at the time. What we know for certain is that McClaren was appointed as Newcastle’s manager just sixteen days after being sacked by Derby County. His time at Newcastle United, however, proved to be ill-starred and short-lived, although he did manage to soldier on until March of this year before finally being sacked by the club, which by this time was spiralling towards relegation from the Premier League.
There are two sides to the debate concerning his return to Pride Park this month. On the one hand, there are those who consider his behaviour during the second half of the season, when he pointedly didn’t quash speculation concerning the Newcastle job, to have been unacceptable. On the other hand, however, there are many supporters for whom the memories of the first three-quarters of that 2014/15 season haven’t evaporated yet, for whom a return to a team that is capable of scoring goals again. After all, Derby County have scored just six of them in their first eleven matches of the season, the worst record of any club amongst the seventy-two which comprise the Football League, and only two clubs in the Premier League have scored fewer, even though they’ve only played seven matches so far this season in comparison with Derby’s eleven.
Regardless of what happened at Derby County at the end of the season before last, however, Steve McClaren somes with a degree of baggage. Some of it is frivolous and easily dismissed. The Dutch accent when being interviewed while the coach of Twente, the business with the umbrella, the island that sits in the nomansland between his forehead and the remainder of his hair, for example, are all facets of Steve McClaren that have been used as a stick to beat him with when they are, in all honesty, irrelevancies. Other concerns, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. Few question that he is an excellent coach but, while we have a tendency to use the words “coach” and “manager” almost interchangeably these days, serious questions have been raised regarding his man-management skills and other essential traits that a manager should hold.
At this moment in time, two points above the relegation places in the division with a quarter of the season played, Derby County need careful management if the blip of the lasat few weeks is not to mutate into something altogether more troubling. This is, therefore, a managerial appointment that carries an element of risk, not only for McClaren himself, but also for the club and its owner. McClaren has had a tendency to be a somewhat bullish in his dealings in the past, but in view of the circumstances surrounding his departure from the club last time around – and the fact that he was dismissed is, in this respect, neither here nor there – it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable to suggest that a little more humility in the part of the manager might not do him any harm.
The risk to the owner of the club is subtly different. There is always an element of gamble to the appointment of a new manager, but in choosing to reappointment McClaren, Morris is placing a bet on his own reputation. The circumstances surrounding McClaren’s departure last time around coupled with the mess left at Newcastle United by the time he was relieved of his duties there earlier this year means that there will likely be little room for goodwill, should the team not hit the ground running following the international break. And the opposition this weekend, Leeds United, have won four of their last five matches and finally seem to be finding their own feet after their own sluggish start to the season. Of course, the biggest difference between Mel Morris’s position and that of Steve McClaren is that Morris can’t be sacked from his position, which is, in a broader sense, the reason why we see so many more managerial changes over the course of any given seen than we do changes at a boardroom level within football clubs.
The future will determine whether this move will prove to be a successful one for Derby County. Perhaps, though, there is one statistic that shows up the issues facing Derby County at the moment. Steve McClaren will be the club’s fifth manager of 2016, including Chris Powell, who took over for the brief period between Nigel Pearson’s suspension and yesterday’s appointment. We’re in the tenth month of the year, which means that the club has managed a new manager on average every two months this season. That situation clearly can’t continue, at least not if Derby County want to improve upon recent end-of-season disappointments. Walking before they can run, though, should be the immediate order of the day for McClaren’s players over the next few weeks or so. The managerial revolving door needs to stop. The club needs greater stability if it is to realise its obvious potential.
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