All the way back in the Autumn of 2013, Derby County sacked manager Nigel Clough after four and a half years at the helm. It was an unusual feeling for the Rams as the winds of change swept through the club, on and off the pitch.
However, those winds were turned into a hurricane of chaos as the Rams were recently looking for a permanent manager for the fourth time since Clough Jr was removed, having parted company with Nigel Pearson – after just 5 months – following a suspicious internal investigation lasting just under two weeks.
Many questions were asked – without answer – and many rumours created over the last few years, with the club coming tantalisingly close to promotion on three separate occasions, only to end each season – ultimately – as failures. Despite the various managers overseeing these campaigns, the one constant that has always failed is the playing staff.
Criticism of the squad at Derby is nothing new; the club’s large fanbase has created a small, but vocal, group that has always criticised the playing staff. It’s part of the expectation that comes with playing for a club with a big fanbase, some players can deal with this, others can’t. When things are going well at the iPro, there’s no better place to play. The atmosphere is rocking, the attendances are higher than that of many Premier League sides and the players receive unconditional support. However, such support seems to be easily broken at Derby.
Once fortunes turn, the atmosphere becomes more poisonous, even though the large attendances remain high, something which becomes a negative factor once the unconditional support becomes more critical and less patient. An atmosphere like this hardly breeds creativity, but as footballers many should be able to deal with it. Unfortunately for the Rams, it appears a large chunk of the squad doesn’t have what it takes to deal with this criticism and steer the club back to the good times.
This seems evident by the almost sheer terror that surrounds the players when on the ball. All the passes are safe as nobody wants to endure the wrath of the crowd should they lose the ball. This creates a slow game and eventually disappointing results, only angering the impatient minority even further.
Interestingly, it seems to be the recent multi-million pound players that are most susceptible to such play, lacking the desire to fight and graft for the benefit of the team, leading many to question their commitment to the team overall. Many Rams fans have now been alienated by these players, choosing to believe that they are here for an easy mega pay cheque and not to fight to the Ram on their chest.
Whether or not this is true, there certainly seems to be an odd correlation between those on higher wages and those who appear less willing to battle away during a match. Players such as Tom Ince, Jason Shackell and formerly Ryan Shotton have all endured turbulent relationships with the fans whilst also reportedly commanding large wages from the club, though that is far from confirmed.
It is these same players who have seemed the least motivated on the pitch when things aren’t going well, looking the least likely to get everyone going and drag themselves out of the mud. Whether this is because of large wages and a comfortable life whilst employed at the club is true, it’s certainly telling when compared to players such as Jake Buxton (now at Wigan) and youngsters Jamie Hanson and Max Lowe, who were/are on considerably lower wages (again, simply general consensus) given they fight tooth and nail for the shirt and for the club, rarely looking out of motivation when the going gets tough.
This theory does tend to only resonate with recent signings, with the ‘old guard’ (players signed by Nigel Clough/Steve McClaren who played in the 2014 play off campaign) mostly avoiding this particular criticism. However, the recent signings will have had their influence on the squad and its entirely plausible that negative mentalities are now rife in the East Midlands.
Whilst it may seem an overstatement to claim that the clubs fortunes could’ve changed so drastically just on this basis, it’s entirely possible they could’ve at the very least led to increased player power. The Sun reported that there was a group of seven unnamed players who went to chairman Mel Morris to demand the sacking of Nigel Pearson following public and private criticism after a home defeat to Blackburn.
How true this is will probably never be known, but if it is, it does suggest there is a worrying degree of player power at the club, which would explain why some players look less than interested in fighting for a result when things are going against them. It leaves one wondering whether previous managers have been sacked on the same basis – the odd sacking of Paul Clement for ‘non-football reasons’ during a poor run of form springs to mind.
Alternatively, it could all be more innocent than that. Many of the players, not just recent signings, many not have the mental ability to deal with the weight of expectation coming from the fans, leaving them almost paralysed with fear. A large chunk of the squad have come from classically smaller clubs (with no disrespect intended), with the exception of maybe Bradley Johnson from Norwich, leaving them previously unexposed to such a large and vocal fanbase. This can be a hard thing to deal with particularly if you’re under pressure to perform in a bad run of form. Few managers can change such a mentality, which may unfortunately mean Derby need an overhaul before once again challenging for promotion.
Derby maybe the perfect example of a club with excellent individual players but who cannot play as a team. Whatever is the real problem behind the scenes, it is the squad that is the familiar fixture of the last few years of failure, three permanent managers and two caretakers have failed to handle them properly, suggesting it really isn’t the management that is the problem, but the players themselves. All will become clear if Steve McClaren again fails to deliver success, following his re-appointment. It’s up to the players to prove the nay sayers wrong.