Truth is Stranger Than Fiction – End of Season 19/20
Friends it’s been a while. I hope you and yours are safe and doing well in these strange times.
With the natural break in proceedings during lockdown and the associated, unnatural, disengagement with The Rams during that period, I’ve not had the urge to write for a while. However with Derby’s season now officially done, I thought it was time to get my finger round the keyboard again!
Whilst its disappointing that the Rams will not be involved in the play offs this year, there is no doubt there is also a slight tinge of relief that we don’t need to go through the annual trauma of that horrible process. In fairness, aside from a fleeting moment leading up to the Cardiff game, we haven’t really even had the will we / won’t we stress of trying to qualify.
The reality is that this year’s vintage of DCFC was simply not good enough to compete at the top end of the division (in one of the worst leagues for a while) and have finished exactly where they deserve, bang in mid table.
Aside from a couple of notable highs and lows, the football has been decidedly average. However the season itself has been absolutely wild, right from Frank Lampard announcing his team for the play off final through to Leeds celebrating winning the title in an empty Pride Park last week. Even by DCFC standards, there surely cannot have ever been a season like this one for a pure relentless stream of drama, madness and general distractions. With a verdict on our EFL charge pending and Forest about to contest the play offs for the first time in a while, I don’t think it’s over yet either.
A roll through the timeline of our season in a twitter esque ‘banter’ thread is without doubt a long read article in its own right. However if we stick to the fitba, you can pretty much divide the season up into 4 quadrants. There was the semi decent start where we were all still very much in the mindset of play offs and going up, the gradual decline up to Christmas which saw the team slide to 18th in the table (including a truly awful run of away form), the arrival of Wazza and an enjoyable renaissance which took us back to the edge of the play offs, then the home straight whereby we fell flat on our face and all the other runners ran all over us on their way to the finish line.
Despite everything, up to this last run of games, the general feeling I got from most Derby fans was probably that we wouldn’t make it this year but all the vital signs and ingredients were in place for us to have a proper tilt next season. The deficiencies in the current team are clear and obvious to everyone, so address these along with the solid base we have, sprinkle in our wonder kids being one year older and we should have a real chance next year. However, we have been so far off in these last few matches, particularly Leeds, that we are now wondering if another season of consolidation maybe in the pipeline before we can compete again. The spectre of our EFL enquiry and the general post pandemic financial landscape doesn’t help in that regard either.
There has been lots of discussion recently about player of the year awards and it’s a damning truth that there is no clear candidate. Many players have been good in patches but were then simply not involved or awful in others. It’s says it all that the two standout candidates are Waggy and Matt Clarke, based only on the fact they have been involved in most games and have been generally solid. Clarke will likely win it and has certainly got progressively better and has been really good in the run in, although many seem to have forgotten about his awful form between Stoke away up to when he was injured at Forest. If we get him back, great, but for me he’s not essential and this certainly isn’t a deal to waste lots of time or budget on. If Waggy had scored the 4 or 5 goals more he should have done, he would have been a shoe in (and we’d be in the play offs) but costly misses have blighted his general good form all season and his stupid red card against Forest cost us big time when we needed him most.
Outside of those two, you are probably looking at Lawrence who has certainly had his best season for Derby and is now really starting to look a good player. However there is no way politically that the club could allow him to win it after his involvement in the drink drive debacle. The fact there are no other serious candidates tells you all you need to know about the consistency and quality of the team this year.
So what of our head coach? To say he’s had a tough gig is a bit like saying Ben Hamer’s loan spell could have gone a bit better. Outside of the Basran coach crash where the majority of the Melchester Rovers team were killed or severely injured pre-season (ask your dad kids), no manager can surely ever have had to deal with such a ridiculous and never ending set of circumstances in one single season. From the awful pre-season camp spent avoiding lightning storms at one of Franks mates’ gaff in America through to his two best attackers getting straight red cards (and three match bans) in injury time during our most pivotal run in of games, Cocu has been served the mother of all shit sandwiches. However he has dealt with it all with a quiet dignity and determination which has definitely bought him significant goodwill and crucially patience from the Derby faithful – something he certainly didn’t have a lot of after some of those early season pumping’s at Brentford and Charlton in particular.
Since Christmas, we have seen definite glimpses of what the future may look like. On occasion, the team have clicked and played some brilliant stuff. Stoke at home and Sheffield Wednesday away are great examples but there have been passages in most games where teams simply can’t live with us. However we then either can’t maintain it for long enough periods or, more often than not, give the impetus back to the opposition by gifting them a daft goal through an individual error or just rank bad defending. There is something there though and, again, I think the fact that most right minded Derby fans can see what the manager is trying to do bodes well. The key now is can we make the squad adjustments we need to and what will the landscape around that look like?
The pandemic period has clearly affected all clubs, not just Derby. There will be more out of contract players than ever before and the financial balance of power, outside of the elite, will certainly have shifted from the players to clubs when negotiating deals. Recruitment teams will need to be sharper than ever and we can only hope that Cocu has some of his own people on the case and/or has made some changes to Derby’s notoriously derisory operation. The delayed start to next season should mean that Bielek won’t be far off for the restart and he will be like a new signing, Dutch Mike is already in the building and it will also be great to have Bird, Sibley, Knight and Rooney involved for a full season. You never know, we may even have a vaguely adequate goalkeeper next year! However there is no doubt there is a lot of work to do in re-shaping the team and we can anticipate a very busy summer of ins and outs to make those crucial changes and also to finance it!
The key immediate concern is now the outcome of our EFL charge. When will the verdict land? If we get a points deduction how severe will it be and when will that hit? Is a transfer ban a possibility? Will Derby appeal and drag the whole thing into next season? Is next season a dead rubber before it started? Is there an investor waiting to jump in once it’s done?
However it turn out, this is Derby County, so you know its won’t be straightforward.
Come on you Rams!