As overused as this cliche is, it is nevertheless the end of an era. It seems a lifetime ago since Nigel Clough took over in January 2009, watching his new employers defeat Manchester United 1-0 in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. His remit was to keep the club up, after the utterly disastrous spell under Paul Jewell, and he achieved that aim. His next task was to reduce the wage bill whilst producing a competitive team, and he did that too. An emphasis on youth was also placed, and the Rams (with the setback in 10/11 an exception) began to climb the table. However, it would appear that the 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Was his sacking right?
My first reaction was mixed. Prior to Clough’s sacking, I had said to my sister not long after the Forest defeat that “I’m becoming more sceptical of Clough”. Be careful what you wish for. I feel no joy or optimism over this decision. Inconsistency has blighted the 13/14 campaign already, but prior to the City Ground result the Rams had the best away record in the league, with form at Pride Park the Achilles heel. On reflection, I feel that he should have been given at least until January, if not the end of the season. I’ve said recently that I wouldn’t mind finishing outside of the play-offs this season, provided that the play-off challenge was there, and was consistent. That’s looked unlikely so far this season, but are seasons made and broken in September?
Let’s evaluate Clough’s reign. He achieved his initial remit, and whilst the progress since has been relatively slow, it has been tangible and visible. Paul Jewell (and Billy Davies to an extent) littered Derby with far too many first team players, leaving Clough with essentially a bureaucratic as well as coaching role. I’ve spoken more in depth about Clough’s tactics in a previous post, but to surmise he has always tried to implement a passing style at Pride Park. For someone derided as ‘non-league Nigel’ by some, we played far better football under Clough’s reign than many of his predecessors, with George Burley probably the last manager to provide attractive football. His financial constraints have been clear for all to see, and in my opinion Clough’s good signings far outweighed his bad ones. When backed with larger sums for individual players, he has more often than not provided good value; think Shaun Barker, John Brayford, Jason Shackell and Richard Keogh, with Conor Sammon possibly the only expensive flop (although the jury is still out to a degree). When Clough detractors have gleefully pointed out his worst deals, they have often been either freebies (Lee Hendrie, Lee Croft, David Martin) or low cost signings (Chris Maguire, Chris Porter).
My main frustration with Clough was his stubbornness. Too often a substitution would be left late in a game, when changes were urgently needed. Michael Jacobs, a talented if raw winger who can play the Jamie Ward role has frequently been left in the cold due to his poor record at tracking back. Players would be signed and initially praised, only to be quickly frozen out at will. Formations would come and ago, with a clear lack of width (4-4-2 shapes would often involve central midfielders on the wing), and players often shoehorned into position (such as Craig Bryson on the left wing during the 12/13 season, or Jeff Hendrick on the right this season). Clough’s public blasting of players often got on the nerves of the supporters, such as this harsh view on Tomasz Cywka (a Clough signing): “So he can go back to Wigan or wherever he came from, I am not really bothered, until he learns the game”. A Clough team, ultimately, would be immensely hard working and dedicated, but with a lack of flair to unlock the tightest of defences. It became a little tiresome to reach the halfway point of a season with the mantra “let’s build for next season”.
However, it was refreshing to have a manager who clearly cared for the club. Cynics will say that it’s a results business, but what’s wrong with a bit of heart in the game? I of course want every manager of Derby County to succeed, but never more so than with Clough. I longed for the sight of Nigel holding aloft the Championship trophy (or play-off trophy; they both entail promotion), doing his family proud. Robbie Savage tweeted that Clough was a man “who put the club before himself”, and it’s hard to disagree with that. He clearly loved the club, and gave his all for the cause. His tenure was littered with quality signings; Shaun Barker, John Brayford, Jason Shackell, Craig Bryson, Jamie Ward and Richard Keogh to list a few. Furthermore, whilst the work of academy coaches should never be overlooked, Clough put the likes of Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes into the first team; the latter in particular has the world at his feet. Clough never once directly moaned about the financial constraints, and on their day his teams could be a match for anyone in the league. Championship clubs may be sceptical, but League 1 and 2 clubs could certainly do a lot worse than Nigel.
September was too early to sack Clough. Pessimism has infiltrated Pride Park recently, but he could have turned it around. Perhaps a promotion challenge was just beyond him, but an improvement on 10th from last season was not beyond the realms of possibility. Buoyed by the cash of Will Hughes’ potential sale next year, who knows what Clough could have done with some money finally at his disposal? The alternative looks bleak, which I have often said to Clough-haters. Tony Pulis, seriously? We have methodically and carefully built up a passing game at Derby; why throw that away at one stroke with a rash appointment? I’d love to see where Will Hughes would fit into a Tony Pulis team. Jamie Ward and Craig Bryson would be considered too small. The long ball approach is archaic and ultimately ineffective; even Stoke tired of Pulis eventually despite his promotion exploits. The next manager has to be a significant improvement, and someone who can buy into the ethos on passing football and a strong academy. Of the available options, my best case scenario would be Gus Poyet, but that is extremely unlikely.
Had we finished below 10th this season, I may have called for Clough to go. However, the board’s pandering to a consistent and long-term approach looks pathetic with this decision. September is too early, and this looks all too much like a knee-jerk reaction. The board have a lot of questions to answer; Clough has been a convenient shield for their lack of investment. Had Clough had another year or two, perhaps we finally would have exploded a la Burton in 2009, with everything clicking into place. Thanks for everything Nigel. You kept us up, cleared the deadwood, reduced the wage bill, gave youth a chance and brought some entertainment back to Pride Park, even if it was often in patches. More importantly, you gave a damn about the club. On and off the pitch, the next guy has big shoes to fill.
-Derby’s 3-2 victory (after being 2-0 down) over Nottingham Forest in 2009, their first at the City Ground since 1971
-Four consecutive victories at the start of the 11/12 season; Derby’s best start for 106 years
-Down to 10 men and 1-0 down after one minute, Derby beat Forest 2-1 away in September 2011; they make it a league double in March 2012 with a Jake Buxton effort in a 1-0 win
Clough’s low points:
-A 4-1 home defeat to Scunthorpe in January 2010; the first time his position was seriously called into question
-A 5-2 away feat at Nottingham Forest in December 2010. Need I say more?
-The 10/11 season. Fluid football in a 4-2-3-1 formation was later undone, and a strong promotion battle quickly regressed into a relegation dogfight and a 19th place finish
Let’s finish with a quote from Brian, which sums up the current situation: “If a chairman sacks the manager he initially appointed, he should go as well”.