I’ve found a lot of the post-relegation talk in and around the club extremely interesting.
Many fans have expressed a belief that if and when a return to the rarefied levels of the Premier League is achieved, the club must ensure it is more than adequately prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. Now, hindsight is marvellous.
And it’s hindsight that has made a lot of people look back at that memorable afternoon at Wembley last May and wonder if, despite all that we had achieved, the squad, management and culture at the club wasn’t quite ready for the step up in class we’d just attained.
It is an interesting way of looking into things and worth exploring a little further.
Is it a grim reality? Or are we just looking for justification in our relegation?
When Derby County sacked Paul Clement as manager earlier this season, their owner Mel Morris admitted that, for him, promotion was not a priority. Not, at least, until, in his eyes, the club was ready for it.
It wasn’t the sort of thing you expected to hear from the owner of a club that has won two league Championships, made the European Cup semi-finals and been synonymous with some of the most famous names and best players in recent English footballing history.
This is what he had to say on the matter post-Clement.
“When Paul joined us last year we worked with him to develop a plan for the club which we asked him to embrace.
“It was clear in this plan, which was briefed to supporters, players, sponsors and all our stakeholders last summer that promotion this season was not the primary target.
“The priorities were building on the Derby way and style of football enjoyed in the past two seasons; adding depth and strength to our playing squad; and, developing and improving player and team performance.
“Sadly, on these measurements, we have not made enough progress and that is why we have decided to part company with Paul.”
Reading those words at the time must have struck a chord with me as I never forgot them. But that’s hardly surprising, for the owner of such a big and, you would think, ambitious football club to publicly say such things in a culture and league which has some owners who expect success yesterday.
Not to mention fans. Derby’s average attendance for this season has been 29,378. And he’s publicly telling those fans that promotion is not the club’s primary target.
The man has balls of steel. Yet I haven’t heard any stories of mass protests in and around the ground, walk-outs and banners demanding that he relinquish control of the Rams and hand the reins over to someone with more ambition.
It’s not as if he and the club’s board don’t choose to invest in the playing squad and make funds available to the manager.
Between last July and the end of January, the total transfer spend at Derby County was in the region of £25,000,000. And that’s a very clear and obvious outlay without any significant sales to reconcile against what they have spent.
Because, from last July to this March, of the fourteen players who left the club- some of who are fairly well known names at that (Lee Hendrie and Zak Whitbread for example) – five were released and another seven given free transfers.
So it’s likely that they would have made a further outlay in doing just that, whether it was paying off contracts or other incentives to smooth an individual’s departure.
Just two players were sold in the traditional sense and, when I tell you that they were Simon Dawkins and Isak Ssewankambo then you’ll deduce, as I have, that ‘undisclosed’, in these two instances, translates as ‘not very much’.
Derby are in the Championship play-offs again this season. This has been their eighth consecutive season at this level, during which time they’ve reached the play-off final just the once, in 2014, when they lost to QPR.
QPR, incidentally, came straight back down again the following season.
As did Leicester City who beat Derby in the 1994 play off final.
Were both of those clubs ready for promotion after their play-off wins and all the glory and hyperbole that came with it?
Now look at Middlesbrough, the team we so comprehensively beat in that same play off final a year ago.
Between ourselves and Middlesbrough, which of the two teams has, in the twelve months since that day, made the most progress as a football club, on and off the pitch?
Sure, we had a promotion and all that goes with it. But hasn’t the enjoyment of that day now been a little bit tarnished by what was confirmed against Watford on Tuesday evening? Something which, in truth, a lot people could see coming anyway, some from very early on in the season.
We’ve suffered a blow. Income will be hit, redundancies will be made and a popular CEO has quit the club, as has a chairman. And, like it or not, we will almost certainly lose players we’d really rather keep over the next few months.
Middlesbrough, on the other hand, got over their defeat, kept faith in their manager, improved their playing squad with, since July, a total of six new players joining the club at a conservative estimate of around £25,000,000, whilst a further ten left for pastures new.
They regrouped and rebuilt. And how.
So, despite their sad faces last May, you’d have to say, football wise at least, the last twelve months has probably been more successful for them and almost certainly a lot happier than ours.
Are they now more prepared for life in the Premier League than they might have been a year ago?
Is Daniel Ayala, who made just seven league appearances for us in his time at Carrow Road, good enough and ready for a season of Premier League football?
He’s certainly going to be given the chance.
The same applies to the likes of George Friend, Ben Gibson, Adam Clayton and Albert Adomah – a player who we were once very strongly linked with.
Again, it’s hard to tell. But they’ll get the chance. And you get the feeling some of them will prosper. Friend, for example, looks a very good player indeed whilst in Stuart Downing they’ve got some hardcore Premier League know how.
He’s one of those players who is adored and appreciated by his team-mates but maybe not so much amongst his own supporters. But he’ll do well for them next season. And, having failed at the last stage last season but still going out and spending £25,000,000 anyway, they’ll not be shy of spending more than that over the next few months.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they came in for Jonny Howson either. Middlesbrough is an hour away from his home town of Morley. It would be tempting for him and if we asked for £10,000,000 they’ve got an owner in Steve Gibson who’d almost certainly sanction the deal and call it a bargain.
Speculation of course. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it happened.
Are Middlesbrough ready? Will, if they win the play-offs this season, Derby County be ready?
Ready for life in the Premier League which, despite all its faults, is the only place to be and the place we should continually aspire to be in ourselves.
But here’s the question.
Do we go all out to get back there by the end of next season, do we throw money at the objective and do it whatever the cost and in a manner, just like that of QPR back in 2014 which brings short-term delight at the cost of long term pain?
Or do we take a page out of the book Mel Morris has written for Derby County and say yes, let’s get back into the Premier League. But let’s get everything about the club right first. And that means everything.
The football philosophy, the way we play, the playing squad, the coaching structure, the training ground and the marketing/ commercial set up.
Tick every single box meaning that, when the final one is ticked, we know we are ready to go up and stay up.
Are we ready to take a similar sort of approach?
And would the fans accept it?
Like I said. Interesting times.