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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 07/12/02, 3pm
Derby County
Struggling with economics
By Matt Rowson

I struggle with Economics. Being a Mathematician helps less than you'd think, and that long-discarded A-Level is proving no use at all. Mickey Clarke comes onto "Drive" on Radio 5 on the way home and talks a completely foreign language, albeit in a cheery "I'm just a cockney barrow boy guv" kinda way. They might as well introduce the item as "five minutes for our martian listeners". Nonsense.

So Economics is filed very definitely under Stuff That I Don't Understand. When something occurs to me that goes against the general thread of such a news report or article, even in a familiar context such as football, the safest assumption is that I'm missing something somewhere along the line.

The editorial in When Saturday Comes this month, as so often, was a voice of reason in the cacophony of garbage being spoken about The State Of The Game and further served to reassure me that I'm not completely without a clue.

The G14, then. The group of now eighteen of Europe's wealthiest clubs, who in the past fortnight have announced a voluntary intention to limit their salary bills to 70% of turnover with the implication that others should follow suit. This was met with wise nods and scribbling pens amongst sports journalists who came out in favour of the general tone. In a time of despair and confusion, at last some plausible clarity: salary capping must be the answer.

All of which is rather convenient for the G14, not a body with whom an interest in the wider good of the game over further imbalancing the scales in their favour is generally associated. True to form, and not content with introducing both direct (the Champions League qualification points system, biased to favour nations already well represented) and indirect (the inflated level of salaries and transfer fees that circulate amongst top clubs) barriers to entry to their exalted gang. As my co-editor put it, restricting yourself to living in 70% of the space in your house may be a drag, but it's a hell of a lot easier if you live in a two hundred room mansion than if you live in a bedsit. Buffered by Champions' League revenue, such a policy being widely adopted can only further protect the status of the top clubs, already cementing their places at the top of European leagues with tedious regularity.

Not that something doesn't need to be done, as the plight of Derby County testifies. However the most effective solution to the current malaise would be to travel back ten years and reverse the decision to form the Premier League, football's equivalent of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Inevitably, the chasm between the Premier and the rest widens insurmountably. At least half of the top division have an uneasy choice to make between prudence, and the walloping and relegation that we can testify to, and playing the game and running the risk of the sort of mess that the Rams are now in.

38,000 a week is a lot of money in anyone's language (two Ramon Vegas, for goodness' sake!) but it's a ridiculous amount of money in Division One for a striker whose injuries are only interrupted with idle pondering as to whether he really fancies playing any more. Add to this many more players whose salaries exceed the Rams' current means, a load more who don't appear to fancy this Nationwide lark (and a goodly number that fall into both camps) and it's little wonder that John Gregory's famously loony stare is adopting a whole new intensity.

In goal for Derby will be England U19 International Lee Grant, with Mart Poom on loan and on the bench at Sunderland, and Andy Oakes out of favour.

Gregory has fiddled with formations recently as Derby's form has come in fits and starts. The most recent model sees five across the back; the wing backs are captain Warren Barton on the right, slower and less useful than at his Newcastle peak, and the energetic Paul Boertien, a member of Carlisle's school of '98 with Allan Smart and Nick Wright. In the centre, Steve Elliott has recently returned to the side after injury; he's formidable in the air, but dodgy on the deck. He'll be partnered by Chris Riggott, talented but looking more nervous than when being linked with Liverpool a year or so ago, and player-of-the-year Danny Higginbotham, who won't have won friends with his attempt to resign earlier in the season. Most obvious deputy at the back is youngster Richard Jackson; Luis Zavagno, Youl Mawene and Horacio Carbonari are officially "injured", whilst Brian O'Neil and Bjorn Otto Bragstad have done the fashionable thing and "reached an agreement" to leave the club.

In midfield, Rob Lee is a rare reason to be cheerful. Hailed as "the most obvious player of the year ever" on a Derby fan-site, the main surprise seems to be that Lee made the decision to sign a year's extension in the summer. Craig Burley, who partnered Lee in the narrow defeat at Norwich at the weekend, is reputed to be leaving Pride Park by the end of the week; if so, his place is likely to be taken by youngster Ian Evatt. The goalscoring Adam Murray, abrasive Adam Bolder, and still-enigmatic Georgi Kinkladze are further options; Simo Valakari is on the injured list.

Up front, Gregory has recently opted for the model latterly favoured by GT at the Vic, with two quick players either side of a target man. Deon Burton, improbably still at the club after any number of loan spells elsewhere, is filling the latter role; Lee Morris, a key source of inspiration is on the left with Malcolm Christie likely to return from suspension to play on the right. He should replace eighteen-year-old youth team striker Izale McLeod whose recent displays have suggested that he doesn't yet have the end product to match his pace. Ravanelli and, as ever, Strupar are on the injured list, whilst Marvin Robinson is on loan at Tranmere.

Come January, County are expected to offload a number of high earners with Christie, Higginbotham, Riggott, Poom and Morris most frequently linked with any number of also-ran Premiership clubs. These are grim times at Pride Park, and with some degree of inevitability, the Rams' Trust has been formed as a vehicle to enable those who care the most to mobilise their efforts to save their club. With Derby's colossal debt adding a gravity to their plight that we don't currently suffer, one can only hope that nobody at the club thinks that their club shop's Christmas Calendar is slightly more significant than their supporters' endeavour and input....