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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 21/04/03, 3.00pm
Derby County
The new...
By Ian Grant

It's all terribly confusing, really. Hard to keep up. Best not to think about it at all, I reckon.

I mean, for all the "Manchester United of the First Division" talk at the start of last season, Watford were really attempting to become the new Fulham. Instead, they became the new old Derby, then settled for being the new Watford instead. Derby, meanwhile, had briefly become the new Middlesbrough, before settling for an attempt at being the new Sheffield Wednesday more recently. Breathlessly moving on, they're now the new Crystal Palace. Meanwhile, Sheffield Wednesday are the new Huddersfield and Crystal Palace are the new Birmingham. Nottingham Forest are the new Wolves, except that the current owners have yet to relinquish that coveted title. Portsmouth are the new Manchester City, while Leicester are the new Leicester, very much fitting in with their traditional role in life after a brief and disturbing holiday in Likeable Land. Charlton are, of course, the new Ipswich. Ipswich themselves briefly flirted with being the new Bradford and are now having a crack at being the new Nottingham Forest. Rotherham are the new Crewe. Grimsby are the new Southend, Brighton are the new Bury, and Stoke are just rubbish. Gillingham are the new Tranmere, which must be pleasant, and Burnley are the new Millwall. Millwall are the new Norwich, impossible to pin-point in the league table but inevitably somewhere in the middle. Preston are the new Walsall, which leaves Walsall without a chair when the music stops. Wigan and Reading have been practically indistinguishable for some time now.

Like I say, it's probably best not to think about it. Which is easy enough for Derby fans, who are able to focus on their own problems to the exclusion of everything else, those problems being so numerous and so confusing that it's pretty hard to know where to start. Especially without the advice of a libel lawyer. (And particularly when Trevor Francis has just "parted company" - a phrase that's rich with images of shed tears, soggy handkerchiefs and backward glances full of desperate longing, and I'm sure that's an entirely accurate picture - with his employers. An event that's both hugely uplifting and, somehow, slightly disappointing too.)

Anyway, back to Derby, because we must. Really, this could be a plot from a typically dreary and supposedly "hard-hitting" ITV police drama, and not just because John Gregory has the steely, maniacal glare of an over-worked, over-caffeinated detective. Somewhere amid a spectacular and yet completely tedious tangle of events - Craig Burley's injury, Derby's slump, John Gregory's suspension, internal enquiry, George Burley's appointment, and so on, and so on - is the truth, yet you rather suspect that nobody will ever be brave, foolish or honest enough to confirm what that might be. A meeting between club and manager-in-limbo is apparently scheduled for next week, which will probably serve to muddy the waters still further.

Which leaves us with the unavoidable conclusion that Derby rather fancied getting rid of their manager without settling his contract in the process, and that whatever went on between John Gregory and Craig Burley - and some fairly scathing comments from the latter presumably lie at the heart of it - presented an unmissable opportunity. The most extraordinary aspect of the whole affair is surely the decision to employ George Burley - Craig's uncle - as the caretaker manager. A certain "Blackadder" trial springs to mind, with the midfielder in the starring role as Speckled Jim. As ever, it's reassuring to know that those populating football's boardrooms have a firm grasp on reality. Although you can rather understand why they might want to swap Burley for Gregory, granted.

Amid all this nonsense, Derby had begun to slip towards the relegation places. Indeed, in moments of post-Hillsborough gloom, we were briefly grateful for their apparent willingness to be a buffer between ourselves and the dogfight. That's all sorted now, thankfully...and Derby too have edged towards safety with wins over Norwich and Wimblescum in the last couple of weeks. With a home defeat to Millwall in midweek, however, normal service was definitely resumed. It also prevented them from recording three successive league victories for the first time in five years.

It's not hard to see where Derby's problems lie. Their squad has that unmistakable post-Premiership, post-financial crisis appearance, producing a patched-up line-up of inexperienced youngsters alongside more familiar, and possibly less dedicated, names. Add in a whole load of injuries and you're not going anywhere in a hurry, whoever your manager is.

The whole mess starts right away, as regular keeper Andy Oakes picked up a shoulder injury in the Millwall game and is likely to be absent for the rest of the season. His deputy, Lee Grant, hails from Hemel Hempstead and has experience despite his youth, having been Gregory's first choice in the past. That leaves Lee Camp, recently loaned to Burton Albion to gain some extra practice, as the substitute keeper.

Things aren't much better in defence, really. With Steve Elliott doubtful due to an ankle injury, Luciano Zavagno ruled out after a hernia operation and Lewis Hunt also absent with a thigh strain, there's been a forced reorganisation that has seen the very familiar figure of Thomas J Mooney move back to the left side of a three-man defence. Derby fans, of course, might not realise that he's done it before, and won a Second Division Championship medal for his trouble. Whether that's still the formation on Monday probably depends on the fitness of Elliott, given that striking options aren't exactly numerous either.

Against Millwall - until the goal chase led to Mooney being shifted forwards again, at least - the other members of this backline were the vastly experienced Warren Barton (who joined Derby because they were "a big club with a big manager"), with Paul Ritchie as the anchor man. Ritchie, who had spent much of the season on loan to Portsmouth, joined Derby from Manchester City on deadline day. That presumably leaves energetic ex-Carlisle man Paul Boertien on the left with Richard Jackson, who can play on either side, on the right. Back-up is scarce, with youngster Pablo Mills on the bench in midweek.

It's no great surprise to find that the Derby midfield now includes a certain Craig Burley again...although it has to be said that you'd question the previous manager's judgement more than the current one's in that regard. Robert Lee, now thirty-seven and just back from a two match suspension, was a substitute against Millwall, while Adam Bolder, signed from Hull, and Finnish play-maker Simo Valakari completed the line-up. Again, it's all a bit thin, and another young 'un, Adam Murray, is likely to be a substitute.

Up front? Well, Branko Strupar is still injured, inevitably. And Georgi Kinkladze is still a much better player in theory than in practice, like a particularly luxurious version of Peter Ndlovu. And Fabrizio Ravanelli is still there, each of this season's three goals costing £218,194.39p each, or something like that. Although, to be fair to the Italian, he was injured until February. And, besides, a Mooney-Ravanelli forward line does have a certain ring to it. Otherwise, top scorer Lee Morris is another who's been ruled out for the rest of the season, as has Marcus Tudgay. Which leaves Izale McLeod, who made his debut at seventeen last season, as the final part of a bench that'll have a combined age of about twenty-seven.

So, really, there are similarities and contrasts here. Both clubs are already looking ahead to next season, albeit that one has an eye on a finish in the top half and the other needs a point or two for absolute safety. But one of them is preparing with a certain calm confidence, surveying the squad that'll be taking on the First Division in August. The other is still in a state of fairly violent flux, still in need of real, decisive leadership.

Briefly, as we failed to find the necessary points to ensure safety, this looked like the fixture that'd offer our best chance of breaking the fifty point mark. It could've been a bit of a nail-biter. It won't be anything of the sort. But if the trip to Selhurst was anything to go by, that doesn't mean that it can't be enjoyable. It'll all be terribly stressful soon enough, you know.