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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 04/03/06, 3.00pm
Derby County
Premier. Not. Ship. Not.
By Matt Rowson

There are many things wrong with the Premiership, beyond its ludicrous, self-aggrandising, pithily-implying-so-much-in-a-single-word title. Much of it revolves around money, obviously, but much as money is blamed for so many ills in football and beyond, this one (in common with the majority of others) isn't really money's fault. This is the consequence of decisions made by People. Them. Bastards.

Of course the various structures in place to reinforce the status quo make the whole thing painfully predictable. Chelsea have the game sown up at the moment, quite obviously, but I don't see how seemingly limitless and maybe morally dubious investment from a Russian oligarch is much more of an unfair advantage (except, perhaps, in degree) than the Champions' (sic) League bankroll? Or the vast amounts of cash that result from finishing an irrelevant tenth rather than an equally irrelevant twelfth? Did you know that it's ten years since either Manchester United or Arsenal finished outside the top three? (Arsenal finished fifth in 1996. Here's hoping...).

There auxiliary frills and tassels on top of this, of course. People talking as if football started in 1992 for one thing... even people who don't work for Sky have been known to do this. Poxy renaming of Leagues further down the ladder for another, part in sequential logic, part in attempting to ape the cheap veneer.

But the most serious issue involves clubs like Derby. When we were last in the top flight the Rams were hardly rattling the gates of power, but having finished in the top ten the previous two seasons it was fair to say that they were an established Premiership side. Six years later they are flailing around in the lower reaches of our division with reported debts in excess of 40m. There are some fairly horrendous cock-ups involved here, I've no doubt. But the fact is that for clubs like Derby (or Charlton, Wigan, West Brom, Forest, any number of others) finishing eighth or ninth in the top flight has become a very major success, and not something that can be counted on, or that the future of the club should depend on.

I've got no strong feelings about Derby County one way or another but football clubs are too important to be put at such risk of disappearing simply because it suits the bastards at the top of the tree to carve off more of the cake and protect their position by rendering the gap between the top two divisions unspannable. The point is, a club like Derby were always going to be at risk of relegation at some point, given a bad year or two or three. So what do you do? Prune your squad in advance, make a possibility a probability by getting rid of players on anything like Premiership money? Insist on relegation clauses in contracts? Not unless everyone else is doing it.

It's a sorry state of affairs, and much as Derby will certainly have made footballing and financial mistakes to get where they are (bear in mind that they even managed to get 7m out of Leeds for Seth Johnson at one point, so it's not as if the bizarre decisions all went against them) it's all too easy for clubs to get themselves into the Rams' position.

Speaking of which... our saving grace in the run-in last season was always going to be that there were some very shit teams in this division; twelve months on, little has changed. That Derby are in only theoretical danger of the drop despite their debts, despite losing Rasiak at the start of the season and not replacing him anything like credibly, and despite seemingly having trouble hitting a cow's arse with a banjo at the moment speaks volumes. The Rams have five goals in eight games, of which Saturday's slightly fortunate victory over Plymouth is the only victory. The last six of those have been under the stewardship of Academy boss Terry Westley... and incidentally one win every six games was roughly his rate of success during his brief spell helping to relegate our good friends Luton ten years ago. Nonetheless the take on Westley seems largely favourable, with predecessor Phil Brown reported to be "well out of his depth".

More fundamental issues are at board level, with reported ructions, fall-outs, board-splits and competing takeover/refinance bids surely providing a distraction where none is required. Most eye-catchingly this week, Director of Football Murdo Mackay, who had had his offer of resignation accepted by four of five board members, turned up for work past the allotted date regardless, citing the one vote against, majority shareholder and chairman John Sleightholme, as critical.

On the pitch the real problem has been scoring goals, a problem that won't have been helped by an injury in training on Thursday to Paul Peschisolido, or of the return to Middlesbrough of loan signing Danny Graham although neither had altogether convinced recently. Derby are desperately trying to broker a loan deal for a striker before the weekend; Andy Gray of Sunderland is a known target, Sunderland will only loan with a view to a permanent move and the Rams have expressed an interest in such a deal so one can only assume that the sticking point is our visitors' inability to get anywhere near the figure that McCarthy wants to recover. Dwight Yorke has been another name mentioned although nothing appears to have happened despite Yorke being back in the country to play for Trinidad and Tobago during the week.

There may be an outside chance that on-loan Spurs man Mounir El Hamdaoui will be rushed back from a groin injury sustained on Valentine's Day that was due to keep him out for "two to three weeks", but there has been no public suggestion of this. With Tommy Smith now seemingly exclusively a wide midfielder, Derby's striking options would appear limited to Kevin Frisbee, on loan from Charlton and a scorer for Norwich during our memorable victory in September, and eighteen year old Lionel Ainsworth, who made his debut off the bench at the weekend but didn't get a touch. He is reported as being extremely quick, but a forward pairing of Ainsworth and Lisbie looks rather lightweight.

In the centre of midfield, one of last season's star turns Inigo Idiakez is reported to have been strangled by Brown's tactics for much of the season but has still weighed in with eight goals (albeit four from the penalty spot) and is Derby's leading scorer. Alongside him, the popular Adam Bolder has two... one last Saturday, the other against the Hornets in August. Tommy Smith should play on one flank where he continues to be one of Derby's brightest sparks but still doesn't score enough, whilst one of Westley's Academy graduates Giles Barnes has been playing on the other. Paul Thirlwell and Morten Bisgaard, the latter back from a one-game ban, are both theoretical but seemingly unrated options, whilst England U19 captain Lee Holmes, who played against the Hornets as a sixteen year old, should make the bench. Seth Johnson, perhaps unsurprisingly, is out injured.

At the back, some recent recruits have bolstered options considerably... I would say "bolstered the experience available", but with Jeff Kenna, Michael Johnson and Marc Edworthy in the ranks experience was hardly lacking anyway. Darren Moore looks likely to start, his first game at Vicarage Road since spreading his now-teammate Tommy Smith all over the turf during the F.A. Cup Fourth Round tie with the Baggies three years ago. He is only 31, somehow, but a three-and-a-half year contract (reportedly) is still rather odd. He could partner Tomasz Hajto, whose comedy own goal was one of the highlights of Southampton's visit on Boxing Day, in a pairing big on bulk but low on pace; a more likely prospect would seem to be the employment of seventeen year-old Lewin Nyatanga, who became Wales' youngest ever cap in midweek having shaken off a toe infection, and won man-of-the-match to boot. Michael Johnson is out with a knee injury.

At left back, the diminutive but reliable Alan Wright, now 34, has arrived from Sheffield United for a month in what I make the Rams' twelfth short-term loan of the season. Marc Edworthy, another experienced defender to have reportedly been offered a long-term contract, should play on the right. Richard Jackson, dismissed in our victory at Pride Park, is out with a hamstring injury and Jeff Kenna, 35, seems to be too old even for this back line. Lee Camp, the impressive England U21 keeper, will be in goal whilst for once Alec Chamberlain won't be the oldest swinger in town... Kevin Poole beats him by almost eleven months, Lee Grant having seemingly left for Oldham on loan in a bit of a strop.

Westley has called on his side to prove that they are the match of ourselves, and to make a mockery of the gap between us. They'll be doing awfully well to do so. Without much of a goal threat, the greatest risk they offer might be the sitting-back approach that Cardiff seemed to settle on for much of the second half last week... with Darren Moore blotting out the light. With Doris still suspended, Malky might need to double up as battering-ram-in-chief again, and as Betty has implied, the crowd's patience will be key. But we did it last week, against a more confident side than Derby.

Bring it on.