How long is a long-term project?

by Henry Chard

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Following the sacking of Derby County manager Nigel Clough, many fans were outraged at the decision given that the manager was part of a ‘long-term project’ at Pride Park. This raises the debate over what is a long-term project? How long is long-term? What is the project?

Nigel Clough was appointed manager of Derby County in January 2009 following the sacking of Paul Jewell. After great success at Burton Albion from 1998 to 2009, leading them up the footballing pyramid from the dark days of relegation battles in the Southern League to Conference table-toppers,  Clough was approached by The Rams to take over. Clough had built his success upon stability at Burton, with the rise of the Brewers taking over ten years. He remained loyal to the club, and things didn’t always go to plan, but the club stuck by him, and with time the club reaped the rewards.

Clough Jnr joined Derby following their dismal one season spell in the Premier League which saw them pick up a record low points tally of 11 points. The club were languishing in the lower regions of The Championship at Christmas time when they turned to Clough in the new year.  It was hoped that the son of one of the most famous managers of all time would build a legacy at Derby similar to that of his father’s time at Derby, but on a lower scale. Rams fans were told that the appointment was part of a long-term project, that would see stability and youth as key to getting Derby County back into the Premier League.

Clough steered them to safety in his first season in charge, before the usual summer clearout of staff and players enabled to him to put his mark on the squad. In his first full season in charge he guided the club to a comfortable 14th place finish, which was seen as the building blocks to the future. The project suffered a blip in the following season when Derby finished 18th in the division, but the club stuck by the manager and they remained positive about the plan and its slow long-term progression. The following season saw a great improvement with the club recording a top half finish of 12th, and this would be improved on in the 2012-13 season when the Rams finished 10th. All the signs were there of a long term project based on loyalty and slow progression year after year, much like that of his spell at Burton.

It would come as a great shock to the Pride Park faithful that after just a few games of the 2013-14 Championship season, Nigel Clough was sacked as they lay 14th in the table. The board said it was time to move onto the next level. Fans reacted disgustingly to the news, calling it outrageous, and asking what he was supposed to have achieved with no money given to invest in the squad.

Clough took over a club that was in a state and stabilised them. He reduced the wage budget by half, and has given young players a chance during his reign, with three current stars Will Hughes, Jeff Hendrick and Craig Bryson likely to move on for big money. But the progress was seen as too slow for the owners. This raises the question, how long is a long-term project, two years? Three? 10? Who knows. In the modern day owners want instant success, and instant results and don’t have the patience to give time to managers to build something. More understandable in the cases of Manchester City and Chelsea where money is thrown at the manager to produce the goods straight away, but at a club like Derby where he has no money to spend, how can you expect quick success?

Maybe the Derby owners were right, we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. Were Derby improving or were they treading water? Or was it just the nature of a tight division that each year they finished a couple of places higher? Were they ever going to reach the top end of the division without any money? We don’t know. How long is a long-term project? Your guess is as good as mine.

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  • micky boon

    problem is with a club like Derby is they have a history, and the owners don’t understand the game has moved on now.

    I thought it was harsh, and replacing him with a man with the charisma of toilet roll is not the way forward

  • CapnBob

    Interesting read.

    Not a regular, but the sacking came as a shock & sad news. I never bought into the surname, but into the idea of a young manager putting in place a structure, from top to bottom.

    It’s a results business, but I think Clough deserved more time. A lack of investment hampered him as did injuries early season (Hendrick).

    I get the impression the new CEO is ambitious, perhaps too ambitious and the sacking also about the club going in a new direction with a Head Coach/Sporting Director, a continental approach. Clough was never keen on a DoF assisting him.

    Some fans have short memories & they were complaints about Clough & if he had taken as far as he could. I was never critical of him, but I think the signing of Conor Sammon, his lack of impact, & £1m fee, was also used against Clough. But Clough was circumspect about money spent and made more shrewd purchases than bad ones especially in comparison to his predecessors who wasted the best part of £20-£30m together.

    He did everything the board asked him as you list above.

    I also think the board panicked about falling crowds. After Clough’s sacking, I received a couple of e-mails adverting season ticket deals and offers.

    As for long-term project, I agree how long is long-term? It’s my belief that Will Hughes would have been sold and the fee received could have been used to revamp the squad. I trusted Clough to make the right purchases, more than Jewell & Davies anyway.

    He maybe was deserving of this opportunity, but it seems the board had lost patience.

    Now McClaren will the recipient of this possible largesse & Robbie Savage was right (Mirror) when he described it as a man reaping the harvest that someone else sowed. Savage ought to know. His wages took up a large chunk of Clough’s budget and it is noticeable that Derby improved following Savage’s retirement. Bryson & Hendrick adding a new energy to the midfield.

    But though McClaren is a good fit with the Academy and young players, unless he is given funds, he will also have to contend with the contradiction of unreal expectations without investment.

    I would like to see Nigel Clough appointed to another job and the patience by a board to see a project through. It might be at a lower tier side (L1/L2) where expectations are not so high. But it would be a sad loss to football if Nigel Clough did not get another post after all this hard work and frustrations (Crawley) that he had to go through and a secret part of me hopes that he comes back to Pride Park one day with his new team and beats us. I wouldn’t begrudge him that at all.

  • Mr Mostyn

    I think the ‘next level’ quoted is a kind way of the owners saying that they wanted someone more professional.

    Clough bought his friends with him and remained fiercely loyal to them, even though it was baffling to understand what some of them actually contributed.

    Nigel Clough’s ultimate downfall will be a combination of two things, 1) Never addressing the defensive frailties, which I believe would’ve required a competent coach and 2) The Negative way in which he reacted during games. There was never a positive change/response in match time, substitutions ineffective or too late. Game-plan not positive enough.

    As a Derby fan, I often felt that Clough sent the team out to ‘not lose’ more often than to ‘win’.

    I am grateful to Nigel for nursing the club back to health, but that is all Nigel is, a ‘nurse’. We now need a coach, a proper professional who understands and lives for football.

  • Henry Chard

    Thanks for reading and the feedback and comments. Firstly I will say I don’t watch Derby enough to probably make an expert opinion, but if I’m honest when I heard the news that he had been sacked, I was not surprised. From an outside point of view, and as an Ipswich fan, I think every season the 2 clubs you would expect to tread water in mid table were Derby and Ipswich, and in that sense I thought that Clough was taking Derby nowhere. I can relate quite a lot to Derby as an Ipswich fan, we have been going nowhere and we have talked of long term plans. During those plans we’ve sacked two managers in Keane and Jewell, and it must be said neither was taking us forward and had money to spend, Jewell less so admittedly. I cant speak from a Derby perspective as I don’t watch them enough to see if there were improvements, but when we played them every year, they looked poor. But as I’ve highlighted he didn’t have much to spend, so what’s to be expected of him? What was harsh is that he had done everything asked of him and got sacked so early on in the season, after what I thought was an encouraging start. What will be interesting is if McClaren gets funds to spend, as despite his torrid time with England I think he’s an excellent tactician and could lead Derby up the table.

  • CapnBob

    Yes, Ipswich & Derby are similar, once read a comparison, similar demographics. I would say though that Ipswich have had considerably more investment under Marcus Evans than we have done – & underachieved.

    Disagree with you, Mostyn.

    If Clough was perceived to be negative at times, it was because of the nature of this division, highly competitive and where a side, especially one without real investment, could find itself in the play-offs or in a relegation dog-fight as last season showed where the division concertinaed. Sometimes results took precedence over performance (ditto McCarthy last season at Ipswich).

    If Clough never addressed ‘the defensive frailties’ , he also wasn’t given the funds. I kept always hearing about a pot of gold Clough was sitting on. I laughed when Derby fans pointed out that funds had been available when Whitbread was brought in. That’s the answer to our defensive prayers? For me, real funds means bringing in a quality partner for Keogh. If you ask me, the sale of Shackell was probably the beginning of the end for NC as we went from two quality centre-backs (Barker & JS) to none and then relying on Buxton.

    Derby needed ‘nursing’ after a difficult period and that is a slightly patronising way to describe Clough. Derby fans have short memories, forgetting the mess the club was in. He stabilised us when League 1 beckoned. The aborted sale of Hulse could’ve given him £4m & Sam Vokes on loan & then he was stuck with Savage’s crippling wage for two seasons. He kept losing his best players for peanuts (Commons).

    Finally, a manager/coach who lives or breathes football? I don’t buy this at all. I don’t believe any manager should do this. Clough remarked that he had spent less time with his children over the last five years as Derby manager and regretted this. And judging by the way he was sacked & the fickle nature of the modern football fan, no manager should sacrifice his own family life for the sake of a football club & its support. They simply aren’t worth it.

    McClaren will be fortunate as he is likely to be given the funds from the sale of Hughes. Let’s hope he doesn’t waste this precious resources like he did with Forest.

    Derby also appear to want to go into a different direction with a continental style approach which I am not averse to. We’ve played our better football using a 4-3-3 style.

    Sam Rush has only been CEO for less than a year and he has already made a big judgement call. Only time will tell and McClaren is at least a good fit for our Academy (lest we forget Clough preferred to see money diverted towards this rather than transfers).

    But Clough’s departure now means that the board can no longer hide under a surname. They want promotion but don’t seem willing to invest in fees or wages, which is a contradiction when you are competing against sides with parachute payments & benefactors. McClaren may be more professional but you need still quality – across all areas & in-depth – to get out of this division.

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