For all the proud achievement and celebration that accompanied Derby County’s reaching the Championship Play Off final against Aston Villa, the fact remains that the 2019/20 season will be played in the Championship for the Rams – their 12th season since they last graced the Premier League – although they could only muster 11 points in a now infamous season.
Derby lost 2-1 to Aston Villa in the Championship Play Off final – they couldn’t cap another remarkable comeback as they had been able to do at Elland Road in the semi-finals – and with the knowledge that it would be Championship football again at Pride Park next season, thoughts then turned to (current) manager Frank Lampard, and what challenges he faces for next season.
The truth is, that, whether or not Derby gained Premier League football next season, the changes will be ringing and plentiful for the Rams. Even if Derby had have prevailed against Aston Villa, the three loanees that have played such a crucial part of the success for Derby this season – Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori (both Chelsea) and Harry Wilson (Liverpool) would likely have left the club, either to be returned to their parent club or, as is more likely, a further loan spell at a club with a higher standing than the Rams. Tomori, Derby’s Player of the Year (pictured above), has already been linked with Celtic, whilst Mount could again go to a German Bundesliga side. Liverpool have apparently slapped a £25 million price tag on Wilson, and clubs are already circling the player, so they would leave huge holes to fill.
On top of these, there are a number of players out of contract over the summer, as well as long established and aging players that cannot be seen as the future. Tom Huddlestone, Bradley Johnson, Curtis Davies, Scott Carson, Ashley Cole, David Nugent, Craig Bryson, Marcus Olsson as well as Derby stalwart and captain Richard Keogh are all in the twilight of their careers – and you would be hard pressed to suggest any of these are (now) of Premier League standing, with question marks against them all for another long, hard Championship campaign. You could argue a couple of them – likely Keogh and Johnson – could squeeze out another season…but for longevity, all need replacing.
That leaves Derby extremely thin on the ground. It is true they have a number of decent youngsters floating around. Right back Jayden Bogle has been exceptional this season and would look a star of the future…central midfielder Duane Holmes has shown plenty of promise and potential and was clearly missed (injury) against Villa. Mason Bennett has finally made the step up from prospect to player and there are a number of youth academy prospects in the first team squad that look capable. These, combined with the likes of Jack Marriott, Martyn Waghorn, Tom Lawrence and Scott Malone form a decent enough base to build on…but not, you would suggest, anything like what is needed to once again be in the promotion mix come next May in the Championship.
Then, of course, there is the growing strength of rumour that Lampard could well be next in line for the Chelsea job, with current incumbent Maurizio Sarri being touted for Juventus. Lampard has been superb in his first year of management – quickly growing a superb relationship with the Derby faithful, and getting the players bought in to his own management ideas. Intelligent, articulate and seemingly extremely progressive, its easy to see why Chelsea are already looking his way, knowing he would get the immediate and full rapturous support from every Chelsea fan in the world, being able to bring the vast array of young talent they have on (including the afore mentioned Mount & Tomori) and having the capability to attract top named signings purely from his own illustrious career at Stamford Bridge to point to. It seems inevitable that Lampard will end up at Chelsea – he may well see the job at Derby (he has two more years on his contract left) as unfinished and feel he has time yet to grow and gain experience before making the move….he may also think he has little to lose by taking the job sooner rather than later and leave what could be a sinking ship whilst on a high.
So it promises to be a tumultuous summer at Pride Park – off field as well as on – as rumours about Owner/Chairman Mel Morris continue to grow with his own desire and ability to remain with the Rams…there could just be another party offering financial backing in the mix soon. Then there is the Rams looking to be sued by Middlesbrough over an alleged financial Fair Play breach of rules.
There is a feeling that maybe, just maybe, especially considering what happened last time the Rams reached the Premier League, that losing the final to Aston Villa could well prove to be a blessing in disguise. The Rams seem even more ill-prepared for a bash at the top flight than last time – although there were about 170 million reasons to get there even if 11 points would be beyond reach. But there is no doubting the job at Derby is clearly not done, no matter how well Lampard has done this season. It could actually just be starting.