Why Derby must keep faith with Clough
At Pride Park.
People who question whether Derby boss Nigel Clough is too mild mannered to manage in the Championship would have done well to watch the man springing in and out of the home dugout at Pride Park on Friday evening.
With the scores locked at 1-1 between the Rams and Coventry, the stress and anxiety was clear to see as Clough bemoaned every decision that went against his team and reacted with fury whenever his players needlessly squandered possession.
It was a Clough I have not seen before. Then again, it has been a difficult few months for the 43-year-old. His team went into Friday's match a perilous 20th in the Championship table on the back of eight defeats in their previous 11 games.
I browsed through a few Derby County message boards this week and sensed that opinion had started to turn against Clough.
Clough tries to get his message across
Several people were suggesting that he was being "found out" in the Championship after a decade of managing Burton Albion at non-league level.
Others argued that his policy of giving an opportunity to young players from the lower divisions, like Dean Moxey, was misguided. It simply would not work in the notoriously unforgiving and competitive Championship.
Clough's team trailed 1-0 at half-time against Coventry and were booed from the field. Rob Hulse then scored twice after the restart to give the Rams a 2-1 win.
Fans pay their money and have every right to protest against poor form, but I cannot help but think that the dissatisfaction of the Derby fans serves to highlight the gulf between expectation and reality.
When you look at Pride Park, you see a stadium that should be hosting Premier League football. Derby have a sizeable fanbase and all but the very youngest supporters are old enough to remember their team playing top-flight football.
But Derby are a team that is some way from challenging for a return to the elite level - a point that Clough has been at pains to make. It is a time for rebuilding - and it is a process that will take time.
Derby has become a watchword for instability while the club have spent most of this decade shedding managers more often than Jedward hit bum notes.
If Clough is to change that, then patience is required. The same fans who looked so emotional when the son of Brian returned to the family's supposed spiritual home must hold their nerve.
I visited Clough in the summer at the club's Moor Farm training facility and was impressed by his plans for the club. When he took over, he inherited almost 40 professionals and was in the process of trimming down the pool of players with the aim of establishing a tight-knit unit.
He explained that he wanted his players to know exactly what to do and when, and he wanted them to understand each other's roles as well as their respective strengths and weaknesses. Clough's goal was to assemble a blend of young, hungry players alongside seasoned pros. He was trying to build a team in the truest sense of the word.
However, injury and illness have meant Clough has had little opportunity to decide upon his best XI. As a consequence, the cohesion he wants is still lacking, which obviously impacts on confidence and self-belief. Instead of mounting a promotion challenge, his team have found themselves scrapping for points at the other end of the table.
"It has been a real struggle over the last few weeks," remarked Clough on Friday with genuine frankness. "We have not had many selection options."
By my rough calculations - and please do correct me if I'm wrong - Clough has fielded six different centre-half pairings, seven in the centre of midfield, and the same number in attack.
Clough observed in his programme notes prior to the Coventry game that he had 16 registered professionals unavailable for the previous match at Ipswich, with Paul Dickov his only fit striker.
"A high quantity of injuries will adversely affect form and our injury situation is worse than anyone else's in the four divisions," said the boss.
But Hulse, Paul Green and Dean Leacock returned to the starting line-up on Friday evening, and Clough is confident more will be available after the international break.
Significantly, Clough pointed out that the match against Coventry was the first since the opening day win against Peterborough that he had been able to field the midfield trio of Robbie Savage, Paul Green and Stephen Pearson.
Robbie Savage celebrates a rare win for Derby
I asked Clough whether he thought his team had turned a corner after picking up three points for the first time since they defeated Sheffield Wednesday on 3 October.
"I hope so," he said. "Only time will tell if we can press on, but if we get our players back we have the makings of a healthy squad."
Coventry are in a similar position to Derby when it comes to injuries. Manager Chris Coleman, like Clough, has reduced the size of his squad but was missing four established defenders, several key midfielders and his first-choice keeper against the Rams, while Leon Best, who scored Coventry's only goal, has just returned from injury.
The former Fulham and Real Sociedad boss believes his squad will be competitive when fully fit and says there wasn't an awful lot to choose between Coventry and Derby.
"It was a big game for both teams, they got the points and we didn't," he said.
Derby, with the always confrontational Savage emblematic of the home team's desire and commitment, probably just about deserved their win after a spirited comeback, but it was hardly a memorable match.
Still, as Clough noted: "The result sent the supporters home happy, which is something that we have not done for a while."
It is still early days for Clough, who is in his first full season in charge after taking over in early January and keeping the club in the division.
But until he has been in a position to select from a more or less fully-fit for a sustained period of time, it would be folly to pass judgement on a man who left behind the homely security of Burton and followed in his father's footsteps by trying to revive Derby.