Both clubs ready for new season
4 August ~ Today's fixture between Derby County and Blackburn Rovers sees two teams still struggling with how competitive the Championship is. It's a division where the cliche that almost any team can beat any other actually holds true – shown by how tight both ends of the table were last season. Derby finished on the edge of the play-offs while Blackburn eventually moved up the table after hanging around the relegation zone. Both sets of fans have reason for optimism grounded in a realisation that it's hard work getting out of the division.
Rovers' Teflon-coated managing director Derek Shaw – who caused the club to be described as "out of control" in the high court but has survived a post-Steve Kean cull – believes that the new Football League financial fair play rules are unfair and that in a free market there should be no limit to the amount of Venky's money manager Gary Bowyer should be able to spend. What the new rule has done is force the manager to offload many of the better paid but underperforming players, including Danny Murphy, Nuno Gomes and Martin Olsson.
In their place he has brought in rather less exotic footballers such as Doncaster's Tommy Spurr, Alan Judge from Notts County, Alex Marrow via Crystal Palace and Chris Taylor, ex-Millwall. The team does however retain a potentially exciting strike force including Jordan Rhodes, DJ Campbell, Leon Best and Rubén Rochina but, as last season shows, in a competitive division such as the Championship potential isn't enough. Supporters are hoping that a period of stability (the less seen of "global advisor" Shebby Singh the better) will allow Bowyer the time to mould a competitive side.
Nigel Clough has been in charge at Derby since January 2009 and, although supporters are aware of the financial constraints under which he has worked, there are signs that some are beginning to lose patience. Fans have probably given the manager more time than many others would have been granted but with last season's tenth-place finish being the team's highest under Clough any sentimental attachment to the family name may wear thin.
Having said that, locals believe the addition of Johnny Russell from Dundee United and Chris Martin from Norwich in support of top scorer Jamie Ward could mean they have the goal scorers to break into the top six. With rivals Forest strongly backed for the coming season the pressure on Derby to keep pace (both from fans and board) could make life difficult for Clough, particularly if the team get off to a bad start. This first match is important for County to set the tone for the coming weeks.
Bowyer cites Derby as an example of a club run well under monetary constraints, with Clough forced to reduce the wage bill but still producing a team capable of competing at this level. The chance of either team challenging for automatic promotion is slim but both hold play-off ambitions and at least hope to be in the top half of the table come next May. Derby and Blackburn's striking capabilities give them a chance but they might struggle if they are hit with injuries or suspensions in the depths of winter. The more likely scenario is that they will finish close to each other somewhere in mid-table. Bruce Wilkinson