(Photo: Action Images / Alan Walter)
By Chris Dunlavy
GARY Rowett went to London on Thursday afternoon. A bit of shopping, coffee, dinner with his daughters.
“We’ve had a day off,” explains the Derby boss. “So I thought I’d have a few hours to myself, away from the transfer madness.”
Madness is the word. In a summer when Neymar joined PSG for the GDP of Tonga, Man City spent £126m on full-backs and Wolves signed the captain of Porto, the transfer market looks more like an asylum.
Clubs owned by nations. Eight-figure TV deals. A recent forecast by accountancy giant PwC predicted that £100m fees will be commonplace by 2025. And what starts at the top inevitably trickles down.
Remember how Ross McCormack obliterated the Championship transfer record when he joined Fulham for £11m in 2014? The Scot is now tenth on the all-time list.
So fast has the landscape changed that old precedents and notions of value are obsolete.
“This window is probably the toughest window anyone can remember,” said Rowett, who took charge at Pride Park in March.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of people in football and they’re all saying the same thing. It’s just become so difficult to gauge a player’s value.
“Rafa Benitez made a comment, which I thought was really pertinent. He said ‘An average Premier League player now is £10m. If he can score goals, he’s £20m’. That’s the kind of unprecedented scenario we’re dealing with now.
“You look at the signing of Britt Assombalonga. Neves for Wolves. Who’d have thought even five years ago that Championship teams would be paying £15m for a player? That’s Premier League money.
“Everyone is holding out for large fees because recent events have convinced them that somebody will eventually pay.
“That, in turn, means everyone is nervous to put an offer in for a player without any indication from the selling club. Because, as soon as you show interest, the prices go through the roof. It’s a very new challenge.”
One that Rowett has risen to. Though Tom Lawrence cost an eye-watering £7m from Leicester, Hull duo Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies were acquired for a bargain £3m.
Former Rams loanee Andre Wisdom, meanwhile, cost just £2m from Liverpool. All four have significant experience in the Championship .
More are expected, with Rowett determined to shake up a side whose flamboyant football was too often undermined by a soft underbelly.
“Anyone who’s been in the Championship knows you need that bit of toughness and resilience,” explains the former Birmingham City manager, who sold stalwarts Tom Ince, Will Hughes and Cyrus Christie this summer.
“Quality, yes. Goals, yes. But, without being robust, you aren’t going to win many games.
“That’s why you often see good Premier League players find it difficult to drop down. If you look at the Premier League, virtually every team tries to play football. Every team will try to play out from the back.
“They won’t cross the ball very often because they’ll try to play through the lines.
“You look in the Championship and I can think of at least five or six sides who will really test you early on in games with direct play. And that’s great – it’s what this division is all about.
“At Birmingham, due to financial reasons, we felt our best chance lay in being powerful and direct. We came to Pride Park and won 3-0 by being very, very physical.
“So now, when the boot is on the other foot, you have to deal with it. We do appreciate the type of club we are. There’s an expectation on us to play good, attacking football.
“But, when that’s not working, you have to win in different ways. In the past, Derby played 4-3-3 almost every game. It worked to a point, and you have to remember how close they’ve come to promotion. Plenty of others didn’t.
“What they needed – and what I’ve tried to bring – is a little more flexibility. I want us to play, to pass, to keep the ball. But I don’t want to go somewhere on a Tuesday night and find we haven’t got enough fight in the team.”
Rowett uses big-spending Wolves, who beat the Rams 2-0 at Pride Park a fortnight ago, to illustrate his point.
“All the best teams can mix things up,” he says. “Wolves dropped in, blocked the space, defended incredibly well. They were very, very tough to play against, and it was nothing to do with the quality of their football.”
Nor does Rowett agree with the notion that plunging so many overseas players into the Championship is a risk.
“They’ve been tentatively trying out their links with (agent) Jorge Mendes for a while,” he says. “Now they’ve obviously said ‘You know what, let’s just go all in’.
“Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I certainly don’t think that signing five foreign players represents more of a risk than signing five Championship players.
“We signed Maikel Kieftenbeld when we were at Birmingham. He was the captain of Groningen and was a fantastic player for us.
“Jon Toral, a young Spanish lad on loan from Arsenal, won the player of the year award. If they’ve got the quality and adapt to the culture, great.”
Wolves are just one of many hurdles for Derby to clear if they are to end a decade-long stretch in the Championship.
Two play-off failures and several years of lavish spending ensured a perennial place among the promotion favourites – a tag that few in white cherished.
Now, though, with the likes of Middlesbrough and Aston Villa flashing the cash, there is a sense that Derby can finally operate out of the spotlight.
“Yeah, I think that’s true,” admits Rowett. “Genuine expectation only lasts a couple of years, then people start to think in terms of a transition.
“Clearly, the massive pressure over recent years hasn’t helped the players. Maybe this is the year where we can go about our business and not worry too much about what people think.”
For Rowett, though, the aim is clear.
“We want to be challenging for those top two spots and, if not, around the top six,” he says. “If we were starting the season with a target anything less than that, I’d be ashamed to put my name to it.”