by Chris Dunlavy
STEVE McClaren gave Derby goals, thrills and swashbuckling football but was sacked for botching promotion.
Paul Clement set his sights on reaching the Premier League but was dismissed for failing to entertain.
Confused? Captain Yossarian would not have been. The protagonist of Joseph Heller’s seminal satire Catch-22 knew a double bind when he saw one. And his explanation of the fictional dilemma faced by bomber pilot Orr would surely strike a chord with Derby’s deposed doyen.
“Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.”
Like the men in Yossarian’s squadron, Clement was skewered either way, marooned in that bomber with no hope of escape.
Chairman Mel Morris said the ejector was triggered because the former Real Madrid coach had diverged from a pre-agreed plan, the much-lampooned ‘Derby Way’.
“Paul was the one who wanted promotion,” said Morris. “We wanted to build on the squad, develop them, get on a rising tide of performance and let that carry us through into the Premier League – whether that was this season, next season or beyond.”
An admirable goal. Watford, Southampton, Spurs. All of them have risen on the back of expansive philosophies that, whether through shrewd recruitment or youth development, are bigger than any single manager.
Morris should not be criticised for demanding a lasting, sustainable identity. Last time Derby went up, their ‘plan’ amounted to little more than crossing their fingers, buying Robbie Savage and hoping for the best. You can see the logic. But put yourself in Clement’s shoes. A rookie boss, saddled with outrageous expectation, courtesy of years spent coaching superstars at Madrid and PSG. A squad tipped for the title. Almost £25m splurged on new players.
That’s a monstrous dollop of pressure for a guy who, let’s face it, was employed by Carlo Ancelotti to arrange the cones and follow a script.
It’s all very well nodding along in a sunny boardroom as your boss says: ‘Hey Paul, don’t worry about results, mate. Just get us playing a bit of tiki-taka and chuck the kids in’.
But, when you’re stood on the touchline, the sleet going sideways and the results sliding downhill, it’s a lot harder to keep the faith.
Clement wasn’t daft. I’m sure he knew the plan was going awry. But he also knew the average tenure of a Championship manager is less than a year. That football is a results business.
Lacking any meaningful experience, how could he know which way to go? Purism or pragmatism? Which would save his job? In the end, he froze in the middle.
And let’s not be naive. Would Morris really have tolerated a succession of eye-catching 4-3 defeats in pursuit of the plan? Not with all those red numbers on the balance sheet. Nor would supporters, who hadn’t even been informed of its existence.
Maybe Clement was ignoring instructions. His team was certainly dull. But, despite the CV, he was a novice. Employing him to implement ‘the Derby Way’ was like asking John Wayne to play Hamlet.
He needed time and patience: 33 games was never enough to figure out the Catch-22 that bedevilled his days.
*This article was originally published in The FLP on 14 February 2016.