Adam’s latest “The Championship Corner” column.
“I relish the challenge of trying to take the club where it wants to go and needs to be” said Steve Bruce while Steve McClaren said “I am very motivated to put things right for the club and supporters.”
Two managers were being unveiled at respective new clubs, Aston Villa and Derby County, and the usual statements of ambition that litter these occasions were strikingly similar.
Sacking season is underway in the Championship with Derby removing Nigel Pearson after a bust-up with chairman Mel Morris while Roberto Di Matteo was dismissed for guiding Villa to just one win in their opening eleven games, well short of the promotion form necessitated by owner Dr Tony Xia.
Paul Trollope has also been sacked at second-bottom of the table Cardiff City but while they have turned to Championship veteran and relegation doyen Neil Warnock to stave off the ignominy of League One, Villa and Derby have set their stalls markedly higher with their appointments.
Bruce has won promotion to the top-flight four times in his career, two of those coming in recent years with Hull City, whereas Morris, having invested significantly but found himself stung by the experiences of Paul Clement and then Pearson, has gone back to the manager he sacked back in May 2015.
McClaren lost the 2014 Championship play-off final to QPR at the end of his first campaign as Derby boss before a 3-0 defeat to Reading on the last day of the following season meant the Rams missed out on the play-offs after ending February top of the table.
“I regret how my time at Derby ended in 2015,” said the ex-England boss, with echoes of that spectacular second-season combustion lingering in the memory.
Both Bruce, now the sixth man to manage Villa in the last 12 months, and McClaren have taken their new roles with the aim simple; to guide the clubs back into the lucrative top-flight as hastily as they can.
However, they will only benefit if the clubs are willing to show patience that was not afforded to their predecessors.
Morris, the Candy Crush tycoon who is worth £500 million, has spent near to £40 million over the past two years in order to tap into the riches of the Premier League and such levels of investment only leads to an itchy trigger finger at the first sight of trouble.
Clement may have had a case for unfair sacking given his team stood fifth in the Championship table when he was ousted, despite being on a run of seven games without a win.
Pearson was backed well in the summer, breaking the club’s transfer record on Matej Vydra, but was always going to require time to implement his new signings to a squad that had lost Jeff Hendrick to Burnley and Chris Martin, scorer of 60 goals for Derby over the past three seasons, who has bizarrely been allowed to leave on loan to Fulham.
The goal return has been low as a result, Derby have scored just 6 in their opening 11 matches, and it would not be a surprise if McClaren was to turn back to the Scottish striker that was so deadly for him during his first stint at the iPro.
Two positive away results have followed Pearson’s exit, plus the victory at home to Leeds United, possibly as a result of the players being relieved of his demanding and confrontational style, but McClaren must get the time and trust to show why Morris has turned back to him.
For this, Morris must lose the anxiety that had him reportedly flying a drone to spy on Pearson’s training methods when the results weren’t coming.
At Villa Park Bruce, where he started his reign with a 1-1 draw with Wolves, will be charged with working his man-manager qualities on a group of players that have become accustomed to negative results and a squad, plagued by disciplinary issues, that is so mentally fragile it has surrendered winning positions to late goals five times so far this season.
Xia, who like Morris has his eyes firmly set on the riches of the Premier League, must be aware that his club’s problems lie much deeper than what a simple managerial change can solve and because of that McClaren or Bruce can’t be the immediate fall-guy once things start to go wrong again.
McClaren perturbed many with his refusal to countenance the constant Newcastle links that dogged his first spell in charge and he must get those fans back on side quickly if he is to revive Derby’s fortunes. He will know the quickest way to do that is to play good football.
That will help chief executive Sam Rush’s aim, as he praised the summer’s season ticket sales that surpassed 22,000, to reconnect with disgruntled supporters.
He can only do that if Morris, said to be a big fan of his new employee’s methods, alleviates the pressure and accepts, as he has done by returning to McClaren, that sometimes getting it wrong is part of the journey to getting it right.
Written by Adam Gray
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