Monday, January 28, 2008
The two worst teams in England?
The averages are scarcely flattering. Preston North End muster less than a point and a goal a game in the Championship. Yet, in encountering a Premier League team for the first time this season, they scored four times and won away from home. But then again, their opponents were Derby.
In a season of four, five and six-goal thrashings, it confounded logic by establishing a new low. Exclude penalty shootouts and Derby have won a solitary game this season yet a 4-1 defeat to a side who may be bound for League One seemed implausible, even by their standards.
Maintain their current, remarkable rate of progress and they would end the season with 12 points and the Premier League's least desirable record. Their American owners imagine a rosy future, but the present is less pleasant and there are two reasons to believe that even an eventual tally of 12 is optimistic.
Because Derby have only managed one from their nine games under Paul Jewell, suggesting they will pick up just two more in the remainder of the season. And four of their current haul of seven have generously been donated by Newcastle United, an indictment of Sam Allardyce's regime and a cause of regret at Pride Park that a third game against the Magpies cannot be scheduled this season.
As history of the worst sort beckons, it prompts the question if Derby are the Premier League's poorest ever side. They will not, unlike Swindon, concede 100 goals but unlike some other disparaged sides such as Barnsley, it appears impossible they will combine relegation with respectability. And a secondary question in the anatomy of a catastrophe is, of course, that of where it all went wrong. Perhaps the most obvious answer is: at Wembley in May, when Stephen Pearson slid in the promotion-clinching goal against West Brom. With the benefit of hindsight, Billy Davies' incessant talk about a three-year plan makes more sense.
But a turning point occurred in their third match, at White Hart Lane. Having acquitted themselves respectably in the opening two, Davies decided to reinstate a second striker - in the form of club record buy Robert Earnshaw - against a smarting Spurs side. A more attacking approach exposed Derby's limitations and left them three goals behind in a quarter of an hour.
The Carling Cup exit to Blackpool the following week further deterred transfer targets and reinforced the impression Derby were doomed. Perhaps the downward momentum had begun even earlier, with a missed chance by Steve Howard at Manchester City, shortly before Michael Johnson scored the decisive goal.
And it is impossible to overlook Davies' summer spending. Having bought so astutely in the Championship, the Scot was criminally wasteful in the higher division. Indeed while Earnshaw, the £3.5million striker without a league goal, ranks as the worst acquisition, others reflected a lack of understanding of the division. Journeymen with a crippling lack of pace, such as Andy Griffin, Andy Todd and Eddie Lewis, were added yet Davies, who varied his tactics intelligently in the Championship, often matched Premier League sides by playing 4-4-2, pitching his players into individual races they were rarely likely to win.
Moreover, there was widespread recognition within football of their players' shortcomings. Derby received enquiries last summer for both Howard and Darren Moore from clubs assuming their valiant service in earning promotion would not delude Davies that they were top-flight players. Moore's admirers were particularly surprised to learn that he was still regarded as a first choice.
Indeed, it is an indication of their overachievement that the captain, Matt Oakley, and last season's top scorer, Howard, have now joined a side in the lower half of the Championship, Leicester City. Yet, though they have come close to procuring three points at Newcastle and one each against Liverpool, Bolton and Wigan, an overhaul in personnel has not brought a commensurate change in results and the nucleus of Derby's squad, with the coveted Giles Barnes probably the only exception, should remain together in the Championship.
And in comparisons of the Premier League's least impressive members, it is instructive. Watford accumulated 28 points last year but must figure on any shortlist of the most ill-suited sides to the highest division, if only for their dire adherence to long-ball tactics. But in Ashley Young, now flourishing at Aston Villa, they contained a talent while, rather more questionably, Hameur Bouazza and Marlon King have been granted a return to the top flight, along with Ben Foster, only on loan anyway.
The feat of the Sunderland side who laboured their way to 19 points in 2003 is all the more noteworthy because they had been an established Premier League team, featuring a core of players - Thomas Sorensen, Michael Gray, Gavin McCann, Claudio Reyna, Kevin Kilbane, Tore Andre Flo and Kevin Phillips - who had excelled in the upper echelons of the division before. Their case lies on the scale of the collective underachievement and the levels of mismanagement involved to falter so badly.
Sunderland's second contender, however, was a team comprised almost entirely of lower-league players. Indeed, some almost appeared to have been recruited for that reason, to avoid disrupting the dressing-room equilibrium. As an eventual total of 15 points in 2005/6 suggests, there was a sheer inevitability to their relegation and only Julio Arca and George McCartney remained in the Premier League. An inability to win at home until April marked them out as the division's worst team to date.
Yet that haul of 15 points, including one against Manchester United, starts to assume a might of its own. Derby's is now an uphill task to ascend to that level, having located a new low below Sunderland's status.
And in the roll call of the rubbish and the pantheon of the poor, Derby may yet achieve another distinction. With six January recruits, three of whom faced Preston, and no discernible improvement, they could complete the season with virtually an entirely different team.
And in the process, theirs might be a season of two halves - each featuring a separate side that is the worst in Premier League history.
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