Too Far From Critical Clough?
Fratton Park. 1-0 to The Rams. 89 minutes on the clock. As it stands, the fans, players and manager are happy.
Now imagine you are in the head of Nigel Clough.
An interior monologue of the Rams manager would probably sound something like this: 'Ok, classic away performance`.
'Goal on the counter, solid defensive display.`
'Let's make sure we keep this tight.`
'No mistakes. No stupid mistakes.`
'We've told them all season to close games out and not make stupid mistakes.'
Now whilst I don't claim to possess mind-reading abilities, few would argue that this would have been a realistic reading of the game thus far.
Let's continue: 'Come on Tomasz, stick it up in the Pompey half, as far away from our net as possible.`
'You've been told a thousand times to do this, so do it when it counts.`
'Not again. Please, not again.'
After Derby's young Pole lost the ball and it ended up nestled in Stephen Bywater's net, I wouldn't want to continue with the thoughts of the Derby manager, as I fear they might not suitable for those readers suffering from a nervous disposition.
Rams boss Clough has consistently pleaded with his players to exhibit simple common sense when closing games out and there can be little doubt that Tomasz Cywka didn't display footballing intelligence in the closing stages on the south coast, as his mistake diretly led to David Nugent's untimely equaliser.
But that isn't the issue which has provoked an almost universally furious reaction from Derby County fans on messageboards, at the workplace and in pubs around the county.
That issue is the scathing criticism dished out to Cywka in Clough's post-match interview with the BBC.
But let's come back to that later.
First of all, we should unwillingly take a trip down 'memory lane' to 'that' match at The City Ground on December 29th.
The less said about the match itself the better, but in terms of the debate currently raging throughout Derbyshire (in footballing circles atleast), it is the match which preceded Clough's only really scathing public attack on individual players other than the Portsmouth game (players were slated after the Crawley F.A. cup defeat, but more generally).
Dean Leacock and Paul Green bore the brunt of the manager's frustration and with good reason.They were appalling for two well-paid professional footballers with the stakes high; Leacock's positioning and concentration levels were absent to put it politely, and Paul Green's final product was about as effective and elegant as Emile Heskey's World Cup stepover, but there were other culprits for the debacle that foggy night.
Most of the guilty parties were on the pitch, but the man in the dugout was far from blameless.
Clough puzzlingly started the match with full-back John Brayford lining up in the middle of defence, and the soon-to-be-dressed-down Leacock on the right of the back four and although Leacock being out of position doesn't excuse the woeful performance he turned in, the manager's public criticism of the centre-back he placed at right back against the frightening pace of the infuriating Nathan Tyson, combined with his refusal to accept any blame for the defensive line-up certainly didn't place him in a favourable light in the eyes of the humiliated Rams fans.
Clough was slammed by many supporters on the BBC's post-match phone-in for his criticism of Messrs. Green and Leacock, but that pales into insignificance when compared to the level of criticism he is currently being subjected to.
Ultimately, it's the players who win or lose games by their on-pitch performances, but tactics unquestionably play a role, and our tactics on the night were strange to say the least.
If the players had started the Forest game in their regular positions (Leacock and Brayford exchanged roles in the second half which, whilst being a case of shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted, did cause a mild improvement) then I think supporters might not have been so keen to get on the manager's back.
However, they should have put in far better showings than they did, and as a result, what did fans expect?
Whilst Clough should certainly not be exonerated for his poor tactical decisions, a public arm around the shoulder of players guilty of turning in a performance which would likely be forever painfully etched into the memories of Rams fans everywhere, would surely have been a much bigger insult to the incredibly loyal supporters who eat drink and sleep Derby County.
After the Forest game, it truly was a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't for Clough.
Fast-forward six weeks and back to Portsmouth, where the performance was much better and the defence functioned well.
But criticism was still reserved for a specific player, this time Tomasz Cywka.
The inexperienced Pole, after his game-costing error, was branded 'not a very bright footballer' by the son of God, whose voice was quivering with unmistakable anger, bordering on fury.
He was clearly a man coming to the end of his tether, and who can really blame him for reacting angrily after yet another late lapse costing his side points?
Clough went on, declaring that the forward, signed from the Premier League in the summer, could 'go back to Wigan or wherever he came from.'
Over the top? Probably.
Understandable, in view of the frequency of late goals conceded which have decimated Derby's points total this season? Without a shadow of a doubt.
Now why exactly have Nigel Clough's public comments of this player infuriated supporters of the club to such an extent?
The fact that it came after a draw, a decent result away from home, made it look much worse than against local rivals in an utter battering where no excuses could be made.
Also, the level of criticism aimed at Cywka, a young forward still learning his trade, on this occasion has gone too far and the personal tone of the negative appraisal, whether intentional or otherwise, whilst far from the crucifixion some have dubbed it, counted against the manager in this case.
'Not very bright' is not the right way for a manager to describe one if his players and certainly not if he was aware of the growing anger some supporters were feeling about lambasting players in the public domain.
After all, language is a powerful tool, and I doubt that anything near as much would be being made of this if Cywka had been described as being naive rather than 'not being bright.'
You can often read between the lines with interviews managers give and see exactly what they think by studying facial expressions or noticing thinly veiled criticism. Clough often leaves little to the imagination and says exactly what he feels, a trait admired by many.
However, he may have stepped over the line this time, and the next time he lays into a player might start to cause a serious problem.
I'd hazard a guess that the manager's interior monologue after the equalising goal would indeed have read something along the lines of 'not very bright' but, maybe, after recent criticism and calls for togetherness, those comments would be better off collecting dust in the memory bank rather than let off in the heat of the moment and adding to the ever-growing pressure he is already under from many Derby fans, as he continues to work under very difficult circumstances in an unforgiving job in an even more unforgiving league.
As a brave player who famously headed the ball with his eyes open, a skill which made his father immensely proud, Clough Jr. probably considers a few hard words in public not too detrimental to a players confidence or attitude.
Whatever the reasons or possible justifications, the single most important thing, and the only way to stop the talk, is by winning games, starting with three points on Saturday against Leicester City.
Let's hope we can be out of reach by the 89th minute...
Come back to Vital Derby on Friday night for the Big Match Preview for Saturday's derby against Leicester City.