Gary Rowett: ‘We’re trying to take away feeling we’ve a right to be up there because we’re Derby’
As Gary Rowett wanders across a pitch at Derby County’s training ground attention briefly turns to the grass. The perfect turf barely has a wrinkle, a completely flat field made from a mixture of synthetic and real grass. Another pitch on the other side of the car park is set out to mimic the dimensions of the one at Pride Park. Back inside, down the corridor from Rowett’s office, he sticks his head into a room housing a phalanx of medical staff – physios, masseurs, a chiropodist – helping any player hanging around after training to deal with whatever ailment troubles them.
All of this is not unusual at a Premier League club but in the Championship, the division Derby have been in since 2008, the training complex stands out as exceptional. It emphasises the point that Derby are essentially a Premier League club in theory but not practice.
Yet over the past few seasons Derby seem to have found different and more elaborate ways to avoid going up, from being mugged by Queens Park Rangers in the 2014 play-off final to the collapse of the following season when promotion looked certain, followed by the chaotic managerial situation of the past two years. Rowett is the seventh manager (counting both Steve McClaren’s spells) charged with getting them out of the division since 2013. “People tend to make more of an issue of it than the players here,” Rowett says of those past failures. “If I had a conversation with a player and I thought it had put up a major barrier to success, I’d find a way to quickly get them out of the building. Every player starts the season with a renewed enthusiasm.”
Rowett’s task is to clear out any psychological baggage from those failures, trim a bloated, expensive and ageing squad, cope with the knowledge that managers who make mistakes do not tend to last long at Derby, compete with teams benefiting from parachute payments and then win promotion. No pressure.
“I don’t mean this disrespectfully but we’re trying to take away the feeling that we’ve got a right to be up there in the promotion stakes because we’re Derby,” he says. “What humility are we going to show and how we’re going to work every day to make that happen? You look at Huddersfield, with not a massive budget but a great spirit and togetherness to make that happen. How can we get that ourselves?”
This is probably Rowett’s first job where he has not been an underdog. He exceeded expectations at Burton Albion and Birmingham City and there is a sense that, despite Derby’s relative riches and the well-appointed surroundings, he is trying to manage with that underdog spirit here. He talks as if he is keen on making them a team of artisans, not necessarily in terms of a robust style of play but more their attitude. Perhaps a dose of that will help a side who have been burdened with expectation, and remove the entitlement of which he speaks.
Part of that task is reducing the size of Derby’s squad, which given how things have been managed and how money has been spent liberally, is not easy, but that is not only a financial decision, trying to correct expensive mistakes, but also an extension of how Rowett likes to work. “You’ve got 30 in the squad: if you had a meaningful conversation with one player every day, you’d speak to them once a month and make them feel you don’t actually like them.
“With fewer players you can maximise your budget. You can give the under-23s a clearer chance of being involved. And you could say continuity [of selection] is just as important as the quality in the group. If you’ve got a lot of players, when you lose a game it’s very easy to look on Monday and say: ‘I need to give him a game’ and you end up changing the team all the time.”
The biggest departures this summer have been Tom Ince and Will Hughes, arguably Derby’s two most talented players, to Huddersfield and Watford respectively. A certain amount of disquiet is understandable but another way of looking at things is that Derby did not get promoted with those players, so in some respects you might as well sell and try something else.
But the sale of Hughes caused some understandable distress among the Derby fanbase: a brilliant youth product will always do that. “I got the feeling with Will that he felt he needed a new challenge,” Rowett says. “He’d been here for a while, he’d hoped he’d get in the Premier League with Derby and it hadn’t happened. I felt for less money we could get someone who would fit what we wanted to do in just as good a way and I felt that we didn’t want a player who was frustrated he was here for another season. We’ve sold Will, but we’ve brought in Andre Wisdom, Curtis Davies and Tom Huddlestone for the same money.”
What Rowett says next is illuminating and illustrative of Derby’s previous problems. “Where it is difficult is we’re looking for that extra bit of quality at the top of the pitch and we know we’ve got to pay for that. Maybe previously we’ve said: ‘We’ve got the money, so we’re going to overpay by two or three million,’ just to get it done. If we overpay [now], then we know we might be making the same mistakes. I think that’s sensible. And who’s to say by doing it that way, we won’t find some bits in the culture that we want?”
Rowett throws buzzwords into his speech fairly liberally: maximise makes frequent appearances; synergy is mentioned once; there’s the obligatory nod to marginal gains; he even references kaizen, a Japanese philosophy of improvement popular in the business world. But all of that has seemed to work in the past: Rowett’s main strength has been to get the most (sorry: maximise) from what he has, through man-management, appropriate use of the players at his disposal and adaptable tactics.
“I’ve always felt I’ve wanted to be flexible,” he says, about his management style. “You want to assess things and make different decisions rather than thinking: ’You’ve got to do this at every place you ever go to.’ One size doesn’t fit all. It’s about playing in a way that gets the best from the players at your disposal – around the philosophy you have but not pinned down 100%.”
At Birmingham, his style of play was the among the biggest criticisms of his tenure but he maintains that was a necessity. “We had Demarai Gray, Clayton Donaldson and David Cotterill as our front three. Loads of pace, loads of energy – we decided to give them as much space as we could so we counterattacked. We were physical but we had to be to get results. At Derby it’s been a possession-based team but we want to speed that possession up a bit. We don’t want to suddenly go direct but equally we don’t want to make 25-30 passes when we can make six or seven to get in the same position. You’re always looking at ways to improve but our philosophy will always stay pretty similar. If you don’t lose those elements of being hard to play against and very organised, it can potentially make you a very good team.”
Perhaps his biggest challenge is how he deals with the Derby hierarchy. The club is owned by Mel Morris, a local businessman and fan. Since he took over as chairman in May 2015 McClaren, Paul Clement, Darren Wassall, Nigel Pearson then McClaren again have all left the top job. It has seemed that at the first sign of trouble or discord, a change has been made. For the moment Rowett says their relationship is strong.
“I’ve got a really close direct line, where I can ring him at any time of the day and he’ll pick up,” he says. “Maybe before there’s been a lot more people in senior management positions where there hasn’t been that direct line – I don’t know. It doesn’t change anything – you’ve still got to win games of football. All I can do is do the right thing and hope I’m given enough time.”