This summer Nigel Clough swooped to sign eight players to add to his squad at Pride Park. We’re now just over 20 league games into the season so I thought it was a good time to access their performance and progress since signing for the club. The expenditure on players in the summer is believed to be over £3 million.
Michael Jacobs became the club’s first summer signing after a deal was struck with Northampton Town, when he arrived when knew little about him. After featuring in a number of pre-season friendlies, he started the club’s first competitive game of the season – V Scunthorpe in the Capital One Cup. During the Scunthorpe cup tie he set up all 5 Derby goals, and then was substituted before the game took a turn for the worse for the Rams. The young winger had found starts hard to come by until Jamie Ward picked up a hamstring problem, so far he’s totalled 8 starts and 11 substitute appearances.
Jacobs is certainly forming into a good squad member, the 21 year old could well be a good player for years to come. From what we’ve seen so far, he looks a vibrant winger that isn’t afraid to take on his defenders and look to set up team mates.
The second addition, made by the Rams, was Preston North End midfielder Paul Coutts. Since putting pen to paper to sign he’s been an ever present figure, just missing the one game. Despite being a natural central midfielder he has played the vast majority of his games in the right midfield role, which he’s made his home. The Scotsman’s only goal was a crucial one in an away game at Middlesbrough back in October; it was a late equaliser that gave the Rams a rare away point.
If you’ve been frequently watching Derby this season then you’ll be aware how much value he has been, having being brought in for a reported fee of around £150,000. He provides power and unselfishness, the Rams’ top assist maker that has added an extra bite to the midfield. If you cost your mind back to our win at Nottingham Forest, you’ll remember he provided the exquisite low pass to set up Craig Bryson’s goal in front of the 4,000 travelling Rams support. The link up play with right-back John Brayford has been particularly impressive, they both work hard down that right flank to provide the attack.
Next to join up with the club was Coventry City centre-half Richard Keogh, a man who had won three straight consecutive player of the year awards. The fee is believed to be in excess of £1 million, possibly around the £1.5 million mark. He effectively came in as a direct replacement for Jason Shackell, who had departed (much to many fans’ disgust) to Championship rivals Burnley. From the word go, Keogh had big boots to fill. Since the season opened he’s started every game, captaining in Shaun Barker’s absence.
Many believed he’s be nowhere near the standard of Jason Shackell, I think they were wrong. Derby have conceded a number of goals in this campaign but on the whole Keogh has been very impressive. He wears his heart on his sleeve, similar to Jake Buxton and a fit Shaun Barker, and isn’t shy of putting in challenges, which is essentially what you’d expect. Keogh is a natural leader and usually gives the league’s top strikers a few problems, I just can’t wait to see him paired with a fit Shaun Barker. In my opinion he is every bit as good as Shackell, if not more.
Flexible defender James O’Connor was next through the entrance door, from newly relegated Doncaster. Upon signing we were told that he can play anywhere across the back four. There’s only 2 league games, so far, that the former Aston Villa man hasn’t featured in. The 28 year old has also chipped in with a goal, which came in a win over Barnsley last month. So far he has mainly covered for Gareth Roberts, when injured, in the left-back role.
It’s always good to have a player that can play the ‘utility role’, O’Connor is just that. Whilst he can step in at the same time he has looked quite clumsy at points in the season, such as against Leicester. I don’t believe he is good enough to be in the starting XI on a regular basis, more as cover.
With left-back Gareth Roberts ageing Nigel Clough decided to take Michael Hoganson, released by Newcastle United, on trial. Having impressed the Derby coaching staff, the left-back and winger signed a one year deal. Hoganson’s best pre-season contribution came in the game against Sunderland, when he delivered the cross for Nathan Tyson’s goal. Since getting that deal, the 18 year old has been limited to games in the under-21 squad. On two occasions he has featured in a first team matchday squad, but he still remains to make his debut with the Crystal Palace and Leicester City away games being the occasions he has been an unused sub.
It was always unlikely that he would feature much in the club’s first team because of Gareth Roberts’ consistency at left-back and both the more senior Kieron Freeman and James O’Connor being capable of playing in that position. The left-back position isn’t his only position, the wing position is his other role and that is fully occupied with players that have more experience than Hoganson. He’ll be desperately hoping to do enough to earn a new contract and I expect him to be given a first team opportunity, whether that’s in the FA Cup, as a sub or even from the off. At the moment he needs to continue to excel in the under-21 squad.
Another player that arrived on trial, this time from Switzerland, was centre-back Valentin Gjokaj. The 19 year old earned himself a contract, after producing some good pre-season performances. His two year deal was signed just in time for him to take a place on the bench for the visit of Sheffield Wednesday, on the Championship’s opening day. The former FC Luvern player came on as a late substitute in that match, which is his only first team appearance to date. Gjokaj has captained the under-21 side and featured in matchday first team squads before making the loan move north to Carlisle United.
I was very impressed with what I saw of Valentin Gjokaj in pre-season but have seen little since. He was good on the ball, composed and quite a presence. This loan spell in League Two, that has so far seen him appear once, could help the young defender gain valuable first team experience.
Nigel Clough’s penultimate summer scoop turned out to be a very important one, Wigan Athletic striker Conor Sammon. The 26 year old, who had been on Nigel Clough’s radar for a while, found starts few and far between in the Premier League and came to Derby on a big price tag for this club. Sammon, who has been pretty ever present so far, has racked up a total of 5 goals this season, receiving criticism and praise along the way.
I have been, admittedly, frustrated (due to a lack of goals) with Sammon at times but on the whole he has been a good addition. Some expected him to be that ’20 goals a season striker’, that everybody talks about. I really don’t believe Conor is the answer to that but I do believe he can grab goals but more importantly be a team player, in the way he battles for the ball, gives defenders a tough time and brings others into play. The dry patch he went through, between 1 September and 3 November, saw him slated by some Rams fans. His confidence was low then, which could have been a factor in his lack of goals but now I strongly feel he’s behind that and back on form.
The final of the summer business saw Kieron Freeman make the move from arch rivals Nottingham Forest. The 20 year old had a lack of first team fixtures at Forest, but found more games with Notts County on loan. So far he has featured in the under-21 side regularly and sat on the sub bench plenty of times for the first team, finally making his first team debut as a sub against Blackpool in November. Since that he has featured as a late substitute twice.
We’ve heard a lot of good things about Kieron and I’d certainly like to see him given a chance to showcase what he’s got, after all 20 is quite old for the youthful Derby County squad! He is a Welsh under-21 international and received plenty of plaudits from the club he spent a loan spell at last season (Notts County) so he has seemingly has the attributes to develop and hopefully excel in the first team.