The Sunderland vs Derby County ‘Who are You?’: a man in the know

Nick Britten: not really as handsome as he seems. And his wife, charming as she is, likes the colour of the shirt stripes

Monsieur Salut writes:
Nick Britten* has written a column for the Derby County matchday programme for 16 years. I think we both wrote for our respective club programmes about the time he rescued me from the A38 (update: oops – Nick corrects me and says it was the A50, and he should know) after the Sunderland SAFCSA London branch’s dozy coach driver got us all stuck in the not-very-hard shoulder mud on the way back from the Old Trafford FA Cup semi-final vs Millwall.

Oh, and he married a Mag. Read on for a knowledgeable Derby fan’s view of how his team and ours stand at the start of the new season, his thoughts on Grayson and his predicted scoreline for the opening game at the SoL on Friday night (maybe skip that bit) … but all in all, a great start to the 2017-2018 Who are You? series

With thanks to Chris Smith

Salut! Sunderland: last season, you occasionally flattered to deceive (whereas we never did except on our one run of winning four out of eight). Why in the end did you still miss out on the playoffs, and by some margin?

Nick Britten: A shot of instability with a mixer of chaos. We started the season with Nigel Pearson in charge, our third manager (including a caretaker) within 12 months after Steve McClaren and Paul Clement departed, and Darren Wassall’s temporary stint.

Pearson lasted only nine games and Steve McClaren was brought back for his second spell. The squad was a mish-mash of players brought by several managers to suit different styles of play, and simply didn’t gel. Our leading striker Chris Martin was loaned by Pearson to Fulham for the season, taking most of the team’s goals with him, and McClaren was sacked for the second time in March. Gary Rowett was installed and begins the season as manager. On the pitch, not enough goals did for us in the end, as defensively we were pretty good.

Derby and Sunderland have similar problems hiring and keeping the right managers, resulting in frequent change. Assess Gary Rowett…

See above! Gary Rowett was a popular choice having been a player here in the early 2000s. I remember at those times sitting with him at David Lloyd on Pride Park drinking coffee and talking tactics and he was incredibly astute. He has wasted no time in setting out his stall and changing the way Derby play. Gone is the Clement-esque Real Madrid 50 passes before reaching the half way line, and in has come a quicker, more direct play which sees the ball back to front in minimal time. That’s not to say hoof-ball, just more direct.

Pre-season he seems to have re-engaged some of the less motivated players, and everyone seems to be responding well. He has brought good energy to a club where supporters were starting to feel a little fed up. There’s a sense that he gets the club, understands what makes it tick. I’m a big fan and think he has a great chance as long as he is allowed sticky spells and time to get it right.

And how do you feel Kevin Phillips does his job as first team coach?

The great survivor, having seen a number of managers come and go. We’re not exactly on fire in front of goal (he was brought in as a striker coach) so no one is quite sure about him. However, the very fact he is still here shows Mel Morris and Gary Rowett rate him. He always comes across well and was an excellent striker, so I’m happy to have him here.

Guess the Sunderland v Derby County score and maybe win a prize. Derby fans warmly invited to enter – just click anywhere in this text …

Jake kicks off a new season of Guess the Score

Has your owner Mel Morris got the right sort of financial clout and commitment to take you back to the Premier and keep you there?

No one in the city has a greater desire to see Derby back in the Premier League than Mel. He is driven beyond belief, and unlike the rest of us has the financial clout to give it a go, having collected a reported £450 million from his stake in Candy Crush to add to an already impressive business empire. He has certainly put his money where his mouth is and is due great credit.

Also, what many don’t know is the amount he has put into improving the stadium, pitch, facilities and above all the training ground, which really is second to none. It’s eye-watering! I’m sure if we gain promotion he will continue to back us, although with the TV money the pressure won’t all be on him!

Check for great (sometimes grating) football writing

With Darren Bent out until Christmas, where will your goals be coming from?

It is unlikely Bent would have featured that much this season anyway, and not as much as last year when Chris Martin was curiously dispatched on loan to Fulham by Nigel Pearson, having been the top scorer for the previous two seasons.

Martin is back and likely to partner with the evergreen David Nugent, who arrived in January from Middleborough. Matej Vydra has yet to justify his £8m price tag after arriving last season, and Nick Blackman has done little since signing from Reading but might yet come good. Most supporters are hoping a winger will arrive to replace Tom Ince, who was top scorer last season and arguably the team’s outstanding performer before recently being sold to Huddersfield.

And where else in the squad will promotion or playoff at least be won or lost this season?

You need a tight defence to win promotion and that is where Gary Rowett has started, bringing in Curtis Davies from Hull and Andre Wisdom from Liverpool. Tom Huddleston will provide strength and skill as a defensive midfielder, having arrived from Hull as George Thorne, who on his day is the best defensive midfielder in the league, is yet again injured. With the departure of Ince and Will Hughes goes the creativity in the team, and while we have goal scorers, the question is do we have enough talent to provide the bullets? If anywhere, that midfield/wing area might be our Achilles’ heel this season unless we can bring in some creativity out wide.

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You took away our unwanted record of lowest Premier League points, How has life been in the Championship, especially given the contrast with Derby glory days?

It’s been a long time since the 11 points debacle but thanks for the reminder! 10 years this season in fact, so we’re pretty used to the Championship.

With thanks to Chaddramz at YouTube – and Chumbawamba

It’s a great league, with every game being ferociously competitive and unpredictable. That makes it hard to get out of, but not that hard if you’re a top team.

I like it, but then I’m not someone who craves the Premier League and the sole ambition at the start of the season of wanting to finishing 17th!

The glory days of Clough, Taylor and Mackay are still talked about, although with every new generation of supporter the memory diminishes. The more recent success in the late 1990s under the wonderful Jim Smith remains many supporters’ favourite ever Derby team.

If not answered in the previous response, what is the standard of football we can expect to come up against?

Fast, fierce, competitive and better than you might think. Brighton and Newcastle played some lovely stuff last year, and some of the football Fulham played was better than a lot you’d find in the Premier League. That said, while there is plenty of skill to be seen in Championship, it’s not always pretty. But it is generally always exciting.

You might find plenty of teams will come to the Stadium of Light and just sit back, go for a point and hoping to hit on the counter and nick three, which will be a change from last season. But Simon Grayson will be aware of that – he did it with superb effect at our place last season!

Best moments – and worst – as a Derby fan?

Best – there are so many. And yes, I have a straight face when I say that. If I had to choose one, it would be beating Crystal Palace in 1996 to win promotion to the Premier League. We were second, they were third (Sunderland were top and promoted as Champions by the way), second to last game of the season for pretty much a promotion/play off shootout. Dean Sturridge scored after a coupe of minutes, Kenny Brown equalised not long after before Robin van de Laan headed in Derby’s winner in the second half.

For atmosphere, excitement and sheer tension I don’t think I’ve ever been part of such an occasion, with just over 17,000 crammed into the Baseball Ground. I was chatting to Keith Loring about it the other day – he was chief executive at the time – and he still singles it out as one of the most remarkable games he has ever been involved in. It’s also worth a mention that in our 11 point season, four of them came against Newcastle – our only win all season and a draw at St James’. My Newcastle-supporting wife was not happy.

Worst – there are so many! Aside from the obvious in that season, one that sticks out was an FA Cup quarter final against Plymouth in 1984. Having drawn the first game at Home Park, Derby were the overwhelming favourites going into the Baseball Ground replay and an FA Cup semi-final beckoned. Right up until keeper Steve Cherry – who curiously went on to sign for Plymouth – allowed a corner to go directly through his hands and we lost 0-1. As a 13-year-old, it was my first taste of that sinking feeling of utter misery, incomprehension and humiliation that stalks every football fan, and the memory has stayed with me ever since.

Best players – and worst – you’ve seen in your colours?

Three of each, though there are plenty of one, and hundreds of the other!

Best: Francesco Baiano, still possibly my favourite Derby player of all time. At a time when foreigners were relatively new to the UK, he signed as part of the Jim Smith revolution in 1997 and brought Italian trickery, movement and guile on a level rarely seen at Derby before.

Bobby Davison. 83 goals in 206 appearances between 1982 and 1987 (and 8 in 10 on loan in 1991) and a striker whose goals secured back to back promotions from division 3 to division 1. Strong, quick and brilliant in the air, he was a joy to watch and, much like Dean Saunders later , you knew you were always in with a chance when he was on the pitch.

Roy McFarland. Why? Just because he’s Roy McFarland, the best centre half Derby have ever had (sorry Igor).

Mikkel Beck. Was it the girly hair or just the fact he couldn’t hit a barn door? Not his fault he’s top of the list, but equally he played for us nearly 20 years ago and he still sticks out!

Claude Davis. I was quite pleased when we bought centre half Davis, because he always had a stormer against us. He was signed for £3m when we were promoted to the Premier League in 2007. We went on to get 11 points. That in itself tells you everything you need to know. Calamity followed him everywhere.

We’ve had some terrible loans, such as Danny Graham and Stern John, but my final pick goes to midfielder Bob Malcolm, who signed in 2006, played a handful of times in two years, got done for drink-driving and disappeared back up to Scotland.

If anyone knows of a copyright claim on this very old programme, please let us know

Do you still write for the matchday programme?

Yes, this will be my 17th season. You might think I’d said all there is to say, but because it’s non-Derby content and just generally about football and sport, there’s always stuff to write about. I like to think it is highly interesting and informative, and occasionally amusing. But I might be the only one.

Is there anyone left in our squad that you’d welcome at Derby? Do you rate Grayson?

I must admit I was surprised to see Simon Grayson get the Sunderland job, but it might turn out to be a clever move. He’s a safe pair of hands who knows this league well, has played and managed at a high level and while he is solid and unspectacular, there’s a lot to be said for that as it will get you points.

He steered Preston to a respectable 11th last season. Despite relegation, I imagine the expectation will be huge, so it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

But in your shoes I’d rather have Grayson than Moyes, given you appear to be in some turmoil and will need stabilising before growing. I’ve always rated Duncan Watmore for his ability to control and run with the ball. Aiden McGeady has real quality and it’s no surprise to see Grayson make him one of his first signings having managed him last season.

Hand on heart, where will our two clubs finish this season?
I think both will realistically be no lower than mid-table come the run in, which gives the opportunity for a late charge. I can see both teams getting into the play offs, but equally both missing out, especially as we seem to have got into the habit of finishing our season before everyone else!! I can’t see either going up automatically as things stand. That might change come the closure of the transfer window. Derby fans will be expecting play offs, simply because we always do!

It’s really hard to assess a team which has just been relegated, but from the outside Sunderland don’t look to be in great shape. On the upside, you could be Hull. I think to start with you need solidity and organisation, which is why Grayson is a good shout. Then it’s down to whether you have the players.

Diving, feigning injury etc: will we encounter more or less cheating at this level and is it something we should keep trying to stamp out or just accept as part of the modern game? 

Less cheating, diving, rolling around and feigning injury than you get in the Premier League, but there’s still plenty of it. I hate it. I’d like to see far more yellow and reds for it, then players might stop it. Feigning injury or diving to have another player sent off or to get a penalty is cheating, and should be punished severely, as should the all-in wrestling at corners, which at least some referees now take exception to.

Best ref, worst ref at Championship games you’ve seen?

Difficult to say as I rarely take notice of who is refereeing, but this question is always a good opportunity to give a namecheck to Stuart Attwell for disallowing a winning Rams goal right at the end of a game against Forest which to this day no one has ever explained. Corner, header, goal. But apparently not. He didn’t return to Pride Park for some time.

Will you be at our game? What will be the score?

I’ll be there and I’m looking forward to it, it’s been ages since I last went to the Stadium of Light (though I was there having run the Sunderland 10km not that long ago). Better than that, having bought my ticket for £30 I had a phone call from Derby saying Sunderland had got the prices wrong and it was only £25, so I was due a fiver back!

I think we are playing you at the best possible time, and while I think you will come good in the end, it will be a hard start to the season as you readjust with a new manager, reshaped squad and the misery of relegation still looming. I’m tempted to say 0-0, but seeing as it’s sunny and everyone gets optimistic in the summertime, I’m going for a narrow 0-1 and a happy drive back down the A19.

Jake: ‘let’s be having you’

* Nick Britten on himself:

I’m a Brian Clough baby. Not literally, but his charisma and charm drew me to supporting the Rams in the 1970s despite my dad being a Crystal Palace fan, who were my local team at the time and for whom I retain a very soft spot.

Having lived all over the UK, the last 16 of which in Derby, I have remained stoic in the face of us mostly being rubbish, but have dutifully travelled from wherever I have been to watch them. My two sons and I have season tickets in the East Stand.

Having spent the majority of my career in the national press, the last 15 years of which were at The Daily Telegraph, where I worked with (and was a little bit in awe of) your Salut! host Colin, I now run my own business in public relations and media/presentation training.

Interview: Colin Randall (aka M Salut)

M Salut, drawn by Matt, colouring by Jake
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3 thoughts on “The Sunderland vs Derby County ‘Who are You?’: a man in the know”

  1. If the football in the Championship is as good as this, we will be royally entertained. Nick made a wise choice in dumping Crystal Palace (the ultimate nothing club – closely followed by Queens Park Rangers and Reading) and supporting a proper club in a proper town – although it’s a shame he was swayed by their success. Nobody supports Sunderland for that …..

    • Ah, but Sixer and I – though a little too young for 1933 – were at the 1964 FA Cup 6th round replay vs Man Utd where the records state that 46,727 were inside Roker Park but everyone knows there were many, many more (we were swept into the Clock Stand paddock, next to the Fulwell end when a gate was suddenly opened).

      Quite a few references now put the attendance at 68,000 but the indispensable (former SAFC players’ association) site says:

      “On one of the most incredible nights in the history of the club, some say 80,000 fans were packed into the ground with a further 40,000 locked outside amid scenes of chaos and hysteria.”

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