Davies in search of paradise regained

Derby didn't expect to kick on this quickly, but an ambitious Scot is driving the dream
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The Independent Online

In his entertaining book How Soccer Explains the World, the American journalist Franklin Foer writes: "In English industrial towns like Coventry and Derby, soccer helped glue together small cities amid oppressive dinginess."

It is a heritage the two clubs can be proud of, even if both would now point to having escaped the "dinginess" of their old surroundings for fine new stadiums and training grounds. Escaping from the second tier of the English game is another matter, but one in which Derby are showing the way to those unfortunates like Coventry, Leicester, Ipswich and others who have fallen from grace and the Premiership with catastrophic financial consequences.

Derby experienced Paradise Lost five years ago and were plunged into the sort of gloom that until last autumn had been almost unremitting. Effectively they had been involved in a relegation struggle for six of the past seven seasons; indeed, sitting in 23rd position at the end of September, yet another one appeared to be on the cards. The consolations were that a new board had returned the club to local ownership under genuine supporters, and that in the feisty little Scot Billy Davies, 42, they appeared to have hired one of the brightest young managers around.

Subsequent events have done nothing to discourage that belief. Going into yesterday's home game with Hull City, Derby were leading the table after 16 wins in 19 games, and the directors had been prompted to revise a schedule that originally envisaged much more sedate progress. "There was a massive job here when I first arrived," Davies says. "The plan was to revamp the staffing and playing squad, find stability in the first year, and the board and I agreed it would take us three seasons to get everything right.

"If we were to finish mid-table this year, we'd have been del-ighted. And the plan would have been to bring in one or two players. But because of the obvious [promotion] opportunity, the board have condensed what we were going to do over the next two or three transfer windows."

That meant bringing in seven players in January at cost of almost £4 million - serious money for a Championship side who long ago lost their relegation parachute payments. From talking up the team amid a difficult start to the season, Davies now finds himself having to dampen down understandable expectation inside and outside the club: "It takes you a year or two to gel together. I've got players who don't know each other's names yet, people looking for schools for kids, trying to find a house, living in hotels, getting to know the change of regime. So it'll take another two transfer windows to get the balance right for the squad and to get people to understand each others' play. We're very much ahead of schedule and we'll try to finish as high as we can. Promotion? It's too early to talk about it."

What he will talk about is the potential of a club who in the 1970s won two League championships and competed in European football for four seasons out of five. "You look at the training facility, which is three years old, the stadium, 10 years old, a fan base of 26 to 28,000 and the commitment of the board. You have to say Derby potentially can be a very big club." That was what he saw when applying for the managerial vacancy last summer after deciding that taking Preston to two successive play-offs was probably as far as he or they could go.

It is easy to visualise what Derby's board, and Charlton's - who also interviewed him - saw in Davies, who does a good job at selling himself in the most positive manner. He is proud of having been in charge of Motherwell at the dauntingly young age of 34, taking them from the bottom of the table to fourth; after being sacked, he took a grown-up's gap year, observing training at some of Europe's leading clubs.

His playing career might appear modest, yet he volunteers: "I became the youngest ever Rangers player, at a tournament in Canada prior to my 16th birthday. I had six seasons there, but didn't get what I thought I should have got, more games. I was also a great one for taking notes of all the training sessions. I think it's eight or nine different clubs now, 20-odd different managers and three different countries [Scotland, England and Sweden], so you can expect to learn quite a bit from each."

And the result is? "I'm passionate, enthusiastic, what you see is what you get. I feel I'm a good man-manager, [that I have] great rapport with my players. I try to set high demands and if hard work makes you lucky, then I'm lucky. But I'm a realist, I know how the game works.

"Somewhere along the way there's a big dark cloud waiting. You get your good runs and bad, good breaks and bad, but you've just got to continue doing the things you believe in."