Billy Davies: Taking the fall for club wanting to run before it could walk

A promotion too soon and rows with board brought end to an uneasy union, writes Jon Culley
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The Independent Online

By today's impatient standards, it was not a divorce agreed with particular haste. Billy Davies leaves Derby County only 14 matches into the Premier League season but that number is two more than Chris Hutchings was allowed at Wigan, four more than Martin Jol at Tottenham. Bolton's Sammy Lee did not even make double figures.

Yet, of course, it is far too quick to make sense by any reasonable assessment of what constitutes grounds for change. Only six months ago, Davies embarked on his summer holiday as the toast of his adopted town, having ended County's five-year exile from the Premier League at his first attempt. The achievement earned him the title of "Coach of the Year" in the BBC East Midlands Sports Awards. With an irony in which even Davies saw a darkly funny side, he was due to receive the honour in Derby last night.

The portents had been clearly visible on Saturday evening, however. In the wake of his team's 10th defeat of the season, Davies funnelled his frustration into an attack on Adam Pearson, the man installed as executive chairman a month ago. Davies claimed that, despite an urgent need to discuss buying plans for the January transfer window, he had not seen Pearson in three weeks. The claim was disputed by Pearson, who summoned Davies to explain himself at a 9am meeting yesterday.

Pearson, the former Hull City chairman and Leeds United director, expressed disappointment at what he called "a strange reaction" by his manager but promised a "mature meeting" nonetheless. Yet it did not take long for the two to agree to go their separate ways. Adding Jose Mourinho and Steve Bruce to the list, the number of Premier League clubs to part with managers this season rises to six.

The split ends what had been, despite last season's success, a turbulent 18 months for Davies, a period in which accounts of a fractious relationship between the volatile Scot and his board surfaced with unusual frequency. Tensions developed at the start, when the new manager's plan to install David Kelly as his number two was blocked. To a large extent, this was a consequence of Davies's acrimonious departure from Preston, where Kelly was his assistant. Davies, already in a difficult position after announcing – inaccurately, it transpired – that he was about to take charge at Charlton, did not have Preston's blessing to talk to Derby and his attempt to take Kelly with him provoked a compensation dispute that was to last a year.

At times, Davies appeared to hold Preston responsible for the impasse, although at others he seemed unhappy with Derby that there was no swift resolution. Rumours of rows between Davies and both Peter Gadsby, the club's former chairman, and managing director Mike Horton, were not easily suppressed and when, even after winning promotion last May, Davies said he was unsure he would be in charge when the Premier League season began, it was clear the stories had substance.

In the event, Kelly finally arrived at Pride Park in July this year. He too left the club yesterday, along with six other members of Davies's backroom team. Former Scotland manager Craig Brown's association as football consultant is also ended.

The other areas of dispute were linked to finance, which is hardly surprising given that Derby were, only 18 months ago, in dire straits under the impossible burden of a £54m debt and were understandably keen not to overstretch again.

Davies is said to have clashed with Horton over promotion bonus payments and the amount of money available for transfers was a source of constant uncertainty, particularly as the team's lack of Premier League quality became obvious. Only last week, Davies said he needed six new players and claimed that unless the club followed the example of Manchester City by "spending big" in January the supporters would have a right to feel short-changed. He said he had calculated, before last summer's dealings, that "it would need £40m, over the two windows" to keep Derby competitive. Given that his summer outlay was £10m, the scale of his ambitions for January can be taken as substantial.

Pearson, however, has preached a doctrine of "prudence" since taking charge and said that his manager's spending power would be linked both to new investment in the club and to whether, by the time the window reopens, Premier League survival looks likely.

On at least one of those counts, the picture looks bleak. Davies last night insisted he left with his "head held high" and while his Premier League win-loss account makes unhappy reading his reputation will not be seen to have suffered a serious hit, given that his resources were clearly inadequate. "I'll bounce back, a stronger and a better manager," he said.

The former Rangers midfielder, Scotland's youngest top-flight manager when he took charge at Motherwell in 1988 aged 33, financed his own fact-finding tour of leading European clubs before becoming assistant to Brown at Preston, where as manager from 2004-05 he reached the Championship play-offs in consecutive seasons, equalling the club's record unbeaten run along the way.

When he joined Derby it was following a season in which the club had narrowly avoided relegation yet he proved instantly that his achievements at Deepdale had been no fluke, guiding his new team to the play-offs at the first attempt, this time successfully. Yet in one way he was the victim of his own success. He warned supporters and directors on several occasions during the promotion season that the club's position was "way ahead of schedule" and that development plans would need to be accelerated substantially if a rapid rise was not to be followed by a steep fall.

It was Davies taking the fall yesterday. Whoever succeeds him faces a colossal task to prevent the club going the same way.

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