Quietly going about his Championship business is Derby County manager Phillip Cocu. He’s somehow managed to steady a ship that seems to prefer choppy waters, and it’s all down to his utter professionalism in the face of adversity.
Saturday 31st August 2019, around 3:55 PM. Phillip Cocu would’ve been in the changing rooms at Griffin Park, shaming his Derby County players who’d just conceded three first-half goals to kick-start Brentford’s Championship season. Cocu berated his players’ arrogance after the game, and it was his side’s 3-0 defeat in only four days – they’d lost at Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup in the midweek.
That month of August was a deeply dark one for Derby County. Cocu had taken over from Frank Lampard half-way through his own pre-season at the club before he landed at Chelsea, and to many it spelled trouble from the get-go. Appointing a somewhat untested manager who’d come off the back of a contested spell in Turkey, after a sustained one in the Netherlands with PSV – Cocu’s Derby arrival then didn’t sit all that well with fans.
Those feelings of angst were heightened after Derby’s start to the season, which were constantly being overshadowed by the memories of Wembley only a few months prior. Lampard’s Derby came unprecedentedly close to the Premier League, and even if the ex-England man had taken them there, Derby was always going to be a stepping stone onto a job much higher up the English echelons.
There was no real post-Lampard plan in place either. Cocu arrived at Derby and nobody really knew what to expect – it’s probably fair to say that Cocu, on his maiden voyage into English football management, wouldn’t have known himself what to expect from the Championship. In truth his poor start to the season was more of a poor first-half of the season, dotted with off-field controversy to add to the pain of post-Lampard life.
The whole Richard Keogh saga and the baggage that brought. The Pride Park sale and leasing controversy. The fact that Cocu had lost the core of Lampard’s Derby team in Harry Wilson, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori. And to add another unstable element into the mix, Cocu has been without the club’s record signing in Krystian Bielik for the whole of 2020.
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Cocu was one of the front-runners in the Championship sack race, but now we’re in the same position as around this time last year – Derby fans could barely imagine the club without Cocu at the helm. So what’s changed? Well the masses will tell you that Wayne Rooney changed Derby, and obviously, the stats tell the whole story there.
Having England’s all-time top-goalscorer would benefit any club of any level, and it just so happened that Derby were the ones to experience that fate. Though the fact that all eyes were then on ‘Rooney’s Derby’ rather than Cocu’s, it only added extra baggage to the already difficult task at hand. Rooney’s stay at Derby could quite easily have become a fad. It could quite easily have ended badly or angered Cocu to the point of walking, but it hasn’t – we’ve since seen the best of both.
It’s been one of the many things that Cocu has taken in his stride. Only last month was one of Derby County’s first-team players in Andre Wisdom involved in a terrible stabbing incident – how often does something like that happen to a footballer? Yet we’re here, looking at 9th-place Derby, and there appears to be nothing wrong at the club.
It comes down to one simple factor – the professionalism of Cocu. We’ve seen Cocu angry in post-match pressers, we’ve seen him upset, but we’ve never seen him out-of-line. We’ve never questioned anything he’s said about anything. It’s not forgotten how prestigious a playing career the Dutchman had, and perhaps that is why he seems to be head and shoulders above the rest of the managers (perhaps with the exception of Marcelo Bielsa) in terms of his sheer professionalism in the face of adversity.
Most Derby fans would’ve seen the image circulating earlier in the month, showing Cocu and Lampard’s freakishly identical stats up to one point of the season. Cocu has quietly gone about his business at the club. Fending off potentially season-wrecking incidents, and bringing about a new and improved, youthful Derby County who look to be readying a much more sustainable bid for promotion than they have done in previous attempts.
It’s true that Derby were left with a Lampard hangover. The joy that his fleeting season brought will never be forgotten. But Cocu is better. Cocu is the professional, level-headed ‘messiah’ that Derby have needed since the turn of the century. He’s been the perfect cure to the woes of Derby’s contemporary flaws, and long may he reign over the club.