Is Phillip Cocu only as good as his last job? If so, that could be bad news for Derby County, but his failure at Fenerbahce wasn’t all his fault…
For the last few years, Derby County have consistently been the most interesting side in the Championship. Sometimes they’ve been good, sometimes they’ve been bad, but they’ve always been fascinating.
That fascination has often taken the form of rubbernecking, of watching which new ways they can find to avoid getting promoted, given the sheer range of calamity that has befallen them in the last five or six seasons.
However, it’s not always for bad reasons that they hold our interest. Last season they took a considerable gamble in giving Frank Lampard his first season as a manager, at a time when they wanted to change the often grim playing style established under Gary Rowett and make their playing squad younger. That gamble paid off (to a point), reaching the playoff final but losing to Aston Villa.
And now, after Lampard’s departure to Chelsea, they have made another appointment to pique the interest, eschewing the parade of usual, tedious suspects. Phillip Cocu is the latest man to take a swing at getting Derby promoted, a notable choice not just because of his fame as a player.
Fenerbahce put a band aid on the broken leg, rather than properly fixing it.
Cocu’s managerial career began in flamboyantly successful style, winning the Eredivisie title three times in his five years at PSV, breaking a period of Ajax dominance and impressively maintaining their success despite having to sell key players along the way.
But after leaving Eindhoven in 2018, his next job didn’t go quite so well. Actually, that’s not quite true: it was an absolute tyre fire. He took over at Fenerbahce in July, but barely limped his way to October, and the surprise was not that he sacked after just 15 games in charge, of which they won just three. A 3-1 home defeat to Ankaragucu was the final straw, a loss which put the 28-time Turkish champions just a place above the relegation zone, after what was probably the worst start to a season in their history.
All of which begs an interesting question for Derby fans to ponder: which of the two Cocus is the real one? The multiple title-winner or the ignominiously sacked loser? More specifically: if a manager is only as good as his last job, should Derby fans be worried?
The short answer to that is: probably not. It is of course tricky to argue that Cocu did anything but a calamitous job in Turkey, but it is slightly more plausible to contend that the calamity wasn’t really his fault.
In fact, if you want to blame Cocu for anything, it’s the poor decision to take the job in the first place. “Last season should have been a transitional period [for Fenerbahce],” explains Turkish football expert Kaan Bayazit. “They had €660million of debt, and they had an FFP settlement so they were very limited in what they could do in the transfer market. They put a band aid on the broken leg, rather than properly fixing it structurally. He was basically the sacrificial lamb.”
Cocu arrived at a club that was changing ownership after two decades under Aziz Yildirim, and who sold the previous season’s top-scorer Giuliano, bringing in a collection of cheap stop-gaps to pad out the squad, including Islam Slimani and Andre Ayew on loan.
In short, things were a mess. It was a little like throwing a dozen bowling balls at a man and asking him to juggle. “Cocu’s main issue was that he was very naive even getting into this little adventure with Fenerbahce,” says Bayazit. “I think the problem was there were a lot of promises made to him that summer that weren’t kept.”
All of that said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that last season can simply be wiped from his record. After all, his successor Ersun Yanal turned things around to the point that Fenerbahce finished sixth. “They had to do something,” says Bayazit, about Cocu’s dismissal. “I think it was the only possible thing they could do. Cocu came across like he was broken at that point.”
It also doesn’t necessarily mean he is the right fit for Derby, particularly as a successor to Lampard. As coaches, the two are pretty far apart in terms of their approach to the game: Lampard played broadly attacking football, to the point that they were often naive and easy to play against. Cocu is more of a pragmatist, even in the successful days at PSV.
“You would imagine that a club like PSV would be playing in the final third for most of the time, but he would sit in a lot of the time instead and try to hit teams on the counter-attack,” former PSV striker Rob McDonald told Adam Bate of Sky Sports.com recently.
Talk of styles can be misleading, because winning outweighs all other things. But one only has to look at the popularity of the last two Derby managers to see that it actually does matter: Lampard and Rowett’s sides finished with virtually identical records, both finishing sixth and ultimately losing in the playoffs. But Lampard’s progressive approach and optimism endeared him much more to the crowd at Pride Park than Rowett’s often grim pragmatism.
There might also be twitches of concern that the Derby job is a junior version of the task he faced in Turkey. As then, he is taking over a team who have lost last season’s best players, with loanees Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount and Harry Wilson returning to Chelsea and Liverpool. As then, this is not a team with much money to spend, but that is mitigated slightly by the fact that not many Championship clubs have been spending big this summer.
And as then, there could be questions about the leadership at the club: Derby chairman Mel Morris remains in place, but has made it reasonably clear he’s at least open to investment, if not selling the club entirely. He is not walking into chaos as he did in Turkey, but there are enough concerns to think that, on paper, Cocu and Derby are a curious fit.
Either way, for the rest of us this simply keeps up Derby’s record of being the division’s most interesting club. They might be good, they might be bad, but the chances are they will still be fascinating.
You can listen the latest edition of the Totally Football League Show here, and even better, you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you’re very welcome to do so, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.