On Friday night it was revealed that Shaun Derry would be leaving the U’s following a 0-0 draw with Lincoln City, and a week of discussions with Graham Daniels, ‘Head of Football’ at The Abbey, about the best way to move forward in the long-term.
The decision to part company with Derry is one which has proved popular among large parts of United’s fan base, and was probably a decision which had been coming for a while given awful recent form and no wins collected in 2018 so far. Derry leaves with the U’s sat in fourteenth in the league and probably too far away from both the play-offs and the relegation zone for United to have too much to play for in the remaining fifteen games of the season. The former Notts County boss was appointed as Cambridge United manager in 2015 following the departure of Richard Money, and, despite a promising end to the 2015/16 season and narrowly missing out on the play-offs on the last day of the following season, United have never been able to find the consistency to make themselves a side who look capable of cementing a spot in the top seven. So, I ask the question, where did it all go wrong?
It can be said that there were a number of defining moments during Shaun Derry’s tenure which played a part in first the fans, and then crucially, the board losing faith in his ability to be the man to take the club to the next level, and here I’ll look at what, in my opinion, were the five most important.
Gaffney-gate. This was probably the first time that Derry’s ability to manage a squad came into question. Rory Gaffney signed from Limerick in November 2014, and a number of injuries meant that he didn’t actually make an appearance for the U’s until nearly a year later. He burst onto the scene first by assisting a 97th minute winner against Stevenage on debut, and then scoring a brace in his first start for the club at Yeovil. However, upon the departure of Richard Money and appointment of Shaun Derry, Rory Gaffney found himself down the pecking order, behind the likes of Barry Corr, Ben Williamson and Robbie Simpson. As a result of this, the club looked to move Gaffney on, and he signed for Bristol Rovers on loan after turning down moves to a number of non-league clubs, rumoured to include the likes of Tranmere Rovers. This was a decision which baffled a huge amount of the U’s following, and they were proved to be correct to some extent, as Gaffney hit five goals in seven games which saw him become a fans favourite at the Memorial Stadium for the Gas. Upon the expiry of the initial loan deal, Derry appeared to back-track somewhat, and try to reintroduce Gaffney to the fold at The Abbey, despite his heart clearly remaining in Bristol, and following a transfer saga which rumbled on for a good chunk of the January transfer window, Gaffney completed a permanent move back to the Gas, where he played a pivotal role in their eventual promotion to League One. Now, at the time, it appeared that United may have got a decent deal out of this, as we turned Ben Williamson’s loan permanent, and so we had in effect received an in-form striker in return for someone who wanted out. However, despite this, ‘Gaffney-gate’, will go down in history as the first time that Shaun Derry’s ability to manage a squad was seriously brought into question, especially so as Gaffney continues to establish himself as a League One player, and Williamson went on to score no league goals for the U’s the following season, and now plies his trade in non-league.
The start to the 2016/17 season. In actual fact, many will argue that Derry’s departure came more than a year too late, and it seems fair to say that at the vast majority of clubs in the Football League, Derry would not have survived the start to his first full season at the club, which saw us rock bottom, and winless well into September. There were a few reasons for this, which are perhaps not important at this time, but the crucial factor in our terrible start to last season was surely the summer recruitment drive – a process which was headed by Shaun Derry. We started that season with the likes of Tom Dallison, Sean Long, Blair Adams, Joe Pigott and Adam McGurk who, quite simply, were just not good enough. This saw Derry’s transfer acumen brought into question, and upon the return of Ben Strang (who put together the 2013/14 promotion & FA Trophy winning squad), control over player recruitment was taken away from Derry, and so the first real signs of distrust in his ability from the board were shown, and I believe this to be ‘the beginning of the end’ for him.
The sale of Luke Berry. Berry had been pivotal during 2016/17, scoring more than twenty goals from midfield, and many would argue that he was the key reason that we stayed in touch with the play-offs until the final day of the season. It seemed pretty clear to just about everyone that, following such an incredible season for Berry, he would be moving on to pastures new over the summer, many hoped for a sizeable fee. Despite speculation linking the U’s academy graduate with moves to the likes of Hibernian, Millwall and Portsmouth, Berry was eventually sold to divisional rivals Luton Town for an undisclosed fee, believed to be around the £300,000. The transfer sparked outrage from the fans, who were understandably angry at the sale of our star asset, his destination, and the fee, which was well below what many were expecting. Now, I’m not saying that the sale of Luke Berry in itself was a factor in Derry’s eventual departure, but more the impact it had on the team. We’d built a reputation since Derry’s appointment for being a hard-to-beat outfit, who were always on the edge of the playoffs, and we’d built this reputation using a rigid 4-2-3-1 formation, and although not always pretty, it was effective, to some extent anyway. The sale of Luke Berry saw us move away from this, towards more of a midfield diamond. My argument is that this is not a formation which has worked. Despite initially looking promising, with Jevani Brown pulling the strings at the tip of the diamond, and the partnership of Uche Ikpeazu and Jabo Ibehre looking like it had some potential, I’m sceptical that Derry actually knew how to make it work. It seemed like much more of a case of ‘well, it worked for a bit, not sure why, but it did, so we’ll stick with it’, than a ‘this is how we’ll play, this is why, and this is how we’ll do it’, and this, in my opinion, resulted in Derry being out-thought on a number of occasions, and saw us drop right down the league, to the point that play-offs are all but out of the question.
Away form in 2017/18. Our away form has, put simply, been diabolical this season. At time of writing, only two away wins all season, with none since September, when coupled with some hugely embarrassing performances and results on the road are undoubtedly a major factor in Shaun Derry’s departure. Losses at Barnet, Swindon and Port Vale were awful, but nothing in comparison to the capitulations at Luton and Forest Green, where we shipped seven and five respectively. You simply cannot achieve anything in football if you’re as poor away from home as we’ve been this season (just ask Arsenal fans), and failure to resurrect this is one of my five most important factors behind yesterday’s announcement that the club had parted company with Derry.
Paul Barry’s takeover. This is probably the most important factor. As so often in football, when a club is taken over, the new owner(s) tend to want their own man at the helm of First Team affairs, and the aftermath of the news that Paul Barry was set to become our majority shareholder was no different. In fact, Derry wasn’t the only high profile departure which can be attributed in some way to this, as Dave Doggett and Jez George also left their positions as chairman and CEO respectively in recent weeks. The atmosphere around the club has been very, very odd recently, with rumours flying around and very little information coming out of the club, but with all of the aforementioned upheaval in recent weeks, it was increasingly seemed like a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ Derry would leave the U’s. Therefore, it is my opinion that this is the most important factor, and the crucial moment in deciding Derry’s fate. Attention at The Abbey will now turn towards who will become Derry’s successor, but one thing is for sure – it’s going to be an interesting time at Cambridge United in the coming weeks, months and years.