In his four years, Nigel Clough has delivered on all fronts for Derby County
NIGEL Clough was appointed manager of Derby County four years ago this week.
He is the club's longest-serving manager since Jim Smith, who had the job from 1995 to 2001, and only nine managers in the country have been in their jobs longer than Clough.
The simple way to showcase the progress made in the past four years is to turn the clock back to January 2009 and remember where Derby stood at that time and the mess Clough inherited.
The Rams had fallen out of the Premier League in embarrassing fashion at the end of the previous season, 2007-08, with a record low number of points.
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Burdened by a huge squad and wage bill, life back in the Championship was proving extremely difficult and a run of one win in nine League games signalled the end of Paul Jewell's reign.
Clough's first League game in charge should have been away to Cardiff City but the fixture was called off due to a frozen pitch and so Queens Park Rangers at Pride Park were his first opponents in the battle for much-needed points.
Derby sat 20th and a demoralising 2-0 defeat at the hands of Rangers confirmed the scale of the task ahead.
Boos rang out at half-time and again on the final whistle, although by then the ground was virtually empty as thousands of disappointed fans had already trudged away.
"The same old symptoms and problems resurfaced and that is not something that is going to be eradicated in a week or two," Clough said afterwards.
There were no promises, no suggestions of a quick-fix, no timescale.
Turning a club around, building foundations and instilling a new ethic was going to take time – and quite a lot of it.
A thorough shake-up was needed and such shake-ups are not completed in months, they take years.
Clough's remit was firstly to keep the club in the Championship and then reduce the size and average age of the squad, slash the wage bill and develop young talent while remaining competitive in the division.
He has delivered on all fronts.
Four years on from being unveiled as Jewell's successor, Clough and his staff have pieced together and moulded a team that is in better shape than any Rams side since the promotion season of 2006-07.
This has been achieved while working to a tight budget.
The achievement is all the more remarkable given his meagre net spend in the four years, way below the amounts spent by a number of Championship clubs, including the Rams' East Midlands rivals, Leicester City and Nottingham Forest.
The January transfer window has only been open a matter of days and Leicester have forked out £2m to sign striker Chris Wood from West Bromwich Albion.
Clough has overhauled the squad inside only seven full transfer windows and dramatically cut the wage bill at the same time, no easy task.
Gems have emerged from the Academy and some are playing lead roles. Will Hughes, at only 17, and 20-year-old Jeff Hendrick have become key players.
They are assets, Hughes a particularly valuable one, but there are others because a number of Clough's signings have increased in value, John Brayford being an example, Paul Coutts another.
Derby signed Coutts from Preston North End for a fee of around £100,000 rising to £150,000. What is he worth now on his performances in the first half of this season?
Other signings have not worked – Chris Maguire, David Martin and Chris Porter, to name three – but no manager can have a 100% success rate in the transfer market and shopping in the £200,000 to £500,000 market is far more difficult than having the resources to splash millions.
Supporters are now seeing a vibrant group of players who play with determination and desire and have a thirst to learn.
A touch more quality in certain areas would be welcome at times – that is the next step – but the efforts of the players cannot be questioned.
They have shown, certainly at home, that they can take on the best the division has to offer and, given the performances in general this season, their current position of being only three points adrift of the play-off places is not a false one.
There have been low points in the past four years.
A 4-1 home defeat by Scunthorpe United three years ago was a juddering moment as was the 5-2 hammering by Nottingham Forest and the FA Cup exit at the hands of Crawley Town, a non-League outfit at the time.
Lengthy runs without a League win, like the eight-match sequence early in 2011 that included five consecutive defeats at Pride Park, was a testing spell.
But for those examples, there are more memorable moments.
Four victories over Forest at the City Ground, one of which was gained while playing with 10 men for virtually all of the game.
A string of wins against Leeds and a purple patch in 2010, when a run of eight victories in 11 matches lifted Clough's team to fourth, are right up there along with the four successive victories at the beginning of 2011-12, Derby's best start to a season in 106 years.
Another sequence of four straight wins later that season saw Derby climb to seventh and although they ended the campaign 12th, it was their highest finish in five years and their third best in 13 seasons.
This season, the Rams have been as consistent as at any time under Clough and their home form has been impressive. They have won six and drawn one of their last eight matches at Pride Park.
Derby are a work in progress under Clough. The team have developed and improved in the past 12 months and, while there is still work to do, the signs are encouraging.
If anybody is in any doubt about that, just think back to that first game against QPR.