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In recent years, Gary Rowett has established himself as one of the finest up-and-coming managers in England. Often working on tight budgets, he has risen up the domestic league structure, from League Two to Championship, never doing a bad job.
This season he has gotten closer to the top flight than ever before. Having taken charge of Derby County last March, he has returned the club to a promotion play-off spot in the Championship thanks to a sixth-place finish. Consequently, they stand just three wins away from their first taste of Premier League football in a decade.
Rowett has essentially built his managerial reputation from scratch. While he played at the highest level in England for several sides, including Derby, he was never considered a star. As a result, he had to develop his ‘leadership material’ away from the spotlight with Burton Albion.
Burton was where his playing career ended and his coaching career began. In 2009, two years after his retirement as a player, he was named assistant manager to Paul Peschisolido. When Peschisolido was sacked three years later, he was appointed caretaker manager. And, after winning three and drawing two of his 10 games in temporary charge, he was given the top job on a permanent basis.
Burton had finished in the bottom half of League Two in every one of their three seasons in the league prior to Rowett’s appointment. However, in each of his two campaigns at the helm they made it to the play-offs, narrowly missing out on promotion in 2014 due to a 1-0 play-off final defeat to Fleetwood Town.
Later that year, Rowett took over at Birmingham City, who had just avoided relegation from the Championship in 2013/14. Instantly stabilising the club, he led them to consecutive 10th place positions. When he was eventually dismissed in December 2016 the Blues sat comfortably in seventh spot; by the end of that season they were 19th.
If Birmingham didn’t recognise Rowett’s qualities as a manager, Derby did. And, in his maiden year in their dugout, he has achieved what was expected of him – guiding the club back into the Championship’s top six, with a higher points total than last term. His work is made all the more impressive by the fact it was done despite the sale of two key players in Tom Ince and Will Hughes to Huddersfield Town and Watford respectively.
The results are impressive, and behind them there seems to be an astute man-manager, coach and tactician. Rowett has improved players at every club he has managed – at Burton he got consistency out of Jacques Maghoma, encouraging Sheffield Wednesday to sign the attacking midfielder, and he also handed Jordan Pickford his first taste of league football, taking the shot-stopper on loan from Sunderland.
Rowett can also be credited for launching the career of Demarai Gray. The tricky winger often found himself on the substitutes’ bench at Birmingham prior to Rowett’s arrival; thereon he became a regular starter before moving to Leicester City during their Premier League title-winning 2015/16 season.
Giving chances to young players appears to be an important aspect in Rowett’s managerial philosophy. Speaking to The Coaches Voice he said that: “I’ve always tried to invest time into building not only a first team that’s competitive but also a pathway for all of the younger players. I…always try to manage in a way that was at least responsible, and…had some thought process for the longevity of the club.”
Working within strict budgetary parameters in his first job with Burton appears to have instilled in the 44-year-old a rather long-term outlook. His old boss, Peschisolido, spoke highly of his work on the training ground, saying, [He is] very meticulous with his sessions. They run like clockwork.”
Rowett is also keen to experience different environments and grow his knowledge base. He took time out of the game after his surprise dismissal by Birmingham, saying: “It was nice to step back and try to learn. Sometimes when you come away from the pressure of having to win games you can try and look at some of the things you've done. I went into a few businesses to learn how they run things just to try and up-skill myself.”
Tactically, he will not gain admirers for a particularly innovative or bold attacking approach. His Derby side are not overly concerned with keeping the ball, something confirmed by their averaging just 48.6 per cent of possession this term. Of the Championship’s top six, only one team – Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City – has averaged less.
Generally, Rowett sets his side up in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 system that presses in midfield – just above or beneath the halfway line – in a man-oriented fashion. His Derby cover the width of the pitch well and look to stultify the opposition before forcing turnovers in the middle third. Once possession has been gained, they often make good use of the angles that arise almost naturally within their shape to bypass opposition pressure.
Rowett is unafraid to change systems to counter the threat of an opponent, as he did recently when opting for a back three against Aston Villa. He also explained his reasoning clearly, stating: “Villa put the most crosses into the box in the Championship. They get lots of bodies in there and get their two advanced midfielders around the edge of the box. We just felt with [Alex Pearce] and [Craig Forsyth] in the side [as part of a back three] we would deal with that better.”
Derby face Fulham in their upcoming play-off semi-final. They couldn’t have asked for a tougher assignment, but don’t bet against Rowett to mastermind victory against the odds. If he does, there is a real possibility that he could be a Premier League manager later this year.