In the space of a week, Rams fans saw the two contrasting sides of this Derby County team in a season which promised so much, but has ultimately delivered so little.
Those that made the trip to Cardiff ten days ago witnessed exactly what’s been wrong with this team this season; an unconvincing and disorganised performance from a team of underperforming players. Especially after beating Forest just two weeks previous, everyone was expecting more than the disappointing one shot on target from 57% possession away from home that the team achieved on that day.
Four days later at the iPro, the 29,000 or so home faithful witnessed a performance against Hull City completely opposite to the one in south Wales – and one that came as a huge surprise to many. The team that showed up that night felt like the Derby County the fans have been expecting all season. Hull are a very good side, and they don’t concede many either – in fact only Middlesbrough have conceded fewer this season.
It was the club’s best display this season by a country mile. Maybe, coincidentally, the only performance that comes close to it was the corresponding fixture back in November. Everything that has been missing from Derby’s season was on display last Tuesday night; desire, quality, purpose and moving the ball at pace, which I’m sure nearly every fan will agree has been the most frustrating aspect of this season. The records will show that the side beat 10-man Hull 4-0 that night, but the Rams were so much in control of the game and it was won, at least mentally for the players on the pitch, before the sending off. Would Derby have had the same result that night under Paul Clement? I think not, although maybe they would also have not played played so badly against Cardiff either, but I digress.
The renewed confidence in the team continued four days later – albeit against totally different opposition – in Bolton Wanderers, who had been pretty awful all season. The Trotters’ fate was finally sealed at the iPro last Saturday, and a return to the third tier of English football for the first time in 21 years awaits them next season. The Rams hardly got out of second gear with a comfortable win and the highlight of the afternoon was the return of Will Hughes, who was injured on the opening day of the season, ironically, against Bolton at the Macron Stadium. He only got five minutes under his belt, but the reception he received as he entered the field will definitely give him the world of confidence going into the final few games – and may have even registered on the University of Leicester’s decibel meter!
So where does that leave Derby from now until the end of the season? My predictions this season so far have been pretty dire, but barring a complete capitulation in the last five games, we should be in the play-offs come May. However, going into those play-offs in good form is absolutely vital. The return of Hughes is going to be huge going into the last five games and beyond. One player who will benefit immensely from Will’s return is George Thorne – the link-up play between the two when they are both fit is just superb and I think that Thorne has missed him in the midfield.
As the top three seem to be battling it out for the two automatic places, the Rams really need to try and finish in fourth to get that home advantage in the second leg of the play-offs. Maybe the worrying thing is that we may end up playing Hull City again. The way we have turned them over twice this season should fill me with confidence, but football has a funny knack of throwing these games up and I’m sure the same result can’t happen twice more. I’m sure come the play-offs, if we are there, it will be two tough games not matter who we play – maybe this season won’t end with so little after all.