As the regular season came to a close in very sad and possibly slightly controversial circumstances, the Rams’ focus now moves onto the Championship play-offs and a two-legged affair with Hull.
Before the last game of the season against Ipswich, the Rams already knew their opponents for the forthcoming play-off games. The one thing that needed to be decided was who would finish in fourth place and have home advantage going into the second leg. Only a win for Derby and a defeat for Hull would give Darren Wassell’s men the home leg next Tuesday night. But apart from a brief moment when Rotherham took the lead at Hull, the outcome of the game at the KC Stadium never appeared in doubt.
By half time, with Hull winning and the Rams 1-0 down, everyone in the stadium anticipated that indeed it would be the home game first this coming Saturday at the iPro. The game against Ipswich, on the whole, was poor from the Rams’ point of view. The team seemed to be lacking in motivation and Mick McCarthy’s men definitely prevented Derby from getting into their stride at times – not helped I’m sure by the fact that they had the play-offs already in their mind. The second half certainly had an end of season feel about it, albeit with the crowd still in good spirits even though the Rams were not firing on all cylinders.
However, that mood completely changed on the 85th min when George Thorne, who has been approaching back to his best in recent weeks, was challenged in the penalty area and immediately looked in serious trouble. A moment of frenzied panic ensued from a couple of Derby’s players, namely Jonny Russell and Jason Shackell, who tried in vain to get the emergency services on slightly quicker than a three-legged tortoise. The whole mood around the ground had suddenly turned very sombre – losing a player of Thorne’s quality at any stage of the season was going to be tough, as we all know too well. George had already suffered a serious knee injury not long after signing for the Rams, the second in his short career so far, and I think the overawing feeling was that everyone was so gutted for the player. As we since found out, it was a double leg break and three months out for George, which in fact is not as bad a news as everyone feared at the time of the injury. We all wish George a speedy recovery and know he will be back stronger than ever. Fearing punishment from the FA, I’m not going to comment on the actual challenge itself, but photos show that the tackle was made two feet in the air with studs showing, yet went completely unpunished!
So now the Rams are into the play-offs and another two games against Hull, who we seem to like playing this season, as we have already done the double over them and scored six goals in the process. Of course – that may count for nothing come 12:30pm on Saturday, as I’m sure they will be eager to exact their revenge on us in the best way possible. As for the Rams, they go into the next two games after playing some decent stuff in recent weeks – apart from that blip last Saturday – and the team does seem to pick itself at the moment.
However, the big question is – who fills the void left by Thorne’s injury? The holding midfield role which the Rams have employed in their system for the last few season has become quite a specialised position, and the two players who naturally fit that role are now out for the season. So who can fill the gap? A number of our central midfielders, and even central defenders, have been tested in that position by the last three managers with varying levels of success. One option would be Bradley Johnson, but he hasn’t played for a number of games and may not be fit anyway. Will Hughes could certainly play there but many feel it is a waste of his enormous talent playing in such a deep role. Or maybe Jacob Butterfield? Although one wonders if he has the strength to compete in that role. We could always change formation slightly to compensate, but at this stage of the season that doesn’t seem like the best idea. It provides a real headache for Darren Wassell in the coming days, for sure.
After being one of the favourites for automatic promotion at the start of the season with all the money spent, the next two games will define our season. Get to Wembley and for me that would be a successful season. Fail and some questions may need to be raised on where it went wrong – that’s for another day though as everyone gets ready for another nail-biting two games.