Derby County take on Burnley in Saturday’s grudge match at the top of the Championship, a win would see the Rams occupy the second place.
Cast your mind back to late August when the Clarets visited Derby. The away side demolished the hosts 3-0, making the Rams look a far cry from promotion contenders. But of course there was a long way to go at that point and now, after a huge change at the club, there’s every reason to believe in Derby as they push for a place in the top flight. So, what’s happened, on the pitch, to revitalise a relatively mediocre side into a huge force in the division?
In the four home league matches prior to Steve McClaren’s performance there were no victories for the Rams, quite a surprise when you consider that the form on familiar soil carried the team into the top half last season. In the 12 home league matches since, the club have lost just one – an extraordinary record. It is clear that the team now is at their best where they should be.
Behind that record is the management. Nigel Clough did an excellent job here, I can’t stress that enough, however the new regime evidently has a little extra to push on – the perfect antidote to a couple of years of promise from the likes of Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick yet a lack of shrewdness to compete with the top dogs outside of the Premier League.
Under McClaren and co, the approach on the field has had huge effect. Substitiutions actually make a difference, you only have to look as near back as Saturday for that – the introduction of Simon Dawkins and Conor Sammon at the interval revised the team’s play for the better. The Mac isn’t afraid to make a bold change or two and keep his team pressing to score until the very end.
Recruitment-wise the Rams have flowered with a glitter of premium loan signings. Andre Wisdom, Patrick Bamford, Simon Dawkins (now permanent) and Michael Keane have arrived from the nation’s elitist clubs, who obviously trust Derby to bring on their talents. Although loan scoops were made previously, none were of this quality.
Quite a subtle reform, yet important. John Eustace has had a prominent role in this season’s success to date. At the beginning of the season, the ex-Watford captain didn’t feature as often, now he is intrinsic to the side.
Noticeably Derby can now win ugly, especially in the past few weeks. Chasing the game or not in thrall of the game, Derby rarely won, yet now, there’s always a belief and genuine chance of a result being pulled out of the bag.
To reiterate an earlier point, Clough did wonderful under his resources at the club and proved perfect to steer through quite a mess that was left for him. Since his, at the time, bitter sacking, I have been woken and enlighten by different concepts that have been pretty refreshing.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, there are still 14 matches to go – a long way and time in the ever-changing world of football.
Saturday’s match will provide a benchmark of how far things have come over the season, since it was rejuvenated almost five months ago.