A month is a long time in professional football, eighteen of them is even longer. When Steve McClaren was re-appointed Derby County manager just one month ago, the fanbase was split. Some said his acrimonious sacking in May 2015 as the Rams capitulated at the end of the 2014/15 season was just desserts as his pursuit of the Newcastle United job made his position untenable – the fact that union was an unmitigated disaster left many fams beaming with glee. Others said his spell in charge of Derby saw the most attractive football for many a years, with promotion just a Bobby Zamora goal away.
I’m somewhere inbetween.
While it cannot be denied McClaren’s last spell in charge of the club saw plenty of goals, both in an attacking sense and towards the end of his tenure at the other end, and beautiful passing, the bleak way it ended, as the Rams slipped from the automatic promotion places, then the play-offs on the final day of the season, cannot be forgotten. McClaren had his head turned by rampant speculation linking him with the Magpies, but his refusal to comment on rumours only made it worse, as performances and results fell off a cliff.
Since then neither club nor manager have got on well; McClaren, as mentioned, was sacked earlier this year again, as his £50million spend in the summer of 2015 wasn’t enough to save Newcastle from relegation, a last-ditch effort by Rafa Benitez a case of too little, too late. Derby appointed rookie manager Paul Clement, and were sitting top of the table by Christmas 2015, but they parted ways following a small run of bad form, with academy manager Darren Wassall in charge for the remainder of the season, ending with a brave, but fruitless run to the play-off semi-finals. Nigel Pearson came in this summer, for one of the shortest reigns in the club’s history, leaving after claims of a fight with chairman Mel Morris. Enter McClaren, appointed as Pearson’s successor, with Chris Powell staying on as his assistant; but the question remains, where can Derby go with their ex-boss?
It’s obviously a loaded question, and one that a month down the line with McClaren in charge is still rather murky. In the five games since, Derby have played five, winning three games, drawing one and losing one. Ten points from five games is nothing to be sniffed at considering they’d mustered just ten from the previous eleven games prior to that.
Naturally a shift towards a possession-based style of play is slowly taking place, but the new-found defensive resilience the Rams seem to have found is also present. With just 13 goals conceded in 16 games, they’ve got the second-tightest rear end in the division, the problem there in lies with the attack, as they’ve only found the net 12 times.
A balancing act needs to take place, then, but the positive signs are there that change is happening. It also speaks volumes for just how poor the start to the season was, that despite the upturn in the team’s form of late, they still sit in 16th place, with a six point deficit to the top six and the coveted play-off positions.
The international break probably came at the best time for McClaren, as he’s had the best part of two weeks to evaluate and pinpoint areas of his squad to strengthen in the upcoming January transfer window, aswell as work out his current best starting XI. Looking ahead too, the Rams’ next run of fixtures isn’t all that bad. It reads Rotherham (H), Norwich (H), Wigan (A), Forest (H), QPR (A), Fulham (A), Birmingham (H) and Wigan (H).
There’s some very winnable games amongst them, with three games against teams in the bottom three, a team in flux in QPR and that game against local rivals Nottingham Forest. Wins against Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday show that even the visits of Norwich and Birmingham shouldn’t necessarily be a given for the visitors, Derby can battle it with the best on their day.
What success may hinge on is successful use of a target man. During his previous spell, McClaren operated a similar system to the one in place currently, playing Chris Martin up-front, and using the Scot as a focal point for his team to play off. Martin was usually key to linking attack and midfield, and was more than likely to finish off moves in the eighteen-yard box. But Martin has departed indefinitely, on loan to Fulham, and Darren Bent is the current incumbant of the position, having ousted £8million man Matej Vydra.
Fans may remember at the back end of that 2014/15 season when Thomas Ince and Bent linked up so well to fire the Rams within a shot of the play-offs, despite such poor form. Hopefully that fire can be reignited within both, the recent 3-2 victory against Wolves showed flickers of that partnership sparking up once again, Bent notching a brilliant volley, while Ince tidied up a loose save and confidently hit home from the spot to secure victory in a topsy-turvy game.
More goals like the above would help, that much is for certain. The defence is a place of strength at the moment, Scott Carson also looking back to his most imperious. But those moments that make fans gasp in awe, that make them stand up on their feet in wonder, those are what have been missing from Derby County’s matches this season. It’s a tall ask, but the man who provided so many of these moments in recent years for Rams fans has got as bigger chance as any at restoring the side to the higher echelons of the Championship, and maybe, whisper it, the hallowed heights of the Premier League.