Derby County’s U-turn this season has been nothing short of magical, from a mediocre first eight Championship games and a heart-breaking 1-0 loss to the trees 16 miles over the A52 that saw Nigel Clough shown the door, to an impressive third place finish.
Steve McClaren has transformed Derby into real promotion candidates, there is a buzz of expectation rather than nervousness around the iPro stadium, a feeling seldom experienced by fans since ‘that’ Premiership misadventure six seasons ago. Epitomised perfectly by the 4-4 draw at home to Ipswich; trailing 4-1 at half time things were bleak, but Steve made a visit to the changing rooms and low and behold, the Rams were a totally different team in the second half, blowing Ipswich away. This was before the new boss had even started, he had obviously done his research on the squad beforehand, further confirmation that a change in management had been inevitable since earlier in the season.
When fans first heard of the new appointment there was a real sense of trepidation, his poor showing as England manager had somewhat sullied his reputation and Nottingham Forest fans were howling with laughter at the idea of the ‘wolly with a brolly’ taking over their rivals. It was easy to forget his previous achievements, but Steve soon proved the doubters wrong, here is a man with the potential to do great things at Derby County. Steve McClaren has been a name synonymous amongst Rams fans since he was number two to Jim Smith during their wonder years in the late 90’s to early 00’s. There’s not many that know this club as well as McClaren, he remembers how the place used to be ‘rocking’ and is excited to see the same again.
There is a new found belief amongst the players, couple this with some tactical tweaks and Derby adopted an attacking mentality that has provided an abundance of goals from all over the park. Derby’s simple passing, cool finishing and incredible work ethic have proved the bane of many a team this season and there have been times that they were totally unplayable. One result fans will always remember is the 5-0 ‘deforestation’ of Nottingham Forest. Their biggest win against their rivals since 1898, when Player of the Season Craig Bryson followed club legend Steve Bloomer into the history books after netting a hat-trick on that special day.
Whilst fans are brimming with plaudits for the former England manager, none can deny Cloughie of the credit he deserves for building a team capable of such performances on a tight budget. Nigel concentrated heavily on the youth system, bringing talents like Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick to the fore and finding fantastic free transfers such as Lee Grant and top goal scorer Chris Martin means that Derby have a huge difference in wage bill compared to Play-off final opponents QPR. There’s no doubting Cloughs managerial abilities; just look at what he’s done at Sheffield United, but he just doesn’t seem to have the same knack in the transfer market that McClaren brings. Although he had made some great signings, there have been some real stinkers such as Nathan Tyson, a transfer that had Forest fans in raptures at Derby’s naivety. One of Steve’s real qualities is his experience, working at Manchester United, Middlesbrough and even abroad at FC Twente suggests his phone book will be chock-full of reputable contacts. McClaren knows his way about the transfer window, bringing in loan signings Patrick Bamford from Chelsea, Liverpool’s Andre Wisdom and holding midfielder George Thorn, all of whom fans are screaming at the board to sign.
Incredible performances since the McClaren takeover have made this season one to remember for Rams fans, they complete the season as the league’s top goal scoring team and at times even dreamed of finishing second. If somebody had of told fans that Derby would finish as favourites to go up to the Premiership via the play-offs, they’d have certainly been happy and the fact there is some disappointment in missing out on automatic promotion is testament to what has been a happy campaign. Come Saturday the 24th, this could be an almost legendary season that fans will remember for years to come.