Going into 2018, Derby County fans had a renewed sense of optimism, with the Rams managing to clamber into second place in the Championship – albeit a fair few furlongs behind runaway leaders and new rich kids on the block Wolverhampton Wanderers – but second nonetheless on the back of a fantastic run of form – unbeaten in 19 games bar two home aberrations against Ipswich Town and Reading.
But Derby fans have been here before….and the burning question to be answered is whether the Rams can finally find the consistency and continued form to turn this wonder run into a sustained promotion push and finally get back to the promised land of the Premier League, and have a chance to right the wrongs of our now infamous last season there, where just 11 points were gleaned from 38 dismal games.
REASONS TO BE OPTIMISTIC
Although Derby laboured to a New Years Day 1-1 draw against a very good Sheffield United side, who were unlucky not to claim all three points, the Rams seem to now be made of sterner stuff, and have made a nice habit of turning zero points into one, and one into three. Only Wolves have scored more goals and conceded less than Derby, with boss Gary Rowett finally finding a formula that sees Derby strong at both ends of the pitch. Rejuvenated Matej Vydra is the second leading top scorer in the Championship and at the heart of the Rams defence, Richard Keogh has been outstanding recently – being awarded top Championship player for December. Scott Carson remains arguably the best keeper outside the Premier League when the Rams mean defence is breached and has been very difficult to get past, keeping 7 clean sheets in 10 games.
There seems little reason as to why Derby cannot maintain this form. Wolves apart, the Championship has a lot of decent teams but none standout. Derby’s upcoming schedule also looks favourable, with Bristol City (H) the only team currently in the top ten Derby are due to face in their next six games. Whilst this doesn’t guarantee anything, it offers the Rams a real chance of taking the second auto promotion spot by the scruff of the neck and maybe even put a little pressure on Wolves, who have a more awkward run of games themselves.
Gary Rowett also has 4 weeks to make some sensible transfer moves, knowing that uber-commited Chairman Mel Morris will back him financially where needed. Derby have a deep first team squad, and some fringe players may well leave – Chris Martin, Ikechi Anya and Jason Shackell heading the list. But Rowett will not be afraid to add players either whom could well play a crucial role in the promotion push. George Thorne’s return from injury is a huge plus, but further midfielders, as well as maybe a real playmaker, will be high on Rowett’s transfer radar – Bristol City’s highly rated Marlon Pack rumoured to be a prime Rams target.
But even if the Derby squad stands pat, they have shown they have the strength across the pitch to be the second best team in the Championship….and with Rowett’s steel and dourness evident in the Rams play, they can finally do it.
REASONS TO BE PESSIMISTIC
As said, Derby have been here before. Charging through the first half of the season, get into a position to make a push…but then choke and fall lamely away, much to the delight of local rivals and Championship opponents who are able to take a comfortable three points from a suddenly listless and ineffective Derby.
In years past, FA Cup defeats have often been a turning point in the Rams season. Glorious recent defeats to the likes of Leicester City, Manchester United and Chelsea have been relatively acceptable in isolation, but have then coincided with poor runs of form – indeed, last season when eventually going down to Leicester, Derby then embarked on a run of just one win in the next 9 games. It was a similar, although not as bad, story the season before. This year, Derby travel to Manchester United in the FA Cup third round – a game where no one will be surprised should United prevail, but the effect on the Rams could well prove to be worse than the elimination itself.
One of the Rams key men recently also, Joe Ledley, has gone down injured and its unclear when he will return. The Rams looked far less secure against Sheffield United without him and an extended run on the sidelines could prove very costly.
But it is the Rams themselves who can be their worst enemy. Too often Derby have flattered to deceive, and managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of success. In the past, far too often opposing teams that genuine promotion standard teams should be beating have seen Derby off with comparable ease, leaving Rams fans bewildered at what they are seeing. The fixtures look promising yes….but teams like Birmingham, Millwall, Norwich, Sheffield Wednesday and then the deadly duo of Leeds and Nottingham Forest lie in wait, as well as annual party poopers Reading, Cardiff and Fulham – all who seem to have a hex over Derby just when it is least required.
Rams fans can have no real certainty of anything until it is mathematically certain….and whilst hope springs eternal, pessimism seems to be closer to realism than optimism does…..just watch that play off final against QPR again if anyone needs reminding!!!
Theres no doubt that Derby CAN achieve promotion this season. Automatic would be fantastic…..a play off success heart stoppingly exciting…..but can they do it? No matter what happens, it will be a roller coaster ride for the legions of fans that remain proud to be a Ram.