Just over nine years ago, in January 2005, Derby County came away from a televised fixture at Reading with a 1-0 win thanks to a Tommy Smith goal.
At the time, the Rams were riding high in the play-off zone, a performance that constituted something of a surprise after a period of rebuilding following on from the financial excesses of the Lionel Pickering era. With Smith a darting and intelligent presence in forward areas, mulleted Spaniard Iñigo Idiakez pulling the strings in midfield and a youngster by the name of Huddlestone all enjoying an influence, the east Midlanders thoroughly deserved their win on the night after the Royals’ efforts fizzled out lamely in the second half.
Since then, Derby have rarely enjoyed such success at the Mad Stad with a 5-0 thumping that saw Reading secure the Championship title in 2006 springing to mind as does a 4-1 reverse which saw Robbie Savage theatrically take up the goalkeeping gloves.
So as Saturday’s match between the two sides approached, the encouraging results that the Rams have achieved this season led me to suspect that this could well be the best Derby County team since those earlier days, one constructed by Nigel Clough over a period of several seasons and starting to bear fruit under the shrewd coaching of Steve McClaren.
After ninety hard fought minutes, ones which would please the purists more than those easily distracted by such fripperies as goals and sendings-off, this impression was confirmed – for this is surely the strongest Rams side for some time.
Not perhaps in the way I suspected however. For sure, Derby do play pretty good football although they don’t approach the likes of Swansea of Brighton in their devotion to the finer arts. No, this is a Derby team that is built upon a sinew of muscle, highly organised by McClaren and devilishly difficult to break down – in your face and tenacious with each man allotted a simple array of tasks and each keeping to his position – Derby’s ‘shape’ rarely gets lost.
Take Chris Martin – as mardy a player as I have seen on recent visit to the Madejski – a set of tantrums in an earlier League Cup tie for Luton seemed to recall the youngster who would terrorise the small towns of East Anglia as a youth. Now, he sits at the fulcrum of a fluid attaching formation, winning constant headers against Reading’s Alex Pearce and working industriously for the team.
Take John Eustace. Why on earth did Watford ever let him go? – he fulfils the Makélélé role from before it was invented, gnarled and insistent in his pressurising of the opposing team and allowing poor Hope Akpan a lot less time on the ball than he would ever need. Ditto Royston Drenthe, whose skillz did occasionally baffle the veteran but Eustace allows the more storied members of the County midfield to prosper.
That said, take also Craig Bryson, another workhorse and more attack minded than Eustace, but nevertheless as limpet like in the tackle and his harrying as you would expect from a boy from Rutherglen.
Finally, take also Richard Keogh, a man whose career had at one point threatened to slide into journeyman status but who McClaren has helped fashion into an all defender. Recipient of a player of the season award in 2012-13, Keogh formed a fine centre back pairing with former Burton man Jake Buxton, an experienced duo perhaps lacking in pace but comfortable on the day against their opponents’ injury-hit front line.
This solidity allows some of the more mercurial talents Derby possess to shine and the man of the match was Jamie Ward, a player who always causes problems for Reading and who instilled a steep learning curve in young full back Jordan Obita throughout the first half. Curiously – perhaps because of the withdrawal through injury of Will Hughes, perhaps because Obita had begun to get the measure of him, Ward was provided with more of a free role after the break, to a much reduced effect.
That the youngster Hughes was withdrawn was a pity and in truth, he didn’t look fit from the start, the prognosis having declared him to be ‘doubtful’ – so we were spared a proper viewing of both he and fellow privately educated man Patrick Bamford, introduced only from the bench on this occasion.
Bamford, however, did make an impact, cutting inside Chris Gunter at one point and fizzing a shot past the post before latching on to a delightful through ball only to see Alex McCarthy deflect his effort wide following a one on one. As the game wore on, McClaren had been correct to explore ways of changing the game’s tone and it almost came off.
Elsewhere, on-loan Liverpool right back Andre Wisdom looks a beast of a player – highly muscled and calm in possession, while his opposite number on the left, Craig Forsyth, lived up to his reputation as an astute utility man. All made for a good team display with perhaps only Simon Dawkins and the unfortunate Hughes below par.
So lots to encourage Rams fans – if only the other results had gone their way and not left them in the limbo position of almost certainly heading for the play-offs but with automatic promotion looking out of sight.
Derby can be good enough to emerge victorious from the post-season but with Wigan hurtling like a train and QPR lingering like another unconvincing squad of has beens, the West Ham of a couple of years ago, that won’t be straightforward. Back in 2005, the current team’s forebears lost over two legs to Preston and without scoring a goal and although they did finally make it up a couple of years later, the result was an embarrassment which opposing fans still like to remind them of.
Promotion might well be too early of course and given that Bamford, Wisdom and others are unlikely to be around next season, McClaren must already be thinking about how to fashion his Derby County 2.0. For now, however, there is a real method in the club’s progress.