What has sparked this revival? Just 12 games and 3 months ago, Derby were a team dwelling in mid-table obscurity. They had a manager in Nigel Clough who, if not spectacular, was stable and solid. Clough inherited a Derby squad that was overpaid, overplayed and overrated. They had been recently relegated and the wage bill was astronomical. Players like Roy Carroll, Claude Davis and Robert Earnshaw were sat happily earning nearly £15,000 a week. They were appalling in Derby's frankly shambolic return to the Premier League, where they were relegated before Easter with record low points total of 11. A record likely never to be bettered in my lifetime at least. After the sacking of the equally shambolic Paul Jewell, Derby turned to up-and-coming Burton Albion manager Clough to change their fortunes. Clough had left Burton streets ahead at the summit of the then Conference league.
Clough's remit was obvious, keep Derby in the Championship! They were a club on the slide with little looking like stopping the rot. The enigmatic Robbie Savage was returned from his Brighton loan wilderness to captain the team. This proved to be a great decision from Clough. Savage missed just 1 game over the next 2 seasons because of suspension. Derby survived that season but the wage bill was still astronomical for a team in the position Derby were. Wholesale changes were vital.
The deadwood was offloaded. Miller, Earnshaw, Mears, Pearson, Nyatanga and Leacock amongst others were cast aside and offloaded. The wage bill had to be slashed to a third of the current total. This was to be a massive task. These players had just been relegated in a team with a record low points total. Who would want to take a risk on them, still on their Premier League wages. Savage was the one constant in the team. He was the heartbeat of the team and Clough set about building a team around him.
Clough signed players from the lower leagues and Scotland in particular to address the balance of the squad. Players like James Bailey, Ben Davies and Jake Buxton were signed by Clough. They weren't exactly world beaters, but they were workers. Good honest professionals. Something that Derby squad needed. Over the next two seasons steady progress was made. The wage bill was gradually being eased down season by season, transfer window by transfer window. This was now entirely Clough's team. His captain Savage had hung up his boots in exchange for a prosperous media career. A clean slate some might say.
Clough was liked by the Derby fans, possibly afforded more support by the fact his surname is Clough. His father's reputation amongst Derby fans is legendary. Nigel was never going to reach these heights and, in truth, he never really tried. Despite the steady progress amongst great austerity at the club, on Saturday 28th September 2013, after a 1-0 defeat at the hands of bitter rivals Nottingham Forest, Clough was relieved of his duties, much to the dismay of the supporters. Clough has steadied a rapidly sinking ship. A successor would have to do something special to emulate his popularity. The early favourites were Tony Pulis and Steve McClaren.
Just before the home game with Ipswich 3 days later, Derby County announced the appointment of former player and assistant manager of Derby and ex-England manager Steve McClaren as Nigel Clough's appointment. The reaction was mixed. His previous managerial post was with Nottingham Forest and his last 3 jobs had hardly yielded great success. Derby were 4-1 down at half time with caretaker manager and academy director Darren Wassall in charge. McClaren evidently entered the dressing room at half time to see to his players and rouse them. Derby went on to draw 4-4. The McClaren era was underway.
Since this, Derby have lost 1 in 12 games. A club that were seemingly drifting into yet another season of mid-table ambiguity, were suddenly marching up the table. McClaren had Derby playing some of the nicest football in Europe! Their passing stats and accuracy were better than Barcelona. Astonishing for a team that had become renowned with boring football. A team that shut up shop and hoped to counter attack. As we speak, Derby are on a 6 game winning streak and sit 5 points clear of 7th place Forest and only 3 points off top spot. What has McClaren done with exactly same set of players? Only people within the club will know. The evidence suggests that the first port of call has been the speed of play and the control Derby now exert on matches.
One thing is for sure out of this story. Nigel Clough must be sat behind his desk at his new job at relegation threatened Sheffield United wondering why these players wouldn't step up to the plate for him. McClaren has given Derby a new confidence that Clough simply never gave them. Clough was lifeless on the touchline and in interviews. McClaren is passionate. He inspires people. Derby County are experiencing record ticket sales. 6,000 tickets have been sold for an away match at Barnsley just 4 days after Christmas. People want to support Derby. They want to see this beautiful football. They want to see the Championship's form player, Craig Bryson dominate midfield with the mercurial talent of 18 year old Will Hughes alongside him. They want to to see the form striker in the league, Chris Martin bang in goals. The fear factor is there when teams play Derby. They dread it. Long may this continue. Come May, could they be seeing their team lift the Championship title? Possibly. Very possibly.