It has been a tough three years for Derby County fans after Steve McClaren achieved the near-impossible of reaching the Championship playoff final in 2014.
The Rams were beaten by 10-man Queens Park Rangers at Wembley but few could forgive the manager after taking them from the bottom half of the table all the way to the home of English football.
McClaren accomplished this with more sub-standard players than you would expect for a side trying to achieve promotion to the Premier League. Richard Keogh at the heart of the defence was signed from Coventry City after their relegation to the third tier, Craig Forsyth didn’t look good enough to be playing for a team above the third tier, Jake Buxton came from non-league Burton Albion, and Simon Dawkins has since moved onto a substitutes bench in the MLS.
This set high expectations for Derby County fans, who narrowly missed out on the playoffs the following season before ending up somewhat further adrift this past season.
Gary Rowett came in towards the end of last season with a big reputation after taking Birmingham City from the relegation zone to just outside the playoff places. Other than that he has only managed Burton Albion. Essentially he’s done nothing so far to prove he’ll be a success for Derby County.
To make things harder for the Rams boss, three of their key players from last season have already been sold this summer. Will Hughes left for a bargain £8 million to Watford. Tom Ince went for a similar price to Huddersfield Town and Cyrus Christie joined Middlesbrough.
So far, the East Midlands club have only brought in the experienced Curtis Davies; Andre Wisdom, who previously had a loan spell at the club; and central midfielder Tom Huddlestone – a position in which they are already well stocked. Hardly anything to make Rams fans believe their team will be near the top six this season.
Darren Bent has been ruled out until December through injury, perhaps that’s a good thing because his pace has gone and that was his biggest asset in being able to score goals… a long time ago.
With that in mind, here are five players that need to have a good season for Derby County to have a chance of being promoted:
It was obvious that Nigel Pearson was going to be a failure as Derby County manager when he got rid of striker, Chris Martin, on loan to Fulham. The striker had been Derby’s best attacking option for a number of seasons, so why get rid of him? One can’t help but think Pearson – a former manager of rivals Leicester City – wanted Derby County to fail. He replaced the striker with record signing Matěj Vydra who scored just five goals in his 33 league appearances last season. Mind you, that’s more than the three in 31 for Reading that persuaded Pearson to splash £8 million on him.
Chris Martin is back at Pride Park and going by his interviews in the local papers, he’s glad to be back. If Gary Rowett can get the best out of the 28-year-old then he has a 20+ goal striker on his hands.
The talented central midfielder has been plagued by injuries since his permanent move from West Brom in 2014. George Thorne has excellent technique – he often commands a game when he’s not man marked. His defensive abilities are certainly questionable though – something that’s common among Derby County’s central midfielders unfortunately.
If George Thorne can stay healthy then Derby have a player who can control possession and the game for his team – to start and build attacks around the penalty area. He also has a decent long-range shot on him.
Tom Huddlestone was a teenager when he left Derby County to join Tottenham Hotspur in 2005, going on to win four caps for the England national team and later play Premier League football for Hull City. Derby fans will be pleased to welcome back the 30-year-old for a reported £2 million. Similar to Thorne and other central midfielders in the current squad, Tom Huddlestone is an excellent passer of the ball with a powerful long-range shot on him.
It looks as though Derby will stack the middle of the park again this season as manager Rowett also has Jacob Butterfield, Bradley Johnson, and Craig Bryson available in this position. A good season for Huddlestone would mean dominating opposition players and creating chances for his teammates. Derby fans will be hoping he’s not playing in front of the back four though because he is a bit lazy in defending.
One thing Derby County have had issues with in recent seasons is defending versus the top teams and quick attackers. Their head-to-head record versus teams finishing in the top six hasn’t been very good – including two playoff defeats in the last three seasons. Curtis Davies joins the club with a wealth of experience, having previously played Premier League football with West Brom, Aston Villa, Birmingham City, and Hull City – albeit relegated a total of four times with three of those clubs.
Davies can lack concentration at times but is a good leader at the back who often reads the game well. He could form a good partnership with Richard Keogh in the middle but both are the wrong side of 30 – one must think Rowett has more of a short-term promotion plan than anything long-term. And with Derby’s owner, that’s the right plan to have in mind.
One thing Derby County haven’t had for a while is a good player on the left wing. Whatever people say about Johnny Russell, he loses possession a lot and doesn’t score very many. So what if he works hard? You need a lot more than that to get promoted. Abdoul Camara didn’t produce anything and has since being released. On the opposite wing, Tom Ince has been sold. Essentially Derby County need a lot of productivity down the wings and I can’t see much of it looking at the names on the current squad.
Andi Weimann has shown potential during his previous spells at Aston Villa and Watford but it hasn’t worked out for him so far at Derby. So much so he was loaned out to Wolves last January, where he reportedly played well. Gary Rowett has been giving the Austrian a chance in pre-season. He looks like he could make a difference if he lives up to his potential and starts delivering consistently. Will 2017-18 be his breakout season?