It’s hard to know what to say about a result as historic, as comprehensive, as seismic as Saturday’s. Several other bloggers commemorated it very well with their instant reaction, the local and national media did their thing in recording the facts and a DVD akin to 2004’s ‘Forest Felled’ – Tommy Smith and all that – will be on the shelves of the club shop before too long.
As fans, we will always remember Saturday as the day when everything, just for once, really did go right. Everything flew in, there were no hitches, barely any resistance, to be honest. It was easy, a non-contest, even hilarious at times, like when another Forest shot went out for a throw-in – yes, that happened more than once – or when a lovely Derby move ended in Johnny Russell kicking fresh air and falling on his backside – at four or five-nil already, I forget quite how many, everyone could see the funny side, Russell included.
Much of the media attention focused on the Forest end of the result. That Billy Davies was sacked within 48 hours was inevitable – even a far less emotional owner than Fawaz al-Hasawi would have found his hand forced by such a disaster – and while a certain amount of schadenfreude from Derby fans is entirely justified, I don’t think we should focus on him, or them.
This result was a thoroughly deserved triumph for Derby County FC, a riotous affirmation that the club is in good health on and off the pitch and a blissful example of the stylish excellence of our passing football.
Our recent mini goal-drought belied the range of serious goal threats present in our front five. Whichever combination of wide forwards and attack-minded midfielders is selected behind the technically excellent target man Chris Martin, they can all score. There are options to suit different occasions, to unlock different defences.
Simon Dawkins unsettles opponents with his dextrous dribbling. Johnny Russell is quick, tenacious and – as we discovered on Saturday – has the deadliest of drives in his locker. Jamie Ward is, when fit and firing, an unpredictable menace to any Championship defence. Patrick Bamford, meanwhile, is in a different class to your average Championship forward. A flair player, he is languid, almost diffident, but a stylish footballer with superb technique. All four are potential match-winners – as is Martin.
Then there’s the line behind the forwards. Will Hughes, a potential future England midfield playmaker. Jeff Hendrick, improving all the time and possessing the ability to change a game with a driving run or an astute pass. And Craig Bryson, one of the most devastatingly effective attacking midfielders in the division, with his unbelievable stamina, anticipation and steely determination. All three can create and finish opportunities to score.
When all eight are fit, it’s a hell of a job for Steve McClaren to pick five to start – then you have the other three on the bench to come on and affect the game, if needed. Against Forest, Dawkins was missing and Ward injured during the first-half, but Bamford, with his sublime assist for Hendrick, and Russell, with his unstoppable strike from the edge of the box, ensured that they were not missed.
It’s no wonder that teams come to the iPro Stadium determined to park the bus. That can work sometimes, as we’ve seen – but Forest, drawn out by the concession of an early goal, were forced to take us on and were totally outclassed in the process.
Hughes, one of the best technicians in the division, was able to watch from the bench before a late cameo designed only to let the hat-trick hero Bryson wander off and take a standing ovation from the fans. Hendrick, whose stop-start season has been disrupted by injury, was at the heart of much of our best football, linking in well with the forwards and the defensive midfielder George Thorne – who was calm and comfortable on the ball, in what should on paper have been a really difficult game in which to make his debut.
The defence, ever since the signing of Andre Wisdom, has tightened up amazingly – 20 goals were shipped in the first 12 league games, but only 23 have been conceded in the 25 since Wisdom made his debut. It was ignored due to the fact that we hadn’t scored for four games, but before Forest, we had only conceded three goals in our previous seven matches, keeping five clean sheets.
Richard Keogh and Jake Buxton now form a reliable partnership at this level, with Buxton’s concentration and appetite for defending making him a good foil for Keogh, who shows an admirable desire to lead the team from the back, vocally, but also in terms of bringing the ball out of defence when he can and looking to pass it. Buxton, too, possesses a deceptive range of passing for one who has worked his way up from Conference level to flourish in the fifth-best supported division in Europe.
Lee Grant is looking ever more composed and unruffled between the sticks, thanks to an increasing familiarity with the settled back four in front of him and surely also thanks to the input of Eric Steele, a hugely respected goalkeeping coach who worked under Sir Alex Ferguson until last summer. Left back Craig Forsyth is perhaps the least polished member of the side, but is improving and doing extremely well when you consider that he is learning a new position – at Watford, he was primarily used as a wing back or midfielder.
All these players, working under a team of experienced and effective coaches, have combined to become a real force in the Championship. They have not quite been good enough to keep up with Leicester – who chalked up £65m of losses in the last two seasons while buying their way to the top of the table – and Burnley, who have found one of those classic two-striker combinations that works with devastating effect. But they have been a real match for everyone else.
Apart from the 1-0 defeat at Forest, the only other game we’ve lost to anybody currently outside of the top six was the surprise home loss to Millwall, a result so freakish that it could almost have been created by a puckish God of Statistics as an ‘outlier’, to better highlight the trend. The lottery of the play-offs beckons and it will not be easy to get promoted that way, but whoever we have to play in the semi-finals will not be relishing the prospect.
“We are where we are” was one of Davies’ favourite phrases and Derby are where they are – third – entirely on merit.
It is what it is.