Last week’s victory over QPR has cemented Derby County into the play-off places for the forseeable future and, following on from the similarly gritty 1-0 win against Brighton, confirmed our status as real promotion contenders who can mix it with our direct rivals. Beating Harry Redknapp’s expensively assembled side ended an unwelcome streak of six prior defeats against our fellow top six sides, which tended to suggest that while the Rams had too much firepower for the majority of Championship teams, the best sides were just that bit better.
However, it should be remembered that the majority of those defeats – at home against Leicester, Burnley and Reading, plus the loss at Forest – happened under the management of Nigel Clough. The losses at QPR and Leicester have been very much the exception to what has become the rule under Steve McClaren. 20 games after he officially took responsibility for the team, Mac’s points per game average is a whopping 2.15. Over a 46-game season, running at that rate would earn a club 99 points and almost certainly the title of Football League champions. If the Rams can keep going at that rate right to the end of the season, they will finish on 89 points – which would be enough for automatic promotion more often than not.
Leicester look to be gone, barring an unlikely meltdown – and are unsurprisingly 1/3 to win the league at the time of writing – but QPR and Burnley will now be looking over their shoulders. Meanwhile, those perennial pundit’s favourites, Notts Forest, remain below us in fifth despite not having lost in their last 13 league games. The gap back to Brighton & Hove Albion, in seventh, is currently nine points.
Looking at the odds for promotion, Betfair still favour Burnley (8/5). Leicester and Queens Park Rangers lead at 1/10 and 4/5 respectively, with Derby at 2/1. There are still a lot of difficult games to come – and Sheffield Wednesday, our next opponents, have been on a real mission to strengthen their squad in the past few days, leading some pundits to suggest that they could hinder our promotion push.
However, our record against the lesser lights this season has been absolutely phenomenal and while the East Midlands Derby and the game at Turf Moor both have an air of ‘six-pointer’, it is by continue to take full advantage of games against poorer teams that Derby will stay in the promotion hunt.
This is an inexact science, as teams will move up and down the table, but breaking our results up into groups (v top six, 7th – 12th, 13th – 18th, bottom six) gives, at the time of writing, the following findings: –
Top six P 7 W 1 D 0 L 6 F 4 A 14 GD -10 PTS 3 PPG .429
7th – 12th P 9 W 5 D 3 L 1 F 17 A 11 GD +6 PTS 18 PPG 2.00
13th – 18th P 7 W 4 D 3 L 0 F 17 A 7 GD +10 PTS 15 PPG 2.14
Bottom six P 7 W 6 D 1 L 0 F 20 A 7 GD +13 PTS 19 PPG 2.71
The eye-catching thing is that all season, we have only lost once to a team not currently in the play-off spots – the slightly unlucky 0-1 home reverse to Wigan Athletic – and the majority of our remaining games come against teams who are haunted by the threat of relegation, or just floating along in mid-table.
There are four home games still to come against teams currently languishing in the bottom six. Millwall, Bolton and Charlton all visit the iPro in March – making the most of those fixtures could well mean that the Rams go into April in a very strong position to compete for promotion. On the other side of the coin, there are difficult away trips to Burnley, Reading and Ipswich to navigate next month, along with what promises to be a fascinating home game against Forest. However, none of those opponents will be relishing the prospect of facing us.
A lot will change in the coming weeks. There are always surprise results and players get injured – losing Charlie Austin has been a massive blow to QPR and even signing a glut of new strikers doesn’t guarantee that his goals will be replaced, as we saw when Rangers failed to break us down at the iPro last week.