With the new season less than three weeks away, it feels fair to say that most Derby fans are currently experiencing more outright optimism about the club’s future than has been the case for many, many years. Today’s squad is easily the strongest the Rams have been able to boast since the Jim Smith era, when Steve McClaren had his first stint at the club – and keeping last year’s third-placed team together by going the extra mile to retain George Thorne and Craig Bryson has really helped to restore the spirits of supporters left devastated by our Wembley defeat.
Although there haven’t been many new first-team players to get excited about, that was never the priority for this summer. Bryson has stayed despite determined interest from Premier League Burnley; perhaps even more impressively, George Thorne has signed on a permanent deal from Premier League West Bromwich Albion – and let’s not forget that the promise of Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick will be realised with the Rams, now that both players have signed long-term deals to ward off any potential interest from bigger fish.
Thorne has said that he wouldn’t have come to Derby if he didn’t believe that we were going to be promoted to the Premier League. And the bookmakers seem to share his analysis, installing the Rams as second favourites to go up this season, at the time of writing.
Looking at Oddschecker.com, the bookies’ current top six is as follows: –
1. Cardiff City
2. DERBY COUNTY
4. Norwich City
5. Wigan Athletic
6. Nottingham Forest
Of the other favourites, the most obvious threat, as far as I can see, is Fulham. Although there will be the inevitable player churn which comes with relegation, that isn’t necessarily such a bad thing if it gets ageing, over-paid pros off your books. They have a hugely experienced manager in Felix Magath, who seems keen to give young players a chance and is legendarily severe when it comes to fitness training. Evading injuries is always a key requirement for the Championship’s demanding 46-game league season, which you could see as the footballing equivalent of the Grand National – so assuming the players survive pre-season, he will expect them to last the course.
When injuries do bite, it’s very hard to sustain a promotion push – although clubs coming down from the Premier League do, of course, have the advantage of parachute payments, to help them carry bigger squads. Fulham have already flexed their financial muscles by bringing in a clutch of squad players from Europe and completing a frankly extortionate £11m deal with Leeds for Ross McCormack.
Cardiff are a slightly different case, given the volatility of their autocratic owner, Vincent Tan. Tan will provide funds for players – they’ve already signed midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi from Crystal Palace and Adam Le Fondre from Reading – but will also expect instant success and will be a constant, hovering presence at Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s shoulder.
Norwich have an unproven manager in Neil Adams, who has been promoted through the ranks. Adams has already said that he does not want to be drawn into the kind of transfer window frenzy that results in McCormack-sized deals, but the Canaries have signed Lewis Grabban for £3m from Bournemouth and brought in Kyle Lafferty from Palermo.
Wigan should be strong again under Uwe Rösler while the parachute payments last. They have gambled £2m on Spanish striker Oriol Riera and signed two players – full back Andrew Taylor and midfielder Don Cowie – from Cardiff.
As for Forest, well, it’s hard for me to be objective about their prospects. Stuart Pearce has been brought and will be given time by the fans, which he may well need. Let’s just say the sorry outfit that limped to a mid-table finish last season didn’t exactly look like promotion contenders the last time they visited the iPro – and leave it at that.
Beyond that projected top six are a clutch of sides who will consider themselves play-off contenders, not least Brighton, Reading, possibly Watford – and don’t forget that Wolves have returned from their chucklesome plunge into the murky waters of League One.
As for Derby – well, the new season is a blank page and there’s no guarantee that the players will necessarily hit the same heights as last time. With expectation comes pressure and McClaren must guard against any complacency in the ranks, especially in home games, which the fans will expect us to not just win, but win in style. Many visiting sides will come ‘with a game plan’ – you know what I mean by that – and our much-vaunted attack will be sternly tested.
There’s also the defence to ponder on. With Andre Wisdom gone, will we be as solid as we were during the second half of last season? Is Cyrus Christie a suitable replacement, or do we need to find a more experienced defender to fill the rather sizeable gap left by big Andre? And what of Richard Keogh – can he fully recover from the trauma of the error which left him shattered on the Wembley turf?
On the whole, I’m pleasantly surprised that all the sports betting offers from the bookmakers have us down as second favourites ahead of Norwich and Fulham – but would be hugely disappointed if we don’t live up to the pre-season billing and finish this season as strongly as we did last season.