If you read my post-Sunderland article, you’ll know that how shocked I was at the performance and entirely deserved 4-1 defeat. It wasn’t a nice thing to write and I made the point after publishing it that I took no pleasure from giving the club both barrels for its failings. But given the feedback the piece received, I think its fair to say that what I wrote struck a chord with many other Derby fans.
Gary Rowett bracketed Sunderland with the early-season away performances at Sheffield United and Bristol City and his tactical response at Preston was exactly the same. Just as they did at Brentford and Cardiff, Derby sat in a rigid 4-4-1-1 shape and asked the Lilywhites whether they could break it down. Alex Neil said that Derby “came not to lose” and it’s impossible to argue with that. Certainly after a first half in which the Rams, despite a few promising breakaway positions, failed to muster a single shot, it was impossible to see how they could win.
But apart from a few nervy scrambles following set pieces, they looked largely comfortable in the second half and much credit for that goes to player of the season contender Curtis Davies and his new defensive partner, Alex Pearce.
The headline change was the omission of Richard Keogh and Rowett deserves credit for grabbing the bull by the horns and doing it. And while his decision to persist with the struggling Tom Lawrence seemed like stubbornness to me at the time, hopefully scoring the winning goal will give the Welshman a new lease of life. His manic cupped-ear “celebration” in front of the Derby faithful said a lot about the pressure he has been feeling and just how much the criticism can sting.
At Deepdale, Derby went negative and went direct – a wince-inducing 54% pass ‘success’ rate proves they weren’t remotely bothered whether they kept the ball or not. And I’m struggling to think of a game in recent Rams history in which they only shot twice – a 1-0 defeat at Swansea in which Nigel Clough’s team mustered only one shot is the only occasion that comes to mind.
They rode their luck for a win which came as a huge relief and Rowett was right to say that nothing other than the result mattered, given his team’s awful form. But they can’t play the same way against Bolton Wanderers, mostly because they’re at home and the atmosphere will be completely different, but also because the Trotters, with their desperately poor away record – the worst of any team in the Championship – will not come to Derby and try to play us off the park.
The home form has dropped off considerably since Christmas, with only seven points collected from the 21 on offer since Derby beat Millwall 3-0 on 23 December, so the home fans are craving victory first and foremost – if that means another “ugly” win, then so be it.
But I think the Sunderland fiasco hurt so much because on top of missing out on the three much-needed three points, in honesty it felt like a huge chance to bang a few goals past floundering opposition and enjoy a bit of entertainment for a change. Bored of lumpy Championship gruel, I was hoping for some red meat – I wanted the players to smell blood and rip into the vulnerable, limping animal in front of them.
Rowett talks about the “resilience” the team have showed by not losing many away games, but resilience is also shown through handling the pressure that comes with the demands of 25,000+ and not hiding – showing your talent on a big stage, whether you’re a tough defender, a technical midfielder, or a flying winger. That hasn’t happened for this team for too long now and it’s time to put it right.
The desire for entertainment is of course behind the hope that Rowett will at some stage see fit to unleash Kasey Palmer, who is a cut above anyone around him in terms of sheer ability. The starting XI will not be radically different from the one which won at Deepdale – more than likely, it will be exactly the same – but this time, they need to create a hell of a lot more than the two shots they managed on Easter Monday. And that’s where Palmer could come in handy. When you look at Derby’s season overall, it doesn’t take long to realise that turning just a handful of those 14 Ds into Ws is all it would have taken for us to be up their with Wolves. To do that, we needed just a few more goals – defensively, we’ve been as good as the four clubs above us, but offensively, they have all pulled away and scored more than the Rams.
So, does Rowett pick the team that ground out the 1-0 at Preston and hope that they can show a hell of a lot more threat going forward, or does he make a change, in the hope of giving us more attacking impetus? Probably not, based on his pre-match comments to BBC Radio Derby:-
“I’m not suggesting we’ve got to perform in a way that makes everyone feel good… we’ve got to go and win the game. We’re at the stage of the season where, yes, we’re in an entertainment industry, but I’ll choose the three points before the entertainment… that’s bells and whistles.”
Which is fine, as long as you get the three points. If the football is bad, but the results are good, the manager keeps his job. If the football is good, but the results are bad, eventually, the manager loses his job. Since February, the football has been mostly bad and the results have been mostly bad – a fatal combo, if it goes on for too long. But the margins are usually so fine. Mel Morris has quite rightly refrained from exercising his trigger finger and it’s still too soon for the season overall to be judged a success or a failure.
I said after Sunderland that any realistic prospect of this team being promoted to the Premier League was gone and I stand by that prediction – on paper, you can’t really look past the top four for the three who are going up. But even if I’m right, it doesn’t change the fact that it should be a point of pride for the club to finish the season as strongly as possible – to fight off the teams below, finish in the top six and give the best possible account of themselves in the play-offs (almost certainly against Fulham or Villa). If that takes us to a Wembley final, then what an amazing achievement that would be after yet another season which has not exactly been the smoothest of rides.
A play-off finish and a competitive post-season performance would be enough for all of us to look forward to next season with renewed optimism. In time, we could even come to see the Sunderland game as a watershed moment, after which the club was able to face some hard realities, make some tough decisions and finally move on from an era overshadowed by Wembley 2014. The home fans have endured some crap lately and deserve better – but without a doubt, all but the very youngest among us have seen a lot worse in the past.
Rowett grasped the nettle and made changes on Monday. Whatever happens next, many more changes are coming in the summer. Whoever plays between now and May needs to earn the right to remain a part of it come August.