It panned out as expected, in some ways. Forest had more of the ball and tried to pull us apart through quick passing and clever movement. Derby had to endure spells where they couldn’t break up the opponents’ flow and instead, just had to sit deep, watch and wait. It was nerve-wracking, at times. Forest did work their way into dangerous areas on more than one occasion, but the final touch was lacking and they were much too weak at the back – and this Achilles heel was expertly exploited by the Rams.
On another day, the cross which Jason Cummings fizzed in would have been touched home by Daryl Murphy (even though the big Irishman was otherwise marshalled expertly throughout by Davies and Keogh). On another day, Barrie McKay would have concluded his canter through an utterly rumbled defence by slotting his one-on-one chance past Carson. But we got away with that single malfunction and in the end, it simply wasn’t Forest’s day, a fate which they seemed to have accepted long before the final whistle. In the end, it was Derby who could have added more to their tally and who saw out their victory with relative ease.
It was our day, not their day, but we shouldn’t try to convince ourselves that we won through superior tactics, or because possession football is in some way passé. We won because two quality strikers snaffled two quite brilliant goals from pretty much their only chances and because a quality goalkeeper stood up strongly to make a save when we needed him.
In winning this game, Derby had to ride their luck at times. Nobody can dispute that the second goal came against the run of play and at a point when the threat at the other end was starting to build. Fortunately, the second setback holed Forest below the waterline and, despite Mark Warburton’s substitutions, from around 70 minutes onwards, they began to subside. I’ll be honest, the introduction of Jamie Ward made me think – is he the best they’ve got? And the answer is, probably not, actually. I guess it was a gambit based on the edge Ward has brought to this fixture in previous seasons, but it failed.
Derby had four shots to Forest’s ten in the first half and they will not always get away with going in at 1-0 up, if that continues. The back four and Carson looks basically solid, but questions remain about the overall balance of the side. A midfield two of Huddlestone and Ledley lacks mobility and there were some worryingly loose passes, some flustered, ‘anywhere will do’ clearances to chew on.
It wasn’t perfect. But how often is a 90 minute performance perfect?
Despite an ongoing squad cull which has, to date, dispensed with almost as much wheat as chaff, Rowett can still call upon some of the best players in the Championship. Matej Vydra, finally, is stepping up to become the key man in the number ten role. Steve McClaren couldn’t use him effectively and Nigel Pearson wasn’t given time to demonstrate why he signed the gifted Czech, who has now scored or assisted 44 per cent of the Rams’ goals in all competitions this season (eight out of 18). Rowett is obviously planning to build the team more or less around Vydra, for home games at least.
And (whisper it) George Thorne is back… Brothers and sisters, if that boy can gradually build up his match fitness and nail down his place in the team, then we have a much better chance of success this season. The ovation he received when he entered the pitch was incredible, because we love him, because he is class.
And Johnny Russell is back. Now, this is an interesting one, because it was starting to seem as if Rowett had decided to do without him, presumably ahead of selling the Scot in January. But with results threatening to go a bit skew-whiff, the manager was forced to reconsider. Russell, like Thorne, is only contracted until the end of the season and has had as many downs as ups in his Derby career – but the hugely enthusiastic response to his man-of-the-match award spoke of the affection many supporters have for him.
And then there’s Tom Lawrence, a player who clearly has great potential. It hasn’t quite happened for him just yet – how great would it have been had he blasted that chance for a third into the back of the Forest net – but his ability to beat a man, his set-piece delivery and his rocket of a shot are going to pay dividends eventually.
In short, there are as many reasons for optimism as there are reasons to counsel caution.
Was this a convincing performance? Not totally. Was it the performance of a team who are promotion-ready? Not obviously – it wasn’t fluent, or wholly dominant. Nevertheless, without necessarily passing “the eye test” and despite coming under some pressure, we won. The challenge now is to repeat the trick consistently and so the next game becomes intriguing, because in many ways, it will be a similar assignment.
Sheffield Wednesday will be well backed by their travelling support and, while not at the same intensity as the EMD, there will be a big game atmosphere. Like Forest, they will look to take the game to us and will certainly dominate possession for spells. If we are going to become a successful counter-attacking team, which appears to be Rowett’s intention, then we have to show the discipline and nerve to weather prolonged spells of pressure and emerge unscathed – but also the composure on the ball to play out quickly and accurately from the back (whether long or short) and create enough chances at the other end to win. The latter part is not quite there yet, although on this day – just as they were in March – Nugent and Vydra were too good for Forest to contain.
Rowett’s work in progress continues, but on East Midlands Derby Day, we simply ask for a result – and we got it.