The ten game mark is a sensible time to start thinking about how the season is panning out. Remember riotous opening unbeaten salvos in the last two years from Blackpool and Forest that had long faded away before the bleak midwinter. Ten results is at least something of a sample size and allows for some tentative thoughts to be offered. The table is taking putative shape and although the gaps are still not huge, most of those towards the top end, you’d expect to stay there. Ditto the strugglers at the bottom.
Having said that, I do like the way that Clement was openly looking at the league table even after three or four matches. No McClarenesque blandishments about disregarding it until March. Clement made it clear that he wasn’t enjoying the winless run one bit and was itching to see us up towards the top, even in August. And after the Rams dispatched Brentford, on 3 October, he said: “Three points off second.”
There’s no doubt that the return from the opening five games was extremely disappointing and the seven points dropped against Bolton, Charlton and Leeds are a not negligible amount of ground that still has to be made up elsewhere. But we are making strides.
The win at a vastly improved Reading is already starting to look like a fine result. The stomping of Brentford reassured me that there is much more fun on the way in home games. Draws against Boro and Burnley are OK and surely, on the evidence of those two games, Clement will feel that if Dyche and Karanka’s teams are as good as the Championship has to offer, then there is absolutely nothing for Derby County to fear.
I think Clement has taken this long to find his best team and the best team we have is bloody good. As far as I’m concerned, injuries allowing, the team that swatted Brentford should continue for the foreseeable.
The balance in the midfield makes seriously exciting sense with Hendrick raiding, Johnson enforcing and Thorne dictating. Chris Martin needs the support that Jeff provides as a runner and the Irishman revelled in that role against the Bees. The wildly roguish nutmeg and the cheeky chip he tried in the first half spoke of a player operating with swagger and flair, confidence and freedom.
Jeff needs licence to run. He cuts a confused, sad figure when he’s fenced in by holding duties – like a gazelle in a zoo enclosure. He is given licence to roam in spades when Thorne is backed up by the beefy presence of Johnson.
By the way, it hasn’t taken long to see why Johnson cost such big money and why Derby were prepared to pay the premium.
Defensively, Keogh and Shackell have developed an excellent partnership and the back four as a whole seems so much better organised than last season. Huge credit to Keogh, who has taken all manner of unjustifiable shit from the hard-of-thinking and who I thought might want to walk away from the club for a fresh start this summer. Instead, he’s stayed, knuckled down, responded positively to the addition of Alex Pearce (remember him?) and looks in what must be the best form of his career. I’m a big fan of Keogh’s willingness to bring the ball out of defence to start attacking moves – this has the potential to fluster and disrupt opponents when they want to sit deep in their own half, like miserable crabs lurking behind a rock.
In goal, the undemonstrative Scott Carson looks a great addition. There was the last-minute flap against Milton Keynes, of course, but the mistake count (touch wood) has been low and when called into action, he has made some great saves. The one he made from the offside striker in the six-yard box in the same game, for example, was absolutely outstanding and turned out to be crucial.
In attack, the front three currently pick themselves and all look likely to score or create. Ominously for Championship defences, Martin has quietly made his way to five goals – one in two games.
And of course, there are plenty of options in reserve, in all positions. Compared to times in recent years when Derby were unable to name seven subs, it seems almost obscene to be in a situation where some of this summer’s signings can’t get into the matchday 18 – and that’s with an extra three injured first-team pros unavailable.
Any gripes at the moment are minor. There’s still no like-for-like cover for Martin, for example and reserve defenders like Shotton are nothing like as dependable as the first XI. But really, to nitpick at things like this is rather like complaining that your gold shoes are too tight, at a time when the bigger picture looks so positive.
How things have changed. When I started this blog in 2010, things were bleak. The Premier League humiliation was fresh in the memory, Jewell had not long been disposed off, Clough was trying to replace a bunch of hopeless, overpaid players with kids, loanees and cheap imports from Scotland and GSE, distant and inscrutable, were fronted by the affable yet salesmanish Tom Glick – now working on global sponsorship deals for Manchester City, a much more suitable role for him.
Five years on, the club has been transferred back from the States to the stewardship of a local boy made (very) good. The buzzwords of ‘ambition’ and ‘investment’ have long been in the air and the money has followed the mouth in emphatic, feather-ruffling fashion. The players on big contracts are now overwhelmingly suited for the task in hand. The new manager, despite his lack of previous experience, has settled to his task and is getting the required results.
A lot of my prior work on this blog has involved reading the runes to look for something, anything, to be optimistic about in the face of awful results, injury crises and bargain bin signings – the slow, crushing grind of mediocrity. With Mel Morris, Sam Rush and Clement at the helm, those days are gone. So let’s just enjoy the ride while it lasts and see where this season takes us.