After the Cardiff game, I felt like I needed to take a break from blogging about them bloody Rams, choosing not to continue with my series of game-by-game preview pieces, which I’d originally intended to carry on until the end of the season. During the Villa game, I took a long walk on the moors around the village where I live – heading uphill to a place with no mobile reception where I could clear my head and enjoy the sights and sounds of spring, rather than go subject myself to yet another emotional battering by listening live to the match with Ed, Chris and ‘Ramma’.
The day before the Barnsley game, I went on a much-needed holiday to sunny Spain with my wife and two close friends, Trev and Linda. In my Cardiff preview, I made a gallows-humour “prediction” that the Rams, so inexplicably feeble at Burton, would go on to beat the Bluebirds, draw at the Villa and then reach “peak Derby” by losing to the Tykes. With two out of three of my dark “acca” having come in, I was getting worried, but Trev updated me on the 4-1 stomping we handed to Barnsley as we were driving through the beautiful Calblanque national park.
From then on, I barely gave the play-offs a thought until the day of the match. We found the local Boris Sports bar on social media and the man himself promised to oblige by screening the game.
We went off to Cabo de Palos for the day, ate in a local restaurant and then returned to our villa for a barbecue and a couple of beers. Everything was good and having had a comprehensive breather from thinking about football, I was revved up for the match and a few more cold ones. But then, as we set off for Boris’ place, I started to feel a bit queasy – nothing too alarming, just a bit off. I tried to ignore the queasy feeling and bought a round of drinks, before pulling up a strategic pew in front of the big screen.
About a quarter of the way into my pint of Mahou and on the brink of kick-off, I realised that something was definitely not right with my innards. I fell silent. I looked across the bar and then over my shoulder to the road behind us and decided that, if the worst came to the worst, I would make a run for the bushes on the other side, rather than risk rushing inside to Boris’ loos and not making it.
My wife suggested I was just suffering from pre-match nerves. Unable to stomach more lager, I switched to lime and soda and, for the first twenty minutes of the game, achieved a kind of dubious equilibrium. So did the game, with Fulham setting the tone, but Derby continuing to show how switching to a back three has helped to make them far more threatening than ever before on the counter.
Seeing us play without the ball for prolonged spells will always make me nervous, but there’s no doubt that we are getting better at it. The first half-hour against Villa was absolutely excellent and again, the Rams’ front three plus the wing backs demonstrated how they could quickly outnumber Fulham’s defenders with the help of an astute pass out from the back – usually by Huddlestone – and spring into a menacing attacking position.
About half an hour in, my nose suddenly started streaming and then, very quickly, the moment of internal crisis had arrived. I stood up and activated “Plan A” by hastily making my way out front, to cross the deserted road and vomit into the bushes.
But the road was considerably wider than I had realised and the need was much too urgent. I lurched into a trot, then as much of a sprint as I could muster, but it was too late – an arc of brown bile spewed from my gullet and onto the highway, fortunately not spattering my new DCFC track-suit jacket. After this initial barrage of spew, I reached the side of the road, sank to my knees in the dirt and retched anew. I quickly.saw that it wouldn’t do me any favours to stay and stare at the erstwhile contents of my stomach, so I stood up and moved on before dropping to the ground to puke again. Move and puke, move and puke.
Then, after the fourth spasm, it was done. And miraculously, I felt like a new man. I was pretty much fine.
As I mooched steadily back towards Boris’, I suddenly remembered what I’d been watching before. I glanced up at the big screen and saw something more majestic than any vista that the proud nation of Spain could ever offer.
For in slow, replay motion, Cameron Jerome was rising, the Fulham left back Matt Targett brutally picked out, isolated and exploited, made to look a callow youth. Jerome’s header was rocketing past the stretching Bettinelli and distending his onion bag, much as, I suspect, a couple of mouthfuls of my wife’s seafood pasta at that bloody restaurant had distended my innards.
I looked over to Trev, who held up his hands to make the time-honoured “one-nil” gesture.
For Fulham, who attack with width provided by overlapping full backs, the Rams’ tenacity and readiness to rope-a-dope before counter-punching was a major test and they only barely passed it on a number of occasions – sometimes through Derby’s lax final ball, other times through a last-ditch defensive intervention. The Rams may have had only three shots in this game, but they had plenty more threatening situations than that, whereas Fulham, despite their 13 shots, very rarely worked dangerous openings.
If Derby do go up this season – and although we are considered outsiders, it’s a real possibility now – then we will have to sit in and defend a lot in many games, against far classier outfits than this Fulham team. I wondered aloud if Rowett may have come up with a formation and way of playing which would work in the Promised Land. Trev, a United fan, chuckled as we talked through it. “You’re coming around to the Mourinho way, then?”
I guess I was always something of a McClarenista, in some ways – entranced by the Hughes – Hendrick – Thorne midfield trio and convinced that to win consistently, you had to dominate the ball, at this level at least. And while good teams have done it that way, Sean Dyche’s Burnley and, decisively, Neil Warnock’s possession-phobic Cardiff have proved that it can be done in other ways too.
A fluent counter is one of the most thrilling things in football – a pal even messaged me during the game to say: “This is some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen them play” – and it is beginning to suit these players well. Keogh is allowed much more licence to join in the play. Forsyth seems much more comfortable at left centre-back. The less time we spend on the ball, the less likely it is that Johnson will lose it in a dangerous area (and he has played a couple of delicious through balls in the past two games). Huddlestone’s playmaking ability helps to release Lawrence and Weimann, who seem happy in their wide-ish roles – and the powerful, hard-charging Jerome, who simply can’t stop scoring at the minute, is unchained.
All being well, we even have a cracking young homegrown left wing-back to come in next season and while Rowett has said that Wisdom isn’t really suited to the wing-back role on the right, I’d say he’s played pretty well there so far. Ryan Sessegnon’s early departure on Friday night after a largely ineffectual showing was a major feather in Wisdom’s cap.
Rowett made a good double switch at a time in the game when Derby were really starting to struggle under the weight of Fulham’s probing pressure. I imagine Ikechi Anya will start on Monday, although he may not see out the 90. Another conundrum is whether to start Vydra as one of the front three, or leave him out in favour of Weimann or Lawrence. But Rowett very rarely drops either of those two and they are undeniably better suited to the 3-4-3 / 5-4-1 than Vydra, who can’t or won’t consistently tackle or track back. Rowett has already shown that he’s not afraid to leave out the Championship’s top goalscorer and I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if he did it again on Monday. The composition and discipline of the team is the main thing. As Curtis Davies said: “We’re a clean sheet away from Wembley.”
It’s nuts. As I’ve said before, Rowett deserves huge credit for overseeing a turn-around in form from the crisis moment, after a dismal run of results threatened to derail the whole season. Regardless of whether we get promoted, or even get to Wembley, I can finally see what he is driving at now when, for a while, I feared he had badly run out of steam and ideas. Just at the vital moment, he came up with something radical enough to re-energise the campaign.
Friday night’s win over the divisional darlings was close, very close, to being the perfect performance. Had just one more of those vicious, swift counters ended in a goal, then it would have been. Trev raised an eyebrow when I made that point after the final whistle – “you’d have taken 1-0 if offered before the game” – and I absolutely would have done. But the way the match panned out, the way we largely nullified them as an offensive force, I had a slight nagging suspicion that we’d missed a chance to, if not kill the tie off, then at least to go to Craven Cottage with a significant advantage. Rowett adopted the same tone in his post-match interview for Sky Sports, saying: “I felt we could have picked them off for a second and I’m a little disappointed we didn’t. You can see when we switch play, we get into great positions.”
As for Fulham, I quite like the fact that both Slaviša Jokanović and Kevin Macdonald said that the Cottagers “totally dominated” or “battered” Derby, because they actually didn’t. That ‘domination’ was, mostly, by Derby’s choice and the end result for the Rams was a clean sheet. If Fulham feel that more of the same will eventually win them the game, fine. If they feel that morally, they deserved a better result, more than fine. We felt like that at Wembley a few years ago – and ended up heart-broken. If you’re superior to us, then score the goals. Prove it. That was the challenge for Derby in 2013/4 and it is the challenge for Fulham tomorrow.
Having done so well for so long and being so settled in their style, they won’t change significantly. Neither will we. So the second leg will be nerve-wracking at times. We will sit in very deep and defend for our lives. Nearly every pass will go short, so Fulham need to find pockets in and around the box. The key to success will be not allowing them time and space to pick their way through into the penalty area, because they prefer not to sling in hopeful crosses – just look at how many short corners they took for proof of that. We snuffed them out through sheer concentration and a touch of luck at times – if ever we lapsed, they would find room for a shot, but fortunately, these were usually from outside the box.
But conceding so much of the ball to such creative. technically able players makes it inevitable that they will get a chance at some point. Curtis Davies has been a colossus, but he and the rest of the defenders could do with the players in front of them keeping the ball a bit more, if only to provide a bit of respite. Three shots on goal may have been a strange reflection on a game in which Derby got into so many exciting positions, but it was undeniably a poor final reward – especially against the rather flappy Bettinelli, who looked like an accident waiting to happen all night.
The first goal at Fulham will change the balance of the tie utterly. But rather than feeling nervous, or pessimistic about it, I feel really happy. Happy with how things are going, happy with the direction of travel, happy with the team, happy to be a Derby County fan.