Rams revitalised under ex-England manager
4 January ~ It has been said in certain media circles that this year's FA Cup third round matches are rather uninspiring. Derby County fans may beg to differ. Of the seven ties pitting Championship clubs against Premier League opponents, the most intriguing of Sunday's live TV games sees Derby County, currently fourth in the Championship, take on Chelsea at Pride Park. The match follows Derby's 1-0 home defeat to Wigan, their first after an unbeaten run of eight wins in nine games and only the second loss of Steve McClaren's reign.
The Rams are the country's form team over McClaren's 14 games in charge: ten wins and two draws have seen them move from 14th up to fourth (and briefly up to second), and their 30 goals in that period (and 48 in total) make the Rams the Championship's top scorers. If any lower-division team was going to give Chelsea a run for their money, it's Derby.
McClaren gained reputation at Derby in the late 1990s under Jim Smith as an innovative and astute coach, and now has them playing stylish and free-scoring football, something appreciated by the fans after the apparent tactical rigidity and naivety of Nigel Clough. Despite the misgivings of many Rams supporters over Clough's sacking, the popular McClaren continues quietly to rebuild his reputation, and Pride Park provides the familiar and friendly atmosphere that will allow that process to continue.
However, the remarkable statistics since his return to Derby hide a deeper reality that will give succour to Blues fans. Of games against teams from the current top half of the table, Derby's record is slightly more modest: played five, won three, lost two. It's not exactly that the Rams are flat-track bullies, but they have stumbled more against the best teams, as the defeat to Wigan proved. They have struggled recently for fluidity, and have missed their last two penalties.
On the plus side Andre Wisdom, on loan from Liverpool, and Simon Dawkins, who has just signed permanently from Spurs following a loan spell, have been in good form, and Chris Martin, a free transfer from Norwich, is scoring regularly. Plus, of course, there is the creative force of Will Hughes for José Mourinho's men to contend with. Rumour has it that Derby have already, in principle, done a deal with Liverpool, reputedly hinging on the loan of Wisdom. Hughes is such a talent, and still only 18, that he deserves his chance, and Derby fans will wish him well if (or rather when) he leaves.
Pride Park is a sell-out for the game, and the Rams will look to put the disappointment of the Wigan defeat behind them by demonstrating to a worldwide TV audience that they can cut it against the best. A good performance will give them the confidence boost they need ahead of next Friday's trip to top-of-the-table Leicester. Charles Robinson