Football is supposed to be unpredictable. It’s that roller-coaster ride of emotion that embeds itself within us all.
It’s this feeling that keeps us all coming back for more. Not knowing what is around the corner provides mystery, excitement and hope that success could be on the horizon.
However, for Derby fans, the last four years must feel like a scene from the film Groundhog Day. Instead of unpredictability, it’s been a familiar story for Rams fans to stomach.
Brighton vs Derby
March 10, 2017, 7:00pm
They can sense what’s coming as the New Year rolls in. It’s all so predictable. For the last four years it’s from January onwards where promise steadily turns into disappointment as the wins dry up and the Premier League dream fades away.
Under Steve McClaren in 2013/14, Derby were just three points off automatic promotion at the turn of the year, but stuttered mid-season as Leicester and Burnley ran away with the top two spots. Derby went on to lose the play-off final against QPR despite having a man advantage for 30 minutes.
A similar pattern emerged 12 months later. They were top of the table – two points clear – at the end of February but ended up missing out on making the play-offs altogether with a final day defeat against Reading, meaning they won just two of their last 12 games. It’s the only time in the last 14 seasons that the team top of the Championship at the end of February hasn’t gone on to win automatic promotion.
McClaren left for Newcastle at the end of that season, but Paul Clement came in and led the club to second place by January 1. However, a hideous run of results triggered Clement’s sacking and they ended up losing in the play-off semi-finals after being thrashed 3-0 by Hull City at home in the first leg.
Looking at Derby’s win percentage during different periods of the season shows that this drop off in form, unsurprisingly, happens usually at a certain time of the campaign.
Between the 2013/14 and 2016/17 seasons, Derby have an average win percentage of 64% from October to December, which is genuine automatic promotion form.
However, from January to March during that same four-year period, the win percentage drops to just 35%, more akin to a mid-table team.
It’s these drop in results that have played a huge part in why the Rams haven’t managed to match the ambition of their owner Mel Morris, who has dug deep to allow the club to bring in over £40million worth of player talent and offer Premier League sized wages to key members of the squad.
This season has been the worst of the bunch. Derby struggled after a horrendous start under Nigel Pearson which made promotion a tall order.
Derby were near the foot of the Championship in September when Pearson was suspended after a reported bust-up with Morris with the team just managing one win under his stewardship.
Chris Powell steadied the ship and got the club out of the losing slump before Pearson was officially sacked in October and Steve McClaren – 17 months after being dismissed by the club – returned.
His impact was instant as his players responded like they usually do at that time of the season, by putting a run together that catapulted them up the division.
McClaren’s team won nine of his first 13 matches in charge, which included seven wins on the bounce. The burst of positive performances took them from one point above the drop zone on October 14 to within two points of the top six come January 1.
This should have been the springboard to kick on again. A chance for the Derby players to put the ‘New Year, new us’ theory in practice – you’d have thought. A chance to show that they can keep their performance level consistent during the relentless fixture list in January and February.
Instead, history repeated itself.
Just three wins in 12 games has left McClaren’s team well off the pace for the play-offs. Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with Preston, where Simon Grayson’s men equalised deep into stoppage time, leaves Derby 10 points off sixth-placed Sheffield Wednesday with 10 games remaining, including Friday’s clash with Brighton.
So, what’s going wrong for a squad that seemingly ticks all the right boxes for a promotion-winning side? Skill, check. Goals, check. Huge support, check. An experienced manager, check.
Sky Sports EFL pundit David Prutton thinks the answer is clear.
“It’s got to be a mentality problem,” said Prutton.
“The pattern of their form tailing off can’t be a coincidence. They’ve had the same drop off this season but due to their woeful start this is why they’re in mid-table rather than still in the promotion picture.
“When you look at the players they’ve brought in over the years – Bradley Johnson, Jason Shackell for example – they both know what it takes to get out of the division.
“You don’t look at them and think ‘he’s a bit soft – does he want it?’ and that they would jump ship at the first time of trouble. They are good characters.
“When you put talented, well paid players together it should equal positive performances on the pitch but it just hasn’t worked.
“Maybe the comfortable nature in this cut-throat world of football has allowed the squad to settle into this year-on-year loss of form at this time of the season.”
When Clement was relieved of his duties last season, chairman Morris admitted that the now Swansea manager lost sight of the long-term aim of the club and that promotion to the Premier League wasn’t top of the chairman’s priorities.
Morris spoke of adhering to the “Derby way” of playing, which he said was in full view in McClaren’s first spell in charge.
It was a statement that raised plenty of eyebrows and must have confused the fan-base, with the traditional theory of trying to win football matches at all costs potentially being forefitted for an entertaining style of play.
Does that help explain the inability for Derby to win matches when not at their free-flowing best? And why they seemingly can’t dig in and come together as a team when things aren’t dropping their way?
When you put talented, well paid players together it should equal positive performances on the pitch but it just hasn’t worked.
With that in mind, Prutton suggests that the make-up of the Derby squad has similarities to the way Arsenal have floundered in the Premier League in recent years.
“I can see comparisons with the problems at Arsenal – although the time frames and levels you’re judging a team on is different,” Prutton said.
“Do you sacrifice results for performance level? It’s not something that McClaren would do – it’s nice to play sexy football and get plaudits for it, but fundamentally it’s about getting out of the Championship by winning games.
“Playing the right way means winning games. If you’re into the aesthetics of it then you look at it from a different way to how you would traditionally do.
“It’s nice to pass your way to the Premier League but look at Burnley – they made themselves tough to beat and have such great resilience.
“They won promotion and Derby didn’t.”
That’s been the harsh reality for all concerned at Derby to deal with. Results aren’t matching investment.
Going by past trends, ‘predictable Derby’ will fall short again this season – however, with 30 points to play for, they do have an opportunity to produce an abnormal reaction and hunt down the top six when all seems lost.
Starting at high-flying Brighton, on Friday.