Lots of teams have looked sluggish after football’s restart, but Derby County are certainly not among them.
They’ve won their two games so far, which together with the two wins in the games immediately before lockdown have given them an outside chance of sneaking into the playoffs.
It would be an impressive turnaround for the Rams, whose indifferent form in the first half of the season led to some murmurings that Philip Cocu could lose his job after only a few months at Pride Park.
The Athletic’s Derby correspondent Ryan Conway joined the Totally Football League Show this week to explain when and why things finally fell into place for Cocu, and why it’s not all down to Wayne Rooney, whose arrival did coincide with their return to form.
“I spoke with [Derby midfielder] Max Bird a couple of weeks ago. He shed some light on the training drills that Cocu and his coaching staff had asked them to do. Really tight groups of one and two-touch passing in little triangles.
“He was saying at first that the team really struggled with it…and then just before lockdown everything just just clicked for them. I think that time, how long it’s taken, is a byproduct of Cocu having exactly four weeks from his hiring to his first competitive game against Huddersfield when his squad was in Florida. It’s taken a bit longer than fans would have liked, but it looks like the penny has finally dropped.”
Was there actually any danger that Cocu would lose his job?
“No. I think he was given a four-year deal for for a reason. There were grumblings in the ground and I think understandably so. There was a run in November, December where they were dreadful, they were really, really poor…but he was never in any true danger of losing his job.
“There were there were big, big gaps to plug in that squad, and since the turn of the year, Wayne Rooney naturally gets a lot of the focus. But it is it does the rest of the squad a massive disservice to to just put it all solely on Rooney’s shoulders.”
At the weekend they face Nottingham Forest in the East Midlands derby, which Ryan suggested is important for many reasons, not least because it kicks off a run of games against their fellow promotion contenders: after Forest it’s West Brom, Brentford, Cardiff then Leeds United.
“Anyone that watched the Bayern Munich-Dortmund game, which even though it had no fans, you could almost feel that intensity off the TV screen, as these two heavyweights just just clashed. And I think that might be a similar case where there’ll be no fans, but you can feel the intensity radiating from the field.
“These games are tough, but you kind of want that. You kind of want to be reeling those teams in, as opposed to beating teams below you and hoping ones above you slip up. This way Derby have put the playoffs now in their own hands, and that’s all I think any fan, any player at the club could have asked for
“I think the season, the playoff push will be defined in the week, starting with Forest because they’ve got Forest at home, they then go to West Brom, they then welcome Brentford. I think they need seven out of nine points to stay within the playoff hunt. Do I think they’ll get them personally? No, I think that’s kind of where they they wobbled a little bit.”
The derby is particularly big given that they have already lost twice to Forest this season.
“I think Cocu needs this as well. The first one, the 3-0 in the Carabao Cup still to this day really sticks in the craw, as it were, of some Derby fans – they thought he got his team selection horribly wrong. They thought that he didn’t understand what the derby was all about. They were not happy with that performance or that game.”
Of course, all of this could be moot, as Derby have the case regarding the sale of their stadium hanging over their heads, which could potentially result in a points deduction, for them and Sheffield Wednesday. But even if that verdict goes against them, Ryan doesn’t think that will be the end of it.
“Whether there’s a deduction or not, I think Derby are going to massively appeal it. The statement that they put up when the charge was given to them, called the charge unlawful. It said that Derby will contest it in the strongest possible manner. Even once the sentence is handed down, it is not the end of it. But, of course, a points deduction is still a possibility. Derby have always contested that the EFL ratified their sale of Pride Park. And they signed off on Derby’s player amortisation policy. They have always stuck by those claims.”
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