Derby County 1 : Brentford 1 – 11th April 2015

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Awful. Unremittingly awful. As everyone knows, we didn’t deserve owt from this game. But, we luckily & unfairly snatched an equaliser at the death & are still desperately hanging on to a play off position. We’d all hoped that the victory against Wigan, the rejigged defence, the new formation & the return of the talismanic Martin would mean a revitalised team & a renewed play off push.

Nope.

The team selection seemed ok. The new look back four was unchanged. Bryson was back in for the recklessly suspended Hughes & Martin was back in from the start. McClaren, in a rather illuminating post match interview with Owen Bradley, said he wasn’t match fit but you couldn’t really tell. As my esteemed podcast colleague, Matt Bregazzi, said recently, his game’s not really based on mobility is it? He got us about 5 free kicks though. Talismanic. 

A fair few people (including Leroy Rosenior on the Football League Show) said that Brentford dominated this game from start to finish. I think that’s a tad harsh, we were definitely in the game for the first seven minutes or so. A couple of barnstorming runs from the new right back, some energetic midfield work by Hendrick & a couple of long shots by Ince made us all feel reasonably positive. It was all downhill from there, unfortunately.

Brentford quite simply started to knock the ball around, control the game & yes, dominate  us. We descended into a shambolic, disorganised mess, forgetting how to pass to each other, or cross a ball, or make a tackle. This was exemplified by Brentford’s goal after 27 minutes. They just ran through us in central midfield, with Hendrick & Bryson bypassed. Keogh retreated into the area when faced with the advancing, miniature Alex Pritchard, Bryson dashed back, unable to make a tackle & Grant could do nothing to stop Pritchard’s excellent curling shot. Brentford could’ve had a couple of goals before that too. They were basically slicing through our midfield & defence at will.

The rest of the first half meandered on in an ever more dispirited fashion. I think we changed from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 but to be honest, you couldn’t tell. The players certainly didn’t know what formation they were playing, where they should position themselves or who they should pass too. The only event worthy of note was the Colin Bloomfield tribute on 33 minutes. Time to forget about football & our frustrations for a moment & reflect on his courage & straightforward decency.

Half times are different at the iPro these days, no more hopeful discussions about what McClaren can do to turn things around, no more anticipation of glorious dramatic comebacks. Just more of the same. Oh & Russell was ill, so Dawkins came on.

If anything it got worse in that second half. We continued to deteriorate while Brentford ran pretty circles around us. According to McClaren we’d changed to a diamond in midfield. It was news to me but that might explain why Martin was lumped over on the left of midfield & Dawkins spent a lot of time meandering around on the right to no discernible effect. We didn’t create anything & Brentford just proceeded to scythe through us & create chance after chance. Andre Grey had at least three chances to score & Fozzy (in his only positive contribution of the game) cleared a  Jonathan Douglas shot of the line. The Brentford fans I shared the train back to London with said their main problem was the lack of a decent striker. God help us if they’d had someone the quality of Vydra or Deeney up front.

Brentford’s relentless advance gave us a chance to examine our shambles of a defence.  Warnock was leaden footed, error prone in defence, woeful in attack & quite simply the worse crosser of a ball I’ve seen in years. Forsyth looked completely devoid of confidence, which couldn’t have been helped by Keogh berating him as a corner was flying in. His distribution was woeful, but he wasn’t the only one. Award for worst passer of the day went to Albentosa. He was simply abysmal, more non-league than Primera Liga. Keogh was, well, exactly what you’d expect from a centre half playing at right back.

And then just as the iPro was leaking fans like a sieve & my pint of Titanic Stout in The Brunswick was beckoning me, along came a scuffed Hendrick shot & a trademark Darren Bent two yard screamer. There we go, a game we should have lost 5 nil turned into a thoroughly undeserved draw. Yippee. I could barely bring myself to celebrate that goal & just about managed to stand up. What a bizarre experience.

I could spend another hour ruminating on our failings this season but I won’t. Suffice to say, there is something badly wrong with this squad. Let’s see where the next few games take us.

Derby County 2 : Watford 2 – 3rd April 2015

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Another missed opportunity. More points thrown away. And all the pain that goes with a season of high expectations slowly dying in front of you.

I accept that sounds a bit dramatic (perhaps I’ve been reading too much Game of Thrones lately). Well, that’s how it felt at full time.

I had a quick look at the team news as we emerged from our post-Nandos taxi near the iPro. Thorne’s return was no surprise & neither was the fact that Martin wasn’t fit too start (I’d heard a whisper about that particular piece of news). The side contained a shock though.. I’ve sort of had a preference for Shotton for most of this season, but mainly because he’s not as poor as Christie at right back or as poor as Whitbread at centre half. But instead of Albentosa?! The Spaniard has added a solidity to the centre of the defence recently. Of course, we can all see he’s not blessed with blistering pace but the decision to drop him was inexplicable & remains unexplained several days after the event.

As for Watford, Ighalo, Vydra & Deeney in a front 3 was a tad intimidating to be honest. They’d scored a hatful of goals so far this season. The solid but average Ben Watson, the ineffective, lightweight, Mexican social media legend Layun & eventual man of the match Guedioura completed the midfield. The Hornets defence was pretty much as expected.

I thought we started with a good tempo. Watford didn’t get a shoe in, the atmosphere amongst another 30,000+ crowd was electrifying, Ince carved out a few chances & Bent nearly scored from one of them. You began to believe we could win this one if we just kept going.

Lo & behold, we wasted all that early pressure by letting Watford into the game after 15 minutes. The traditional giving away of possession by a full back (it was Christie’s turn this game), a few abject failures to clear the ball (courtesy of Thorne & Christie again) & Vydra was in to score with a fine finish. You can’t allow a striker of his quality that kind of opportunity. But we did.

A gloom descending over the stadium. Well, apart from the yellow-hued SE Corner. They (including, no doubt, The Witch & The Big Man) were bouncing. Things didn’t improve. Another body blow would soon follow. Thorne was subbed after 30 minutes, presumably with a recurrence of his thigh injury. He looked heartbroken as he came off, a feeling probably replicated all around the ground. He needs to rest & get fit now for whatever challenges we face next season.

We rallied a bit & equalised after Motta scythed down Russell in the area. Definitely a penalty but the red card was a bit harsh, as you could hardly say that a clear goalscoring opportunity had been prevented. Well, we probably deserved a refereeing performance in our favour after what we’ve had to put up with in the last few games.

Time for a bit of half time reflection. Russell, Hughes, Bent &, in particular, Ince had all looked lively. But we’d shown our defensive frailties yet again. Still, we had the advantage now didn’t we?

We started the second half well & within 15 minutes we were in the lead after Ince ran past 3 Watford players & superbly curled the ball low past Gomes. He’d deserved a goal, I just wish McClaren would play him on the left on his best foot.

We faced a decision after getting that lead. Sit back, defend doggedly & see the game out? Or go for it, take advantage of our man advantage & score more goals. I’m afraid we did neither & Watford, to their credit, went for it. In response, we never looked comfortable & unforgivably,  our casualness in defence, particularly from Fozzy & the lumbering Shotton, let Watford back into the game. It did take an equisite pass from Guedioura & an intelligent finish from Ighalo but we were sloppy. Again.

To our credit, we threw bodies forward in search of a winner. Martin had come on as soon as the equaliser had gone in. We had a few chances & on another day one of them would have gone in. But Watford threw bodies in the way & defended with resolute determination. Perhaps we could learn from that. They deserved at least a draw from us. To be fair.

What’s to be done for the next few games? Well, the reasonably fluid emergency formation we had post-Thorne seemed to work ok. Ince was more effective playing centrally, where he’s not constrained by having to use his useless right foot. Hendrick looked like the most effective right back we’ve had all season. Keogh had a great game. Bryson worked tirelessly, although last season’s attacking, goalscoring form is clearly a thing of the past. Martin made a real difference when he came on, as you’d expect.

So where did that leave us? Automatic promotion has gone, surely, so all that’s left is a desperate attempt to stay in those play off positions. We’re barely in there now, with only a few goals separating us from 8th position.

Failure & another season in the Championship beckons while we carry on losing £7 million a year, possibly our best players & almost certainly our esteemed, in demand, Head Coach. Maybe that’ll be for the best.

Derby County 0 : Middlesbrough 1 – 17 March 2015

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A few thoughts then after Tuesday night’s soul destroying experience at the iPro..

It was a resilient performance but Boro did a job on us & showed quality where it mattered.  Possession lost after a sloppy clearance from Christie, Tomlin in what seemed like acres of space slipped in Bouffant, who rounded Grant & finished astutely. We haven’t shown attacking ability like that for while. And we all knew he was going to score didn’t we?  We possibly just about merited a draw but Boro were better than us.

I know probably being too melancholic about this but automatic promotion seems to be slipping away from us, I’m afraid.  Who knows where we will be before the cavalry (a fit Thorne, Martin & Bent) arrive? Unless we can get a result at Wolves, we could well be out of the play off positions.

It goes without saying that we again missed Martin badly. Russell worked his socks off (you wouldn’t expect anything less from him though would you?) but he can’t play the lone striker role. He didn’t get enough support from Ince, Ward or Lingard either. Thomas worked hard too when he came on but he’s just a kid when it comes down to it. That basically means all we have up top at the moment is disjointed & limited attacking threat. 4-3-3 just doesn’t work without Martin but I’m not sure we have the players to play 4-4-2 either. And it’s too late to be tinkering with systems now, McClaren should have done that earlier in the season.

Hanson can tackle, win his headers & play short passes around neatly but he is a million miles from a Thorne or a Eustace. And, of course, it would be wrong for us to expect him to be anything else. Some of those tackles he put in were immense, especially the one on Leadbitter in the 2nd half. Nice of the Boro players to have a go at him when the ref’s back was turned.

The ref, Andy D’Urso was pretty good actually, it was a tough game to control but he kept calm, didn’t brandish his cards around too much & showed his experience. Obviously, he was a different class to the buffoon we had for the Brum game.

As already mentioned, Bouffant’s goal had an air of inevitability about it. His Martin-esque ability to flop to the ground at the slightest contact had already wound the fans up but he’s a quality player, make no mistake. We hadn’t done too badly in that 2nd half, we’d been pretty solid & organised (& hadn’t gifted them chances like Fozzy & Grant had in the 1st half). Once Boro were in the lead, that was it really, we rallied a bit but didn’t really look like scoring. Gone are the days of the barnstorming comebacks of last season.

Talking about comebacks, I thought Bryson did well, although clearly he’s not the same player he was last season. Maybe a run in the side will change that. He harried & pressed energetically, without really producing anything in the final third. Hughes had a tough game. Another needless booking as well, resulting from a desperate attempt from an uncharacteristic misplaced pass. He needs to sort that out.

I spent quite a bit of time studying Albentosa. Another solid performance I thought & he’s definitely had a positive effect on Keogh. However, I still have some concerns about his pace & distribution (which partly stems from being in the wrong side of central defence). Still think he’ll turn out to be a good signing though.

Down to 5th. How did it come to this. 5 injuries in key positions – how can anyone prepare for that? Well, haven’t we got one of the biggest squads in the division? Which other team bought in 7 players in the January transfer window (most with Premier League experience)? Is McClaren to blame for tactical inflexibility? 4-3-3 is the system he’s wedded to & it worked brilliantly when we had the one player in the division who can make it work. Bent papered over the cracks for a bit when Martin first got injured but without him we’ve got nothing left.

Part of me has already reconciled myself to another season in the Championship, losing £6-7 million quid a year, while playing to 30,000+ crowds. Well, I’ve already renewed my season ticket so, consumed by despondent melancholy I may be, but I’ll still be supporting my team, whatever happens.