Derby County: The Rams are ready for a return to the top flight
Currently sitting second in the Championship, the Midlands club are in a strong position for a first return to the top flight in a decade.
When Stoke City dismissed Mark Hughes as manager last month, they immediately prioritised replacing him with Gary Rowett.
The 43-year-old is probably the highest-rated tactician in the Football League and the Potters reportedly were not the first top-flight club to court the formerfull-back.
Tellingly, the Derby boss was swift and decisive in his rejection of the approach and instead penned a new deal at Pride Park until June 2021.
It was a clear indication not only of his happiness in his current job but his strong belief that the promotion contenders are in a better long-term position going forward than Stoke, who have dined at the top table of English football since 2008 – ironically winning promotion as County went the other way.
Ups and downs
Rowett garnered the widespread sympathy of football fans after his dismissal by Birmingham City in 2016 – a club whom he had revolutionised from struggling at the foot of the Championship to one on the verge of the playoffs.
The coach had previously built his name at Burton Albion, where he spent over two years.
It has been a long ten seasons for fans of the Rams. The first three years, between 2009 and 2011 were particularly tough with the club failing to secure a top-half finish in the Championship after their traumatic relegation from the Premiership when they’d recorded the worst season by any club since the 1992 rebrand with a meagre one victory and 11 points from 38 games.
However, there has been a steady if slow upward trajectory at Pride Park in the seasons since with six consecutive top half finishes including two playoff spots in the past four seasons and this campaign, they are hoping to go one better.
Climbing the ladder
The situation this season has not always been a smooth one: the Rams won only two of their opening ten league games under Rowett, who had replaced Steve McClaren at the helm in March.
It has been a total transformation since with the Midlands club racking up 14 wins from their following 20 league outings and are unbeaten in their last 11. This run has propelled them into the automatic promotion spots.
Yet due to the domination money-laden Wolves are asserting at the top of the table, the points gap between 1st and 2nd stands at 11 with any hope of a title race appearing to be remote.
County are only one point ahead of Midlands rivals Aston Villa but they have a nine-point cushion back to 7th-placed Preston and thus, a minimum of a playoff spot looks inevitable barring a collapse in form.
A mix of talent
A homegrown squad is accompanied by experienced Football League veterans brought in from abroad. Czech forward Matej Vydra has bagged 16 goals in the league this campaign while Austrian Andreas Weimann has played a key part, along with former Blackburn fullback Marcus Olsson.
It is a hugely experienced squad – former England internationals Scott Carson and David Nugent have been regulars, as have other stalwarts of the international scene including Chris Baird, Richard Keogh and Joe Ledley.
Former Spurs midfielder Tom Huddlestone has been imperious since returning to the club from Hull City last summer, while fellow summer midfielder arrivals Ledley and Tom Lawrence have also excelled.
Curtis Davies was also brought in from Hull following the Tigers relegation and, alongside former Liverpool and West Brom full-back Andre Wisdom, have formed part of a defence who have conceded a meagre 23 goals in 30 outings this year. They showed resilience at Old Trafford in the FA Cup too, before going down to two late goals.
Rowett’s experienced squad have been there and done it before and the highly-rated boss must now have his eyes on a spot in the top flight.
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