When February rolls around, the shudders from Derby fans can be picked up on the Richter scale.
The Rams undoing several times in recent seasons, the dreaded second month has once again left us wobbling. Derby may be seventh, but the familiar February fear has crept back in.
For neutrals, to hold such emotions when you’re two points from the play offs seems overdramatic. But for Rams fans, this is not our first rodeo.
Since time began (or five years if you’re being pedantic), we’ve tripped up at around the same point every season.
Managers, players and styles have come and gone, but Derby’s spring slump has always remained. This undying curse has gone from an irritating guest to part of the family – now sitting in your favourite seat, with its feet up and wearing your slippers.
All the positives January gave us – a play-off berth, FA Cup progress and an overall feel-good factor – have been swiftly taken away by the month that shall no longer be named.
Injuries Mount up
Warning signs were there in the 0-0 draw with Preston. A lacklustre Deepdale display was brushed aside and labelled a plucky performance. A proper backs-to-the-wall job with grit and determination. All well and good against a promotion rival, but against a side condemned to mid-table obscurity, Derby fans can’t be blamed for expecting more.
Injuries to key players have taken their toll on this young Rams side. We could’ve done without Jack Marriott’s niggle or Tom Lawrence’s ankle troubles, but the absence of Mason Mount has been felt the most. The midfield has lost a creative outlet and seems out of balance without him. It’s no coincidence Harry Wilson has not looked the same since his fellow loan starlet has been out the side.
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Seeing Martyn Waghorn bag a brace from centre forward in a 2-0 home win over Hull City remains one of the few positives. Two well-taken goals – the second a smart first-time finish from a superb Jayden Bogle assist, hinted at momentum which never materialised.
Days later, there was a 1-1 draw at Ipswich. A first-minute Tom Lawrence goal provided the perfect start and a platform to build in, but instead of putting a side bereft of confidence to the sword, the Championship’s worst side gave us a lesson in positive, attacking football.
Cup spark fizzles out
The point at Portman Road would be the last we’d see for the rest of the month. The second half of February was, to put it kindly, a car crash. An FA Cup exit at Brighton felt like a huge opportunity missed.
There’s no shame in losing to Premier League opposition, but in a season where our cup exploits made Frank Lampard’s Derby County more than just a gimmick, the 2-1 loss at the AMEX was an anti-climax to say the least.
Unfortunately, the disappointment continued with back-to-back 1-0 defeats to Millwall and Forest. 20th-placed Millwall have now done the double over Derby – a quarter of their total wins all season.
As that game lumbered on without a goal, it seemed more and more likely the Lions would nick something on the break. Resolute and organised, their well-executed game plan saw Derby bereft of ideas and confidence.
As for Forest, a generally forgettable game was settled thanks to the defensive uncertainty which has undermined us since August. The frustration at a first derby defeat since 2015 stemmed from its predictability – O’Neill’s side are functional and physical, but not flashy – exactly the sort of side who’ve cost us points all season.
Running before we could walk?
Yes, we’ve been here before – but that doesn’t make it any easier to fathom. The spectacular displays against Norwich and West Brom seem a long time ago – our title as the Championship’s nearly men could once again turn from banter tag to sad reality.
Lampard has achieved great things in his first season – developing youth, dishing out Premier League nosebleeds and building an affinity with the fans – but as a result, it’s made this rut much harder to accept. Fast, free-flowing football has been swapped for lethargy and lack of creativity.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the unforgiving Championship, a league always keen to teach a harsh lesson. Whether this reality check was needed or not, it’s a shame it came during a favourable run of fixtures.
If the first half of the season saw Derby run before we could walk, February has seen some embarrassing stumbles.
The positives? Mount and Marriott should both be fit and firing for Derby’s four consecutive home games in March… and it only takes one precious win to turn the tide.
This month we enjoyed:
Charlie Harrison leading the Rams out at the City Ground helped suppress February’s doom and gloom. There’s no place for bullying in society and watching football take a stand was great to see. We hope you enjoyed it, Charlie!
Goal of the month:
Whilst Ashley Cole’s header provided a glorious mix of shock and bemusement, Waghorn’s neat finish from Jayden Bogle’s nutmeg and cross against Hull takes it. Alarmingly, there wasn’t a Harry Wilson thronker in sight. Good riddance February.