Football is back! It might not be as we know it, but it still feels good. After three months of Zoom quizzes, mixed emotions and several much more serious matters, we can turn our attention back to the Championship and the remaining nine-game ‘mini league’.
Derby restart at Millwall. With the Rams in 12th and five points off sixth, hopes of a late playoff charge are still lingering… for now.
Phillip Cocu’s men face a brutal run-in, with fixtures against five of the top six meaning a midtable finish (or worse) is just as likely. Cocu will call on all parts of his squad for the Behind Closed Doors experiment – and some will feature more than others.
Ryan Burton has analysed Derby’s 24-man first team and ranked them in order of importance, based on ability, versatility, age and competition for their place, among other factors.
We know football is a team game… but this is our current ‘ladder’ of Cocu’s key players for this season and beyond.
1) Wayne Rooney
The skipper’s influence on Derby can’t be overstated. He spent most of his career banging them in up top, but England’s record scorer has shown his undoubted class in a deeper role, flourishing as a ‘midfield conductor’. Coupled with Panenkas and worldie free kicks, the upturn in results and performances since he arrived has been no coincidence.
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There were doubts about Rooney’s motivation, but his vocal leadership, mentoring and inspiration of the likes of Sibley, Bird and Knight has been a joy to behold. He’s transformed performances, morale and standards and will continue to do so, whether as player or coach.
2) Max Bird
One of the main benefactors from Rooney’s arrival, Max Bird is slowly but surely morphing into a Rolls Royce midfield maestro. It could’ve been very different for the teenager, who was dropped back down to the U23’s earlier in the campaign. But since his return, Bird has dovetailed brilliantly with Rooney at the midfield base, showing calmness on the ball, improved physicality, awareness and discipline.
He’s bided his time and come a long way since his first team debut under Gary Rowett, but the links to Chelsea are there for a reason – Bird is a top player in the making.
3) Louie Sibley
Hype has surrounded Sibley’s name for years, having joined the club at under-8 level. The 18-year-old’s emergence coincided with Derby U19s’ brave run in the UEFA Youth League, but youth promise doesn’t always translate into senior football. Following a gradual introduction into the first team and encouraging showings against Palace and Man Utd, ‘Sibbo’ truly arrived in the last game before lockdown with his screamer against Blackburn. A left-footed, naturally talented attacking midfielder who can run, shoot and loves a tackle, Sibley ticks a lot of boxes – the hype could be real.
4) Jayden Bogle
Last season’s breakout youngster has faced challenges during a ‘difficult second season’, but is still a vital asset. Following an injury-inflicted delayed start to 19/20, Bogle’s form dipped as Derby struggled before Christmas. Cocu’s experiment of playing him further forward didn’t go to plan either.
After picking up form in the new year though and scoring a thronker in the 4-0 demolition of Stoke, Bogle looked back to his best before the season was halted. His rapid rise will continue at Derby or he’ll command a hefty transfer fee. Either way, it’s a win-win for Cocu.
5) Jason Knight
Another rough diamond off the academy conveyor belt, Knight made his mark on Derby’s first team with his brace against Charlton in late December. A relative unknown before being named a sub in the play-off semi-final last season, but 22 appearances, four goals, and a string of energetic performances later, Knight is now virtually a first team regular. Even Rooney was ‘particularly impressed’ with the Irishman in training. Faces competition from more senior, established players, but is clearly improving rapidly game by game.
6) Duane Holmes
Sandwiched in between two spells on the sidelines, this season has seen Holmes cement his place in the Derby starting line-up. The 25-year-old has put in some eye-catching displays playing in between the midfield and forwards. Like Knight, he’s been used in a number of roles by Cocu, and is a fan favourite with his ability to turn in tight spaces, accelerate away from danger and score the occasional banger.
His natural game suits the Dutchman’s pressing, energetic, quick-passing philosophy, meaning our pocket rocket man should be a big part of the gaffer’s present and future plans. Derby’s best value signing of the past five years?
7) Tom Lawrence
Having scored nine times, this is Lawrence’s best goal return since Rowett spent all summer chasing him in 2017. Familiar question marks have been raised over the 26-year-old’s consistency – and fans were losing patience with him before Christmas – but the Welshman has become a Cocu favourite. Even in the aftermath of *that night* in September and the subsequent drink-driving conviction, Lawrence was backed by the manager and has made headlines for the right reasons. There’s still an underlying feeling we’re *still* yet to see the best of TL10, but since February he’s shown he’s a match-winner. Still has plenty of time on his side and bags of ability.
8) Martyn Waghorn
While 12 goals in 37 games is respectable, it’s hardly ripping up the division. Waggy has often stepped up though as a willing runner, physical presence and talisman for much of the season. Like Lawrence, a lot of debate surrounds Derby’s No.9 and where his best position lies. Is it central or on the right wing? The stats show he is equally effective in both roles, but it’s his versatility, habit of scoring goals, and abundance of Championship experience that makes the 30-year-old a solid member of the squad.
9) Krystian Bielik
Following his £10m move from Arsenal, expectations were high for Bielik’s Derby career. He was even compared to Igor Stimac. He took a while to get going and was shifted between defence and midfield, but the towering Pole put in occasionally impressive displays before his injury. He was the only player to emerge from the 3-0 defeat at Fulham with any credit. You’d think a club’s record signing should be one of their five most important players, but Bielik hadn’t quite settled before his ACL injury in January, was clumsy in the tackle and hadn’t yet fulfilled his potential.
However, even though he may not play until October, it’s clear his rangy athleticism and physicality are something no other Derby player has. He’s spoken about how he prefers playing at centre back – and given we’re facing massive holes in that area, we’ll need Bielik fit and firing as soon as possible.
10) Max Lowe
Following a successful loan spell with Aberdeen last year, Max Lowe’s first full campaign in a Rams shirt has marked a steep learning curve. The left back did a commendable job playing on the opposite flank in the opening months. And while we’ve seen inconsistencies and mistakes, there’s plenty of time for the 23-year-old academy graduate to put them right. With two other first team left backs on the books, there’s plenty of competition right now, but Lowe looks like the option for the future.
11) Andre Wisdom
For a long time, it looked like Wisdom’s Derby career was all but over. A combination of injuries and not being fancied by previous managers had the 27-year-old in danger of being the forgotten man. But since the turn of the year, Wisdom’s tank-like frame has been a mainstay in the Derby defence.
And after putting in some eye-catching performances at both right back and centre half, Wisdom was even given the captain’s armband against Blackburn – completing a remarkable turnaround. Versatile, a great athlete, and maybe even a touch underrated by some parts of the fanbase.
12) Chris Martin
On the subject of turnarounds, we need to talk about Chris Martin. Since *that* injury time equaliser against Leeds in September, Derby’s number (1)9’s re-emergence back into the fold has been one of the feelgood stories of the season. He’s been directly involved in 16 goals in 19/20, and no-one works as well as The Wardrobe in that 4-3-3, but he’s a big earner and some still see him as one of the 2013-15 ‘failures’. The 31-year-old has proved he has plenty left to give, and with his playing style suited to Cocu’s lone striker system, hopes of seeing Martin in a Derby shirt past June still remain.
13) Graeme Shinnie
Following a slow start to his Derby career, Shinnie has gone on to become a handy squad member. The tough tackling Scotsman not only adds bite, but his ability to clatter opponents and strike a ball has endeared “Shinniesta” to the Derby faithful. After spending all his career in Scotland, many wondered whether the former Aberdeen man could adapt to Championship football. Now the question is, can the 28-year-old cement a regular starting place in Cocu’s midfield?
14) Morgan Whittaker
After totting up impressive goalscoring numbers at academy level, Whittaker looked destined for the first team. His ability to play on the right or central in a forward three is ideal for the Dutchman’s system, but Whittaker hasn’t quite looked confidence or physical enough just yet at senior level. Whilst none of his 17 first team games have yielded any goals or assists, he can only improve – especially behind closed doors with less pressure. With versatility and pace, it’s clear to see why he’s highly rated. Notching that first senior goal will kickstart his Derby career.
15) Jack Marriott
Since scoring that infamous brace against Leeds, Jack Marriott has frustrated managers and fans alike. When he hasn’t been on the treatment table or warming the subs bench, his performances have been infuriatingly below par. In December 2018, we thoughts Marriott was the new Bobby Davison, but three goals in 34 games this year sums it all up. It would be naïve to write off the 25-year-old’s Derby career as he has the ability to turn it around, but questions remain over his attitude and general fitness. It looks like Cocu is turning his attention elsewhere in the squad for our goals. Now facing surgery for his latest niggle, how many chances does he have left?
16) Craig Forsyth
It’s been a strange old season for Fozzy. After fighting back from another long-term injury, the 31-year-old was used as centre back by Cocu. But after eight games which saw Derby manage just one win, he’s since played in his preferred full back role. Results have picked up and Fozzy has put in some pleasing displays on the left flank. Having recently signed a two-year extension, the plan looks to be for Forsyth to fight Max Lowe for the shirt until next season at least.
17) Tom Huddlestone
With ice cool close control and Hollywood balls on demand, if it was down to ability alone Tom Huddlestone would not be this low. Even with his comical lack of pace, the former England man remains an elite player at this level – but also a bit of a luxury. Injuries have not been kind to Hudds this season, with first team appearances restricted to just 12 in all competitions. He needs runners around him to cover him, and with the 33-year-old’s deal running out this month and at least two players ahead of him in the pecking order, Father Time looks set to win this battle. An outstanding technical footballer, but it may be time to say goodbye.
18) George Evans
Injuries have been a recurring theme of George Evans’s Derby career so far. With just 11 league games played this campaign, the 25-year-old’s not had many chances to shine in Derby’s midfield. Ironically, his best performance came as a makeshift centre half at Bristol City last season. Cocu is blessed with many options in his position, so Evans faces an uphill task to get in the team, let alone hold down a place. Let’s hope the former Reading man can hit the ground running in the remaining nine games and stake his claim.
19) Matt Clarke
One of Derby’s most consistent performers, Clarke has impressed during his loan spell from Brighton. The 23-year-old had a shaky start but has put in some dominant displays at the back. Strong in the air and not as uncomfortable on the ball as some would think, he’s grown in fans’ affections.
If he was our player, then the left-footed centre half’s name would be much higher up. But with Mike te Wierik signed up for next season and no indicator of Clarke returning next year, he can only be considered a short-term fix.
20) Scott Malone
Currently Derby’s third choice left back, Malone has not started a Championship game for the Rams since December. After being sent off against Reading, his playing time has been limited to one cameo off the bench in the league and three FA Cup games. With only one year remaining on his current deal, it’s likely he’ll assess his options over the summer. The next nine games should provide a good indicator of Cocu’s plans for the 29-year-old.
21) Florian Jozefzoon
Frustrating. Underwhelming. Baffling. Just some of the words that can be used to describe Jozefzoon’s time at Pride Park. In the final nine games, could there be a miraculous turnaround. The 29-year-old gains glowing reviews for his training performances, so maybe playing in empty stadiums for the remaining games will take the pressure off. With 11 appearances and just one assist to his name all season, the only way is up.
22) Curtis Davies
At 35, Davies is the oldest player in the Derby squad – making his total of 31 games for the Rams even more impressive. Injuries to other players were a big factor in the veteran’s involvement, but his leadership and professionalism have shone through, especially during the tougher periods. If his stay at Pride Park goes into next season, then appearances will be even more sporadic as Cocu reshapes the squad.
23) Kelle Roos
Having started the season as Derby’s number one, Roos has only played five times in 2020. A shadow of the keeper we saw pre-Wembley, it’s highly likely that at 28, he’ll need to move away from Pride Park for a regular starting berth. Cocu finally lost patience with Roos after a poor performance at Fulham in November, and he’ll be prioritising a goalkeeper on his summer shopping list. Of course, this final run of games gives the Dutchman one last chance to prove his doubters wrong, and he remains a decent shot-stopper who’s good with his feet. Unless Roos dramatically improves on long balls and crosses though, you just can’t see a way back for him.
24) Ben Hamer
Propping up the list is our first-choice goalkeeper. Strange when we put it like that, but Hamer serves as a means to an end. Initially signed as a back-up to Roos, but following a catalogue of errors from the Dutchman, the 32-year-old has held onto the jersey between the sticks. Despite the Huddersfield man not doing much wrong, Hamer too doesn’t look quite commanding enough at times, and Cocu will be hoping to find a long term solution for the number one jersey.
NOT RANKED: Mike te Wierik, Scott Carson, Jahmal Hector-Ingram, Jordan Brown, Joe Bateman, Lee Buchanan, Jonathan Mitchell