From an outsider’s point of view, Derby County look like the model of consistency as a Championship club.
In the past five seasons they’ve finished tenth, third, eighth, fifth and ninth in England’s second tier, but critically haven’t been able to make the final step in gaining promotion back into the Premier League.
Unsurprisingly, they’re at it again this season. The Rams are unbeaten in the Championship since November, and having gained 27 points from a possible 33, Gary Rowett’s men sit second in the Championship, two points clear of third placed Cardiff and five points ahead of fourth placed Aston Villa.
But after years of near misses, play-off heartbreak and that Bobby Zamora goal in 2014, could this be the year we see Derby return to the big time?
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“Of course Derby fans have had their fingers burnt in the recent years, so everyone’s praying they can just keep it going now,” says Rams TV presenter Owen Bradley.
“I think the unity across the football side of things is as strong as it’s ever been.
“They maybe had a slower start than some people thought they would, but I think Gary needed that time to really get to know everyone – they lost quite badly to Sheffield United and Bristol City and my feeling was that it was a watershed moment for the season.
“I think the fans and players realised that we were going to have to do things his [Rowett’s] way, and from then on they are now more than the sum of their parts. They now look like a team, and not just a collection of players.”
After 11 matches this season the Rams languished in 16th place. However, after their remarkable form throughout December and early January, they now lie second.
As any football fan knows, the problem with playing well and putting a string of good results together leads to the most dangerous emotion – hope.
“Unquestionably, fans are starting to believe again,” says Rams supporter Matt Benstead.
“I think the most recent chant about Scott Carson being on the plane to the World Cup next to Harry Kane sort of proves the blind optimism is returning to the fanbase,” he adds.
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The chant in question goes along the lines of ‘Viva Scott Carson, get him on the plane, sit him next to Harry Kane.’
Most out of the loop might wince at the suggestion of Carson bagging himself a spot in England’s World Cup squad – it was, after all, Carson whom most pinned the blame on England not qualifying for Euro 2008 after his mistake saw Croatia take the lead in that fateful night at Wembley in 2007.
But time is a healer, and Carson has provided a supremely solid base for the Rams this season with a string of outstanding performances.
“Scott Carson has been absolutely out of this world this season,” adds Bradley.
“He’s not busy, but when he makes saves he makes them, some of the ones he’s pulled off this season have been truly world class.
“Everyone sort of knows the chant about him is slightly tongue in cheek because he’s still playing in the Championship, but actually he’s playing really, really well.”
The notion of an England recall for the Derby stopper is a far from absurd notion, however.
Rowett says there isn’t a more consistent goalkeeper in the country but not being a Premier League keeper counts against him, while Carson himself says he’s ’10 times’ the goalkeeper he was in 2011, when he last played for the Three Lions.
The rest of the team is also playing their part, of course, and Bradley says the consistency of the side has been the major contributing factor.
He adds: “The spine is really where it’s been excelling. Curtis Davies has come in and his partnership with Richard Keogh is superb – Keogh has been playing the best I’ve seen him play since his arrival at the club.
“Tom Huddlestone has got better and better, looks a lot fitter and even looks younger as the season’s gone on.
“Then Matej Vydra has got 16 goals this season and looks like the player they paid £8million for in 2016.
“It’s the spine that’s doing the trick – everybody else has been able to work around that and have been interchangeable according to the match they’re facing.”
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However, the highest praise must belong to manager Gary Rowett, who has pushed the team on from promotion hopefuls to genuine candidates.
Rowett joined the club in March last year following the sacking of Steve McClaren, and has guided his side to 20 wins, 10 draws and just nine losses in his 39 games in charge.
Whilst the football under McClaren was arguably a more exciting, swashbuckling style of play, it is Rowett’s pragmatism over prettiness that has seen his side climb to second in the table.
However, Bradley says that it is Rowett’s whole demeanour that has been embraced by the fans and players at the club.
“For the most part the fans love Gary, and they love the fact he played for the club and won promotion with them,” says Bradley.
“He lives in Derby and his kid’s a Derby fan and it’s the job he always wanted – I think the Stoke rumours the other week did him a world of good, I’d heard from a couple of people that he was their number one choice, and instead he signed a new contract at the club.”
But while the results continue to excel and the optimism is high, one must always return to that tricky matter of hopefulness.
Derby, as mentioned previously, have been the constant nearlymen in recent years in the Championship.
Bobby Zamora’s goal that saw the Rams lose in the last minute of the play-off final against QPR in 2014 is a memory that remains in the forefront of many Rams supporters’ minds when the prospect of promotion is proposed.
“The Bobby Zamora factor still plays a massive part in an underlying scepticism and reluctant to get overly excited,” says Benstead.
“We also had the catastrophic fall out of the play-offs under McClaren, shortly before he joined Newcastle.
“But undoubtedly it’s hard not to get excited by the idea, considering the position we now find ourselves in.”
It’s hard for any football fan to not get excited by the prospect of promotion in any season – but after five top ten seasons, the feeling that this is their year is hard to shake for most Rams fans.
Bradley adds: “Derby fans have had their hearts broken so many times that they’re going to be a bit wary.
“But with Rowett in charge, it could happen. The fans love him and everyone across the club love him, he’s fantastic to deal with, he loves talking the game, and he’s great with people which is important, so fingers cross we’re onto a good thing.”