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Derby County's rise under Gary Rowett highlights his abilities
Last Updated: 19/01/18 6:56pm
It is second versus fifth as Derby County host Bristol City in the big Championship game live on Sky Sports this Friday night. Adam Bate takes a look at how Gary Rowett has got Derby supporters dreaming of the Premier League once again.
It took Gary Rowett a bit of time to get things going at Derby County and it is easy to see why. He arrived in March as the club's third new manager of the campaign and then had to deal with the loss of key players in the summer. Talented midfielder Will Hughes was sold for £8m to Watford. The team's top scorer Tom Ince also departed for Huddersfield.
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So when Darren Bent, the only Derby player other than Ince to reach double figures for goals last season, suffered a serious injury taking a penalty against Port Vale in pre-season, things did not look too promising. Instead, they find themselves in second spot, the form team in the Championship, and chasing a return to the Premier League after a decade away.
Of course, Derby have been here before. They lost a play-off final under Steve McClaren in 2014 and were top in March 2015 but did not even make the play-offs. Paul Clement had the club back at the summit by Boxing Day of the following season only to repeat the collapse. McClaren returned to have Derby in the top six again in February. He was sacked by March.
Yet, this feels different from the drama of the past. Equilibrium is the word that Rowett uses and his level-headed approach is working. "We were a little bit inconsistent with our confidence," goalkeeper Scott Carson tells Sky Bet. "We would win a couple of games and think we were going to win the league, then we'd lose a couple and think it was game over."
The recruitment has helped. Joe Ledley has proved a highly effective replacement for Hughes in midfield, while Curtis Davies has been the ideal foil for fan favourite Richard Keogh in defence. But the real key to Rowett's success so far, just as it was at Burton and Birmingham, has been the ability to get the best from the resources at his disposal.
Nothing highlights that quite so spectacularly as the form of Matej Vydra. After scoring only five goals in 33 appearances last season, he has already trebled that tally this term, prospering alongside the experienced David Nugent in attack. "Matej has probably been the best No 10 in the league up until now," said Rowett earlier this month.
But Derby's form has also been built on their defensive work. No Championship team has conceded fewer goals than the Rams in the past four months. Remarkably, they have let in only three in their last 11 games. Carson is well protected and even when the ball does reach him he has been excellent - picking up the player of the month award for December.
"We have been working really hard, pressing the ball," explains the former England goalkeeper. "The defenders have been putting their bodies on the line, blocks, headers, and it just proves how good of a unit we have been." Rowett, a former full-back, has seen his side block more crosses than any other team in the Championship this season.
It is this - Rowett's organisation of the team - that particularly stands out for the fans. Gary Dempsey, chair of Derby County's disabled supporters' club, likes what he sees. "I have been very impressed with Gary Rowett and the way he has handled the situation he inherited, especially given the large first-team squad," Dempsey tells Sky Sports.
"I think that the change in fortunes is down to the manager and his staff making players aware that they all have a defensive responsibility and showing them the areas they need to cover when not in possession. I think the manager made them aware that whilst you win games by scoring you don't lose games if the opposition doesn't score.
"He has also got players playing in their best preferred positions and not made too many changes to the starting line-up. This has allowed players to forge partnerships with each other. I think Rowett is a good man manager. He knows what makes his players tick and how they will or may respond in certain circumstances or situations."
Carson's comments echo that. "If anything I think he has just simplified it a little bit," he says. "He has told every player, whether they are playing or not playing, the job of that position in the team and what he expects of them." It is that familiar subject of expectation that will rear its head again now Derby are into the final 20 games of the season.
"I have said since I came here that it is a Premier League club and it should be in the Premier League," adds Carson. "It's got everything - obviously, the training ground and the stadium. But it is just not as easy as saying we should be in the Premier League. We know we have a good couple of months of hard work now. I think top two has got to be the main aim."
Rowett himself speaks of "retaining the humility" that has taken Derby this far. But having ended speculation of an immediate move to the Premier League with Stoke City by extending his contract at the club he calls home, the ambitions are obvious. Rowett wants to finish the job and that means taking Derby County back to the top flight.
"I have lived in the area for a long time," he tells Sky Bet. "I have got a close affinity with the club because I have coached here, I have played here. So that was always the mentality. Regardless of what division this club was in, regardless of what opportunities come down the line, this was a job that I wanted to make sure I tried to see through.
"We are in a good position. I have left my two previous jobs, not quickly, but before I was able to finish the job off. So there is a real determination to do that here, whether that's short term, long term or whatever that might be." Beat Bristol City on Friday and Derby will be five points clear of Cardiff in third. Seeing the job through might not be too far away.
Don't miss the Sky Bet Championship clash between Derby and Bristol City on Friday, live on Sky Sports Football and Main Event from 7pm
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