Is this Derby's year? Gary Rowett's side hoping to avoid play-off heartbreak again

Over the past five seasons, Derby have come up short in a number of bids to return to the Premier League. But is their luck about to change?

After being relegated with the lowest Premier League points total on record (11) in 2008, it took a lengthy rebuilding process to restore Derby to the status of a club capable of challenging for promotion once again. During several subsequent years in the Championship wilderness, the Rams flirted with relegation to League One on more than one occasion, before 12th and 10th place finishes in 2011/12 and 2012/13 announced their return as play-off contenders.

But, since then, it's been a tumultuous ride for the Pride Park faithful...

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2013/14 - 3rd (3rd after 32 games)

For Derby, this season was about building on the 10th-place finish they had secured at the conclusion of the last. Led by Nigel Clough - who took charge in January 2009 - once more, the Rams strengthened their squad with the signings of a group of players who would form the core for years to follow: Lee Grant, Craig Forsyth, Johnny Russell, Chris Martin and John Eustace.

An unspectacular opening nine games saw the Rams lingering in a mediocre 14th and when a 1-0 derby reverse to Nottingham Forest capped a run of three successive defeats in late September, the board decided that Clough was no longer the man they wanted in charge in order to 'move Derby County to the next level'.

Queens Park Rangers' Bobby Zamora scores the winner against Derby
Image: Bobby Zamora broke Derby hearts in the last-minute of the 2014 playoff final with QPR's first shot on target

Their decision paid off. Two days later, former Derby player and assistant Steve McClaren took the reins and, barring the opening seven games of his tenure, the club found themselves exclusively part of the Championship play-off picture. Denied a sixth-straight win to end the season after a draw with Leeds, they marched into the final after a resounding 6-2 aggregate demolition of Brighton.

The momentum was firmly in Derby's favour as they took on QPR in the Wembley showpiece, but it took just one last-minute error for all the season's work to unravel in front their very eyes. A scuffed clearance from skipper Richard Keogh was punished by Bobby Zamora, who buried his effort and broke Derby hearts with the Rs' first, and only, shot on target.

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2014/15 - 8th (1st after 32 games)

Once again, this was a campaign in which Derby almost permanently occupied a play-off place and, using the heartbreak of the previous summer as a catalyst, often led the way as league leaders, thanks to the 44-goal haul registered by Chris Martin, Darren Bent and Tom Ince.

Successive 2-0 defeats to Fulham and Brighton in February saw them superseded at the summit, and despite a dreadful run of just two wins in their final 16 fixtures, McClaren's side were in sixth place heading into the final round of fixtures.

Steve McClaren during his most recent spell of football management with Derby County
Image: Derby relinquished their Championship lead to finish eighth in 2014/15

The play-off mix was finely balanced heading into the final day, but the below-par performances of the final few weeks stood them in poor stead and Reading taught them a devastating lesson with a 3-0 victory on the final day of the season, forcing them out of the top-six by a solitary point.

The downturn in results forced the Derby hierarchy to reconsider their options with who should take the club forward and, later in May, McClaren was relieved of his duties.

2015/16 - 5th (5th after 32 games)

For the third season in succession, there was a new face at the Pride Park helm. Rams chairman Mel Morris pulled off something of a coup by tempting Paul Clement to Derbyshire days after he had left his role as Carlo Ancelotti's assistant at Real Madrid.

Clement led the Rams to a brief spell at the top of the Championship as they went into the new year boasting an impressive streak of just two defeats in their first 24 fixtures and, in an interview with BBC Radio Derby, Morris stated, "This season, we won't be getting rid of Paul Clement. Period."

Chris Martin
Image: Derby were ousted from the 2015/16 playoffs semi-finals by Hull

But before long history was repeating itself once more. After opening 2016 with three defeats from four, the board grew impatient and when the Rams remained winless as February dawned, Clement was sacked after just seven months in the job.

Academy director Darren Wassall - who had briefly taken charge as caretaker in 2013 - stepped up to the plate and took the club into the play-offs for the second season in three, but he couldn't mastermind a route to the final as Hull City ran out 3-2 aggregate winners in the semi-final.

2016/17 - 9th (11th after 32 games)

The club hired Nigel Pearson to take the reins at the beginning of last season, but a dreadful start that saw Derby occupy 22nd position following just one win in their first nine games - coupled with a falling out with chairman Morris - saw the former Leicester boss suspended, prior to his dismissal in October.

Derby turned heads with the decision to reinstate Steve McClaren 17 months after sacking him, but, as had been the case when he replaced Nigel Clough in 2013, it was the solution required to break the Rams from their early-season slump.

Derby County manager Gary Rowett is seen during the FA Cup third round football match between Manchester United and Derby County at Old Trafford in 2018
Image: Gary Rowett took over in March 2017

With a water-tight defence that conceded just five goals across a stunning run of eight wins from 10 games that concluded 2016, all the signs were present that maybe, just maybe, this could be the year Derby returned to the Premier League.

Nonetheless, they failed to carry that form over the threshold into 2017. Norwich forward Nelson Oliveira's hat-trick condemned the Rams to a comprehensive 3-0 defeat in the first game of the year and once breached, the floodgates on that once impenetrable backline began to open.

Patience grew thin and before long McClaren was handed his P45 once more, to be replaced by Gary Rowett. The ex-Birmingham boss steadied the ship and boosted morale at Pride Park, but the damage had already been done as they missed out on the play-offs by 13 points.

2017/18 - 4th after 32 games

So, to the current campaign. It started in the mixed fashion of the conclusion of the last, with early defeats to promotion hopefuls Sheffield United and Wolves, along with a 4-1 trouncing at the hands of Bristol City, and, such is the climate these days, many clubs would have grown impatient.

But this is a rebuilding job for Derby and continuity is key. Rowett is the sixth permanent manager in Derbyshire since 2013 and already the second-longest serving of those six after just 44 games at the helm, but he has since restored the excellent defensive qualities of previous years and is delivering the required results.

Derby's next five Championship games

Reading (A) 24 February
Fulham (A) 3 March
QPR (A) 6 March
Nottingham Forest (A) 11 March
Cardiff (H) 18 March

After Wednesday evening's clash with Leeds, the Rams must face Wolves, Aston Villa, Preston and Cardiff in the remaining months of the season and with the strength of the teams who remain in the play-off picture, with recent years in mind, an automatic spot must be the sole target.

Level with Cardiff (13) and second-only to Ipswich (15) as the club who has spent the most seasons in the second-tier since its 2004 formation, their progress since the turn of the year shows no signs of letting up...will 2018 be the year the Rams strike fifth time lucky?

Don't miss the Sky Bet Championship clash between Derby and Leeds on Wednesday night, live on Sky Sports Football and Main Event from 7.40pm

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