February has consisted of three 1-0 wins for the Rams, who, during the month, widened the gap between the club and seventh place and helped narrow the gap on the automatic promotion places.
The month began with a 3-3 draw at Birmingham; there was no doubt that it was two points lost and not one gained. Defensive lapses cost the team dearly after leading 3-1. Clearly McClaren sat down and reassessed the approach because after that Derby showed that they could impressively win in a gritty manner and shut the opponents out.
It is a tough month to pick player of the month, but due to the response to that draw in the second city I have chosen a man integral to defensive duties in midfield, John Eustace.
A goal in the following game against Queens Park Rangers was his first for the club since joining in the summer. The looping header eluded the scrambling Rangers’ backline and, after the game, it was revealed that Eustace shouldn’t have gone forward for that very corner! Football’s a funny old game.
A decisive goal wasn’t his only contribution in that breakthrough for Derby (a first win over fellow automatic promotion chasers), the midfielder also helped shut out the, on paper, exceptional QPR midfield, where the team, in spite of their riches, offered little, as the hosts grounded out a deserved result.
Again, against Sheffield Wednesday, the Rams won 1-0, this time at Hillsborough. Derby were by no means at their best, nevertheless another three points were added to their name due to that new-found dogged resistance after months of free-scoring wins. It may not be as pretty to witness but it can be hugely appreciated – all the tops sides can do it. Once more, the ex-Watford skipper helped shut out the opponents and played the full 90 minutes.
However, against Bournemouth, Eustace was substituted at the interval to make way for more attacking power – the change paid off as McClaren’s side won 1-0.
John Eustace has had a prominent role in this season’s success to date. At the beginning of the season, the ex-Watford captain didn’t feature as often, now he is intrinsic to the side. Another defensive midfield player, in the shape of George Thorne from West Bromwich Albion, was brought to the club in loan in late January. Thorne is yet to feature, with Eustace continuing to impress.
Pivotally, the ex-Sky Blues man’s calm head and experience will be cardinal in the promotion run-in. A salute must also go to Nigel Clough for bringing in such a terrific player in on a free transfer in the summer.
By Nathan Morley