What, one wonders, were the expectations of Derby County supporters upon the appointment of Nigel Clough in December 2008? Easy though it is to try and draw comparisons twixt father and son, Nigel has resolutely been his own man, seeing out a lengthy managerial apprenticeship at Burton Albion (and leaving them in a strong enough position to be go on to win the Blue Square Premier title five months after he left their club) before leaving to take a job that he may have felt fated to. After all, his father took Derby County from near the bottom of the Second Division to being the champions of England in five years.
Such aspirations are beyond all but the most wildly over-ambitious these days, but Derby County is a club plenty capable of hosting Premier League football again. Is Clough the man to take them there, though? In his first half-season at the Pride Park, he dragged Derby out of the relegation places in the Championship, but there was an element of damp squib about last season, which ended with the club finishing in fourteenth place in the table. This season has so far seen the inconsistency continue and Derby County sit in the middle of the Championship table but, this being one of the most unpredictable leagues in the whole of English football, it would be foolish at this early stage to write off their chances of making the play-offs yet this season.
Watford, meanwhile, remain a curate’s egg of a club. The threat of administration was constant last season as they laboured to avoid relegation but they eventually managed to scramble free and into sixteenth place in the table. Losing Jay DeMerit and Jon Harley during the summer was perceived as something that might hit them hard, particularly as their financial tribulations meant that they were unable to spend significant money on replacements, and they were widely tipped to struggle this season. After a shaky start to the season (which included a five game run without a win), though, they started to pull themselves together and lifted themselves up into the play-off places. Recently, though, they have become a model of inconsistency – they have won and lost alternately for their last seven matches.
Which way Watford’s season will swing remains unknown, by half-time at Pride Park this afternoon, we may have some idea. Derby County run the first half with a commanding performance that leaves them looking like promotion candidates and Watford looking about as distanced from the Milan-esque change kit that they are wearing. It is a truism to the point of cliche that one of the keys to winning outside of the Premier League is to do the simple things well, and that the key to promotion is to do this consistently. Derby are nothing flashy, and nothing excessive. Watching from a distance, it is easy to see their potential shortcomings. Today, however, they keep possession and keep pushing. They are disciplined and well organised. They are, as a team, better than their constituent parts. In a tight division, to be able to manage this consistently could even be enough for promotion. It was for Blackpool, last season.
They also have a little luck on their side, as well. A fine goal from John Brayford gives them an early lead, but a massive deflection from Tomasz Cywka’s shot doubles their lead with ten minutes left of the first half left to play. Luck or no luck, though, a two goal lead at half-time could hardly be described as not being a fair reflection upon the run of play in the first half. Watford, by comparison, look laboured and lumpen – the sum total of their supporters worst fears. Pressed on every ball, they cede possession with troubling frequency. This, it has to be said, is very much the Watford team that lost at home to Scunthorpe United last weekend rather than the one that beat Ipswich the week before.
Whether Malky McKay’s half-time team-talk stripped the paint off the walls of the away dressing room is not known, but Watford certainly emerge for the second half with a good deal more purpose than they ended the first and their best spell of the match, the opening ten minutes of the second half, ends with them pulling a goal back from Matthew Whichelow, a curious lob over the onrushing goalkeeper that seems to take forever to drop down and under the crossbar. It feels momentarily as if this could be Watford’s route back into the match, but Derby are quick to snuff it out and stamp their authority back upon the game. Within ten minutes, they are back in the lead with a goal from Shefki Kuqi, one of the few Derby players that had played the first half as if on some sort of work to rule.
With the two goal lead restored, the game is effectively over as a contest and the question reverts to whether Watford can keep the scoreline respectable. The answer to this question is… not quite. With the bit between their teeth, Derby push on in an attempt to put the result beyond any reasonable doubt, and with nine minutes to play Cywka shoots in from just outside of the penalty area to tie things up. Four successive home wins and fourteen goals scored in their matches. Small wonder that the crowd at Pride Park is a season best of just over 27,000. Watford do have one final flourish but there has been little doubt over the destination of the three points this afternoon. This win puts Derby on the same number of points as Watford, but one of these two clubs will now be looking up the league table while the other looks nervously over its shoulder.
Watford may end up glad of their reasonable start to the season come next May. This was a poor performance, one that fulfilled the pre-season prophecies that they would have extreme difficulties this seasons more than their supporters will be comfortable with. Derby, on the other hand, may already have left it too late to do much more than chase the coat tails of Queens Park Rangers and Cardiff City at the top of the table, but this was a very impressive performance from them this afternoon and the possibility of them making a play-off appearance at the end of the season will remain high if they can continue this quality of football on anything like a regular basis. And we would surely all have to allow ourselves a little smile if Clough Jr undid another strap on the straitjacket of his father’s legacy by taking their club back into the Premier League. There’s a long way to go, but it feels a deal more likely than it did a couple of hours ago.