Since returning to the Championship, games against clubs of the size and stature of Derby County have been seen as defining; indeed, yesterday’s opponents seem to have been particularly worthy of such definition given their spending power and perceived superiority.
For David Wagner’s predecessors, such tests were often gruesome trials with the wealth gap pointedly asserted most of the time with the occasional plucky performance offering little comfort in the greater scheme of things.
Despite back to back defeats – one slightly unfortunate and the other chastening if wildly overblown – Town’s elevated circumstances, and great potential, put them at least on a par with their struggling opponents whose expensively assembled squad had only just begun to splutter in to some sort of form in the past couple of weeks.
In the nature of a long, often arduous, season, an inevitable dip in form had seen the Terriers lose their leadership of the division with the accompanying worry that the sheer hard work which had delivered a remarkable opening quarter of the campaign could implode in a crisis of confidence.
This squad, however, lead with deep intelligence and passion by Wagner and his team, has not and will not crumble in the face of setbacks and, to their credit, the supporters were more than willing to accept and forgive the blip – another large, enthusiastic crowd provided excellent encouragement to help them recover from it quickly.
Wagner made several changes following Wednesday’s disappointment with Hudson and Mooy on the bench, replaced by Hefele and Whitehead, while Palmer returned in place of Payne. The Wells/Kachunga partnership was restored at the expense of Scannell and, once again, the manager signalled his belief in the whole squad to deliver when called upon.
With a midfield axis of Whitehead and Hogg, it seemed that the emphasis would be on stifling Derby’s undoubted midfield talent – Hughes, Butterfield and Ince don’t become bad players because their club is disorganised and troubled and Bradley Johnson is an experienced battler – with Palmer providing the creativity behind Wells and Kachunga.
A fairly entertaining first half was long on promise but rather short on delivery with neither keeper called upon to make a serious save.
Ascendancy oscillated between the teams; Town’s bright forward movement, largely instigated by the blossoming Palmer and, to a lesser extent, the enigmatic Van La Parra, was invariably thwarted by a resolute Derby defence and then undermined by carelessness in possession giving the visitors too many opportunities to get their own creative players on the ball.
An early Town move saw them open up their opponents’ left side only for Van La Parra’s effort to be well blocked, and a similar situation later in the half thwarted Wells.
The best moment of a frantic opening 45 minutes came when Hughes, having smartly interchanged passes with Vydra, saw a delicate and clever lob float narrowly past Ward’s far post.
This was during Derby’s best spell of the game – helped in no small measure by too many lapses in possession by the home side (Van La Parra, in particular, was caught out too often) – and another Hughes inspired foray saw the disappointing Vydra fire a first time volley high and wide when put through.
On the whole, however, Town’s industry quelled the Rams’ ambitions with Hogg and Whitehead covering a lot of ground to harass and discomfort, ably assisted by the hard work of all of the rest of the front 6. Despite finding it difficult to conjure opportunities, Wagner’s oft cited identity had returned and created the foundations for a second half of much greater promise.
The pick of the home side up to the break was Palmer. His touch and power belie his years, and with his individual battle with Johnson largely won the ex Norwich man’s influence was significantly reduced. His frightening potential – raw edges, not unnaturally, remain – should be a joy to watch develop over the season.
At the back, Hefele was solid (even if, at times, he seems to be on the edge of a mistake) and adds greater mobility than Hudson, if not the experience. Time will tell if Wagner will now make Hudson the understudy – it seems unlikely at this stage – but in his two full games, the popular eccentric has played well, bar one or two panics towards the end.
Smith, ably assisted by work horse Kachunga, largely extinguished the threat of Russell and Lowe was excellent on the left.
Town ended the half in the ascendancy but tame efforts from Schindler at a corner and a weak Smith effort rather summed up proceedings.
The second half followed a similar pattern. Town’s attacking threat was rather muted and Derby struggled to gain a foothold in the face of Town’s pressing of the ball. The visitors did create a chance for Ince when the dangerous Christie played him in beautifully only for his shot to be routinely pushed behind by Ward. From the subsequent corner, Ward had to tip over a header from Keogh, though it may have gone over the bar in any case.
It was after this point, with about 20 minutes to go, that Derby’s ambition seemed to be hauled in. Eating up time with delayed throws, dead balls and spurious injuries, gaining a point became their priority.
Town’s ambition increased in direct proportion, and Wagner’s shrewd substitutions – Mooy and Bunn had replaced the excellent Whitehead and frustrating Van La Parra respectively – started to swing the game in the home side’s direction.
Sharpness and movement increased inexorably and chances began to flow, with Mooy’s class and Bunn’s direct energy posing different and increasingly difficult questions for their visibly wilting opponents.
Carson had to be at his best to thwart Wells and Bunn efforts, while Lowe fired narrowly wide on one of his adventures forward, before a final substitution – Payne for Wells – added more creativity in the search for a winner.
In full flow, Town piled on the pressure – Bunn and Lowe combining far more effectively than Lowe does with Van La Parra – and Derby’s time wasting became more and more blatant.
What seemed to be the best chance was created by Payne releasing the rampaging Smith, but the full back had to come inside on to his weaker left foot and blazed over.
A none too generous 3 minutes were added and most had settled for an encouraging point from a decent performance. The deserved winner, however, was on its way.
Lowe fed Bunn with an excellent touchline hugging ball and the winger tormented Keogh on the left (Christie, the usual full back, was stranded further forward) before delivering a fine cross. In the centre, Kachunga’s movement took him in to space between defenders and he planted a classic “where it came from” header past Carson.
Scenes ensued, in the popular vernacular, with Wagner sprinting to the corner flag to mount the celebrating clutch of players and a deserved win banished all thoughts of wobbling wheels coming off.
Wagner will no doubt serve a touchline ban at Craven Cottage next week, but the enduring image will be worth it – the win had all the hallmarks of the man with substitutes disproportionately impacting the game and another late, late winner to add to those from earlier in the season.
Derby were not afforded any time to respond – the parsimonious injury time was gloriously turned against them. Perhaps not for the first time this season, they had come up against a team greater than the sum of its parts and failed pretty miserably through lack of ambition. It is not difficult to see why their goal tally is so hopeless – only 7 to date – but the decision to farm out Chris Martin is wholly inexplicable.
Jacob Butterfield’s return was not a happy one either – peripheral would be too much praise for his contribution. By the final quarter, and unforgivably, he and many of his team mates looked remarkably unfit.
Despite the late goal, this was no fluke win. Town never stopped trying for the 3 points and while the difficulties of turning possession and movement in to goals remains a concern, their spirit and togetherness was emphasised in a thoroughly satisfying afternoon’s work.
Heady days are here again.