IF HEAD coach Steve McClaren was concerned about Derby County’s players easing off once a play-off place was assured, he had no need to be.
A top-six finish was cemented ahead of the Rams’ game against Doncaster Rovers on Good Friday.
Not only did they beat Doncaster, they have also won their last two matches against Barnsley and Watford.
Derby top the current form table based on the last eight games. Six wins and two defeats has seen them collect 18 of the last 24 points.
Interestingly, they have conceded only eight goals despite accusations that they have been “sloppy” in recent weeks.
Apart from a mini dip in March, a month of tough fixtures, Derby have been pretty much relentless in their aim of reaching the play-offs for the first time in seven years.
Only four defeats in 20 matches since the mauling by Leicester City in January is an excellent sequence of form, one driven by the players’ focus and competition for places in the team.
The players’ desire and determination to be involved in the two-legged play-off semi-final, and the final at Wembley if Derby progress, has been instrumental in ensuring no-one takes their foot off the gas.
McClaren believes the fight for places has been key to Derby’s winning run.
“Everyone wants to be involved in the play-offs and the lads are going about things in the right manner,” he said.
“I did worry once we got confirmed in the play-offs would we ease off in our performances, but they’ve been excellent.”
Defender Jake Buxton echoed McClaren’s view.
Looking ahead to today’s final league game of the season against Leeds United at Elland Road, Buxton said: “We need to keep the momentum going because we believe form is important going into the play-offs.
“There is competition for places in the team for the play-off semi finals and hopefully the final as well.
“Every player is chomping at the bit in training, everyone wants a shirt, and the manager has made sure we have stayed focused.”
Buxton is part of a settled defence that has been unchanged in 20 matches since skipper Richard Keogh returned to the side following injury.
Buxton has made 34 consecutive starts since he lined up against Birmingham City in October.
Right-back Andre Wisdom has been ever-present following his arrival on loan from Liverpool, also in October, and left back Craig Forsyth has started every game this season.
There is, however, plenty of competition in midfield and in the wide attacking areas.
George Thorne, Craig Bryson, Jeff Hendrick, Will Hughes and John Eustace are vying for the three positions in central midfield.
“We really have an excellent midfield, so there is a real battle taking place there,” said McClaren.
Jamie Ward, Johnny Russell, Simon Dawkins and Patrick Bamford are battling to fill the two wide roles either side of leading scorer Chris Martin.
“We’ve got players across the team pushing each other, and that’s great. You need that in a team,” said McClaren.