DERBY County head coach Steve McClaren is set to face a selection headache ahead of the Championship play-offs – but believes that stiff competition for places is “invaluable” to the Rams’ promotion hopes.
With two games of the normal league season remaining and Derby already assured a top-six spot, the players will all be aiming to stake their claim for a starting spot for next month’s semi-final tie.
McClaren made two changes to his team for Monday’s win over Barnsley, handing starts to Jeff Hendrick and Jamie Ward.
England Under-21 internationals Will Hughes and Patrick Bamford made way on that occasion.
John Eustace has been a key member of the side this term but currently finds himself kept out of the side by George Thorne.
Simon Dawkins has also been on the bench since returning from injury.
“The hardest thing is picking the team,” said McClaren.
“But that competition for places is the most important thing, because the one factor that can derail a team is lack of focus.
“If players are lacking focus, we’ve got players who can come in who have got focus.
“So that competition is absolutely invaluable in the situation we are in.
“We’ve got a competitive squad and the players know if they don’t perform, someone is waiting in the wings to take their place.
“We’ve got players who can step in and the performance level doesn’t go down. We’ve needed that.
“The bench has been the strength of the squad this season.
“If some players aren’t performing, we know we can always change it without hesitation.
“It’s not about the one to 11, it’s about the 11 to 23. That’s why we’re in this position.
“Everybody has to keep on their toes and everybody has to perform 100% every game, otherwise there is someone on their shoulder, ready to take their place.”
Derby face Watford at the iPro Stadium today (3pm) in their final home league game of the season.
When the sides met at Vicarage Road in October, the Rams claimed an eye-catching 3-2 victory.
It was McClaren’s first away game in charge and having seen his side twice take the lead only to be pegged back, he threw on striker Conor Sammon, who grabbed an 88th-minute winner.
“We were still learning about the team at that point but we went for it and it paid off,” said the former England boss.
“That approach has been successful so far.
“But you can’t do it without the players and they deserve the credit.”
Watford, who lost in the play-off final last year, are 12th under boss Giuseppe Sannino but are not yet out of the race for the top six.
“It will be a great test and I hope the players realise it,” said McClaren.
“This team can play football and they are capable of giving us and game and beating us.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the players’ reaction, because in the past couple of games, maybe we’ve got a bit sloppy when we’ve been in control.
“We can’t be sloppy against Watford.
“I watched them against QPR and they played very well. They shouldn’t have lost the game.
“They’ve got some good footballers and if we allow them to play, they could play us off the park.”