CAPTAIN Richard Keogh has praised Nigel Clough’s part in bringing Derby County to the cusp of the Premier League.
Keogh has led the Rams to third in the league, setting up a semi-final showdown with Brighton & Hove Albion, the first leg of which takes place tonight at the Amex Stadium, kick-off 7.45pm.
It has been an eventful campaign, with former Burton Albion boss Clough being replaced as manager by Steve McClaren at the end of September.
Keogh admitted Clough’s sacking was a “shock” – but the Rams have not looked back under McClaren.
“Nigel brought me to the club and I had a good relationship with him,” said the former Coventry City defender.
“When it did happen, I think it caught everyone by surprise.
“But looking back, I don’t think you can argue with the decision that was made.
“The new manager came in and realised he had a good group of players.
“It was credit to Nigel for bringing the lads in and getting a great team ethic and spirit going.
“I think the manager knew he didn’t have to change too much. He just had to tweak a few things he wanted to put his stamp on.
“We just went on from there – and it’s been an exciting period for everyone involved with the club. Hopefully, we can keep that going.
“Nigel brought most of this team to the club and I think the lads have great respect for him.
“It was a bit of a shock when he went but the way we’ve reacted just shows how together we are and how much we want to achieve something.
“We’ve really taken on board what the new manager has said and the rest is history, as they say.”
So, what was the key to Derby’s climb up the table?
“We had a solid start to the season, without being absolutely fantastic,” said Keogh.
“I think we just got into a winning habit and that was the most important thing for us.
“Last season, we finished 10th and there were spells where we maybe won three in a row but then couldn’t quite sustain it.
“That’s not been the case this season.
“It’s been a great journey and we’ve played some fantastic football.
“We’re a young, hungry group and there’s a great togetherness about us.
“We want to listen, we want to learn and we want to get better.”
Under former England boss McClaren, Keogh feels the squad has every chance of continuing to improve.
“His CV speaks for itself and to work under someone who has worked with arguably one of the greatest managers ever (Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United), you’d be silly not to learn from him,” said the 27-year-old centre-back.
“The coaching staff have been great and you can’t help but learn from them.
“He’s a great guy, a great coach and a great manager.”
Keogh believes Derby are ready to take the next step and win promotion to the Premier League.
“I’ve not been involved in the play-offs before,” he said.
“When I was at Bristol City, we finished second on the last day, so we had that euphoria of going up automatically.
“But I think it’s exciting – and this is why I joined Derby, to be up there challenging for promotion.
“As a professional, you want to be involved in games like this and occasions like this.
“I think the squad is ready – and we’re hungry for success.”