THE message coming out of the Derby County camp is loud and clear, writes STEVE NICHOLSON.
“We are just going to concentrate on our ourselves. We believe if we do our job properly it doesn’t matter what anybody else does,” said first-team coach Paul Simpson, as the Championship promotion race enters its final furlong.
Such an approach has worked perfectly so far.
Expanding on the theory, Simpson said: “We will focus on ourselves and make sure we are prepared for games, make sure we recover after games and make sure the players keep their heads and stick together. If we can do that, then we will put ourselves in a really strong position.”
Derby are already in a “really strong position” with seven games left.
They have been consistent in their response when questioned about automatic promotion, play-offs and points needed.
The task, they have said, is to maintain or increase the gap between themselves and the teams scrambling to climb into the top six.
Eleven points is the gap, 12 if you take goal difference into account, with only 21 points now up for grabs.
The Championship can be unpredictable, at times crazily so, but it would take a bizarre set of results for Derby to miss out on a place in the play-offs.
The bookmakers clearly believe this, because some have Derby priced at 1/16 on to be in the play-offs, and they are rarely wrong.
When I put this to Simpson, he admitted: “They are not [rarely wrong].”
He then broke into a smile, and said: “Here’s me talking about bookmakers. I’ve never put a bet on in my life, I wouldn’t know how to!”
Simpson pointed to Derby’s upcoming three games in eight days against Middlesbrough, Blackpool and Huddersfield Town, and said: “We are in a really strong position but we also know if we take our eye of it, we will get found out.
“It is a really tough league. We have got a tough week.
“I have watched Middlesbrough’s last three games and they are a good side. We are a good side, as well, but we are going up against a good side.
“Blackpool is never an easy place to go, and I am quite sure Huddersfied will be up for the fight as well, but what a lovely position to be in, competing at the top end of the table.”
Derby’s form over the season so far suggests they could finish on 80 points, more than enough to secure a top-six finish. The average points needed in the last 10 seasons has been 73.
They are also in decent form.
They have emerged from a demanding March on a run of one defeat in their last five matches, and that was to a late winner at Ipswich last week.
That was one of only six defeats in 30 league games since Steve McClaren was appointed head coach and at no time this season have the Rams suffered more than two successive league defeats.
They have spent the past four months in the top six, gate-crashing the promotion party – because they were not fancied to be in this position before a ball was kicked this season.
They are in the mix on merit and have both energy and goals in them to be a serious threat in the play-offs, although it would be a new experience for the majority of the players.
Those teams knocking on the door of the play-off places are hardly in threatening form.
Nottingham Forest, in seventh, are without a win in nine and have collected only four points from the last 27.
Brighton, in ninth, had lost three games on the spin before they drew 3-3 away to Blackburn Rovers on Tuesday night. The Seagulls have picked up one point from the last 12.
Ipswich are sandwiched between Forest and Brighton, and the Tractor Boys’ have the best form of the trio. A run of one defeat in five has seen Mick McCarthy’s team collect 10 points from 15.
All teams in the division are capable of embarking on eye-catching suquences of results, both good and bad.
Leaders Leicester City are unbeaten in 20 league games, a remarkable achievement given how often we are told this is a division in which any team can beat any other team.
Bournemouth have won six and drawn one of the last eight and find themselves only five points adrift of the top six, while Leeds United have won one of their last 10 games.
Blackpool went 17 without a win before they beat Millwall last month and Birmingham City have won twice at home in 20 league games. The Blues’ last home victory was on October 1.
Boro went six games without defeat earlier this season and then seven without a win. They have won only two of their last 13, but did win 2-0 at Brighton last time out.