DERBY County players have departed for the summer with positive messages ringing in their ears, writes STEVE NICHOLSON.
Before leaving the club’s training ground at Moor Farm, the Rams were reminded by the coaching staff of the progress made this season, a ploy to ease the pain of their defeat in the Championship play-off, and fuel confidence for when they assemble for pre-season on June 25.
Tears have dried following a cruel defeat by Queen’s Park Rangers at Wembley, although the disappointment lingers.
Even first-team coach Paul Simpson admits he has not watched a re-run of the final.”I don’t want to watch it again.
“The result isn’t going to change, unfortunately,” he said.
“What we have done is try to take the positives from what we have achieved this season and try to get the players to realise what has been achieved.
“We did this in a meeting on Monday. The preparation for the new season started on Monday.”
Simpson listed the high points.
“Record points’ total for the season, leading scorers in the division and in Chris Martin we had the first Derby player to score 20-plus goals for however many years,” he said.
“We beat Nottingham Forest at home 5-0, and that had not happened for donkey’s years.
“Craig Bryson got a hat-trick in that game, the first by a Derby player in the fixture for the first time since Steve Bloomer.
“When we came to the club in October we talked about trying to excite the fans again, and I think we have done that.
“We have excited them not because we got to a play-off final but because of the style of football we have tried to play. I think we have really grown over the past seven months or so.”
The task facing the club now is clear.
“The challenge, for staff and players, is can we go and take it to another level next season.” said Simpson.
“Can we do what other teams have done?
“I think the stats show that seven of the last 10 teams who have lost in the play-offs have gone on to be promoted. We have to make sure it is eight out of 11.”
Head coach Steve McClaren continually played down Derby’s play-off and promotion hopes during the season – mind games remain a part of football – but Simpson revealed that the possibility of promotion was recognised back in December.
Victory at Wigan Athletic at the start of the month was one of eight wins in an unbeaten nine-match sequence as 25 points from a possible 27 lifted the Rams into second place.
“Christmas was the first time we really thought we might have a chance,” said Simpson.
“You start to think are they [the players] really this good or are they on the crest of a change of management?
“Each week, they surpassed our expectations and you begin to wonder what is possible.
“We knew they were good footballers, but you don’t know how long they can keep it going.”
A productive late January and February kept the Rams in third spot before they wobbled in March, a month of demanding fixtures.
Defeat at Burnley was followed by a disappointment at home to Millwall, a game in which the balance of the team was upset by the decision not to select John Eustace or George Thorne in a holding role.
A run of four games without a win and a goal sowed some seeds of doubt, but doubt was extinguished in emphatic fashion with a crushing victory over Forest.
“We dealt with the big occasions, and comfortably,” said Simpson.
Derby sailed into the play-offs on an unbeaten six-match wave and found themselves installed as favourites, unsurprisingly.
Victory at Brighton in the first leg of the play-off semi-final put the Rams in a strong position, but the performance failed to please the coaching staff.
“It was the first time we started to have doubts,” said Simpson.
“For whatever reason we didn’t deal with that game particularly well, but then the players went out in the second leg and showed how they can learn and play.”
Brighton were swept aside 6-2 on aggregate in a display described by McClaren as “near perfect”.
Unfortunately, Derby never reached those heights in the final.
They were the better side, no argument, and they gave their all.
But in truth, they had performed better on many occasions this season.
For all their possession, they failed to carve out a clear-cut chance and the saves made by Rangers’ goalkeeper Robert Green were stops you would expect him to make.
The decision not to start with 16-goal midfielder Bryson has been a talking point since.
This is not a case of hindsight.
Leaving out Bryson created much discussion from the moment the team was announced an hour before kick off, as did the substitutions when they were made.
To fall at the final hurdle was bitterly disappointing but Simpson is right when he praises the efforts of the players this season.
“We have picked up momentum, we have gathered the spirit back in the football club and the supporters have been magnificent. They are back on board and there has been a great response to season tickets for next season,” said Simpson.
“We have got to keep that going.
“There is no point getting to this point and then it all falls on its backside.
“We want to keep things going.”