DERBY COUNTY 1
ROTHERHAM UNITED 0
IF we needed a reminder of the different qualities required to win football matches at Championship level, Saturday’s opening fixture refreshed our memory.
Character, patience, persistence and a touch of good fortune all feature on the list.
And then quality, at the key moments.
It was the same last season. It will be the same this season.
Derby County needed all the above to edge past newly-promoted Rotherham United 1-0 at the iPro Stadium in front of 30,000, the biggest crowd of the day.
First-day matches are notorious for throwing up surprise results.
Derby were the victims in 2008 when Doncaster left with the three points in what was their first game back in the second tier for half a century.
The Doncaster defeat sprang to mind when the fixtures were released in June and it was a safe bet Rotherham would prove stubborn, testing opponents.
The Millers, fresh from League One, are fuelled by the momentum that comes with promotion. They made life difficult for Derby once they had negotiated a bright opening half an hour by the Rams.
Rotherham will feel hard done by to leave empty-handed, and they have a case, although Derby can argue they deserved to take the points.
Opening days are all about the result, not the performance, and the Rams are up and running as they set off on what they hope will be another crack at reaching the Premier League, having gone agonisingly close in May.
They surprised many last season. Now many expect them to finish in the top six, at least, and such expectancy has to be handled.
Apart from the 15-minute periods either side of half time, they handled the expectancy well and their reward came when Jeff Hendrick struck a late winning goal.
Derby began on the front foot. Johnny Russell and Simon Dawkins drove forward with purpose, Craig Forsyth and Cyrus Christie offered width from full-back, and Will Hughes controlled the game from a position in front of the back four.
Hughes is comfortable accepting the ball off his defenders and sparking moves, as he showed, but the role also carries a key defensive responsibility.
Could Hughes, so comfortable higher up the pitch, provide this? He did.
He also committed two or three “good” fouls for the team around the halfway line when Rotherham threatened to break.
Good footballers, intelligent footballers, can adapt to different situations.
Adam Collin’s fine one-handed save low to his left kept out Russell’s header from Christie’s centre and Derby’s fast opening seemed to surprise Rotherham.
To their credit, the visitors settled from a shaky start and played some neat football themselves.
Their set-pieces, including Kari Arnason’s long throw, tested and troubled Derby who were grateful to Hughes for clearing Arnason’s header off the line.
Derby needed half time more than Rotherham. They had stopped finding the wide areas and attempts to find a way through ran into congested cul-de-sacs.
This is where patience comes into play.
Expectation can lead to frustration, and there were signs of this.
Chris Martin thumped the turf when his centre went straight into the hands of the goalkeeper, and first-team coach Paul Simpson threw his arms in the air on occasions as other centres flashed across goal.
The South Stand, where Derby fans are now housed, also fell quiet having made plenty of noise earlier in the game.
There will be spells in all matches this season when Derby will need to dig deep and find a way to win.
Skipper Richard Keogh and Jake Buxton stood firm, and Buxton epitomised the character within the squad.
The centre-back trained very little last week due to a hip-flexor problem but produced what was required on Saturday.
Derby remained patient, plugged away without really looking like scoring, and were rewarded eight minutes from time.
Christie won the ball from former Rams player Ben Pringle. Rotherham thought it was a foul, but Christie was too strong for Pringle in that moment and raced forward.
He linked with substitute Jamie Ward before pulling the ball back to Hendrick, who displayed excellent technique to sweep a shot from 15 yards high and wide of Collin.
You could see, hear and feel the relief – another indication of the expectation that will accompany the Rams in the coming months.
Christie was one of three Derby debutants.
He was one of only two changes from the team that kicked off last season (Dawkins the other) and the right-back had a good afternoon.
He can get forward, but he was also solid defensively, which was encouraging to see.
Hughes, struggling with a neck problem, was replaced by Omar Mascarell, the 21-year-old on loan from Real Madrid.
He is comfortable in possession, that much is clear.
He has the confidence to make himself available to receive the ball although he tried to force passes on occasions, which a player can do when keen to make an immediate impression.
Striker Leon Best also came on for his debut. He had a couple of runs down the left and looked strong, suggesting he can be a good option.
A moment of quality usually decides tight contests, as we saw with Hendrick’s finish, but Rams goalkeeper Lee Grant made sure his team’s lead remained intact with a brilliant save in added time.
Another ex-Rams player, Paul Green, met Pringle’s centre and his firm downward header had goal written all over it until Grant made a superb stop.
The keeper had not been overly-worked and so his concentration levels deserve praise.
But that was not to be Derby’s last scare.
Forsyth had to clear off the line from Kieran Agard seconds later as Rotherham threatened to grab a late leveller.
Derby survived, and after a summer World Cup full of goals it was nice to be reminded of the importance of a clean sheet.