THERE are 20 matches to be played, many points to win or lose, and nothing has ever been decided in January when it comes to final league placings.
But Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Brighton at the iPro Stadium left this reporter with a feeling of déjà vu on two counts.
First, the manner in which the Rams ground out the win brought memories of a number of similarly chiselled results in the 2006-07 season, the last occasion the club achieved a top-six finish.
Secondly, Steve McClaren’s suggestion that the Brighton result could be one of those we look back on and say “what a big three points that was” also jogged the memory.
How many times were those same words uttered in 06-07? The answer is plenty.
Promotion was won through the play-offs that season, but let us not get ahead of ourselves. That would be foolish in a division such as the Championship – although what cannot be disputed is that Derby are fourth on merit.
Their eight-point cushion plus a superior goal difference over the team immediately outside the top six, Brighton, is comforting.
Of the six teams positioned seventh to 12th, five of them lost at the weekend.
Derby’s task was to nip a run of three consecutive defeats in the bud.
They did, but it was not pretty. Indeed, it was dour much of the time, and low on quality.
There was pressure on the players and it showed. They looked nervous in possession and short on belief in the final third
When they did venture into promising positions first half, the final pass or cross fell below par.
The fluency of passing and movement seen this season was absent and the visitors were relatively untroubled for an hour or more.
Chances for both sides were scarce, saves from goalkeepers more so in a tactical tussle.
Brighton who had the two best moments of the opening 45 minutes.
Keith Andrews dragged a low shot wide in the first minute and Matthew Upson’s bullet-like header brought an excellent save from Lee Grant midway through the half.
For Derby, Jamie Ward’s curling shot after a strong run dipped narrowly wide but the Rams struggled for rhythm.
Chris Martin is key to the way they play in his role as the focal point of the attack.
He was outstanding in the win at Brighton in August when he out-thought his markers and scored both goals.
This time he was shackled for much of the afternoon, although support and service to him was in short supply – as it was for Brighton frontman Leonardo Ulloa.
Will Hughes was also watched closely, Andrews and Rohan Ince taking it in turns to flex their muscle.
Hughes probably deserved more protection from the referee but the young midfielder has found the four games since the turn of the year taxing.
He is not alone. Others have, too.
It was no surprise to see the 18-year-old substituted after an hour. It was not his day, but there will be other days.
Players do things instinctively when confidence is high. When belief is dented, even the simple things can become more difficult.
Players tighten up and tend to take an extra second in trying to make certain that a pass or centre reaches its intended destination.
This summed up Derby for much of the game, but there was still much to admire in their performance.
There was character and commitment. They also showed patience, something that everybody will need to show between now and May.
This promised to be a tight contest, and was. Brighton, well organised, had lost only two of 15 games in all competitions since early October.
They had lost just one of their previous seven away fixtures and had conceded only nine goals in 12 league matches on the road.
As tough nuts go, they take some cracking. Derby did so by keeping a clean sheet, their first in seven matches, making timely substitutions and producing the one true piece of quality in the 90-plus minutes.
Returning skipper Richard Keogh and Jake Buxton stood firm at the heart of the defence, and right back Andre Wisdom shone before a tight hamstring forced him off.
John Eustace was recalled and he played a key role stationed in front of the back four. The experienced midfielder was missed at Leicester when he was surprisingly left out.
There was nothing to choose between the teams on Saturday and the game appeared to be meandering towards a draw.
But Derby felt they could win it. This was clear in the changes made by McClaren.
He sent on striker Patrick Bamford for his home debut and midfielder Jeff Hendrick in a midfield role that suited him better than the holding position he was asked to fill at Leicester.
The positive approach continued when Wisdom limped off.
Instead of opting for another defender, McClaren introduced another forward in Conor Sammon and asked Hendrick to fill in at full back.
A bold move and a bold shape, 4-2-4, brought the reward McClaren sought. Fortune favours the brave.
Bamford’s awful free kick minutes earlier had almost cleared the stadium roof, but he made no mistake when the ball arrived on his left foot in the 76th minute.
He exchanged passes with Ward who went down under a challenge on the edge of the area.
Free kick? There was no time to argue as the ball fell kindly to Bamford who stayed composed to curl a classy finish high and wide of Kuszczak.
The quality of the finish was ill-fitting the rest of the game, but nobody with Derby at heart complained.
Bamford has goals in his locker. In 32 games this season he has scored 18 (17 while on loan at MK Dons).
Grant made his second sharp save to deny Ulloa two minutes later as Brighton tried to respond. The keeper played a full part in the win following on from his impressive display in keeping the score down to four at Leicester when it threatened to get messy.
Brighton boss Oscar Garcia felt his side deserved a point.
He has a case but overlooks the fact the visitors had nine of their 10 outfield players behind the ball much of the time and left Ulloa isolated.
You could see why they are short of goals – 30 in 26 matches is 20 fewer than Derby.
The Rams have played much better than they did but this was about the result and not the performance.
They fought hard for the three points.