THE play-offs, the possibility of reaching Wembley and promotion to the Premier League dominates Derby County’s landscape – and understandably so.
All eyes now are on the two-legged semi-final tie against Brighton.
First, though, we must bid farewell to the 46-match Championship season by paying full tribute to the Rams.
They delivered a winning, highly-entertaining and historic campaign.
Never before has a Derby team amassed so many points in a season.
A point from Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Leeds United at Elland Road lifted the Rams to 85, beating the tally of 84 in seasons 2006/07, 1986/87 and 1985/86.
Third position is Derby’s highest finish since 2007 when they last won promotion.
They also finished this season as the division’s highest scorers on 84 goals and bridged a gap of almost 50 years to the last time a Derby team scored so many in a league season, in 1964/65.
They won 25 of their 46 matches. The last time that was bettered was in 1968-69.
They averaged two goals per game in their 23 home league fixtures, winning 14 and drawing four.
Their away record was also impressive, the third best in the division.
It has been a remarkable ride.
Derby sat 14th at the beginning of October and defeat by Nottingham Forest at the City Ground had left them with 11 points from nine games.
There were encouraging signs, especially on their travels. Their bright, inventive football had caught the eye but consistency, or a lack of it, was a problem.
Nigel Clough was replaced as manager by Steve McClaren, who has praised the contribution of Clough on many occasions, and did so again after the Leeds game at the weekend.
“I liked this team before I came,” said McClaren. “As I have said before, myself, Paul Simpson and Eric Steele have been lucky coming in here. We inherited good players.
“Loan players have come in and improved us but it was already a good set of players and we always thank Nigel [Clough] and his staff, and we still do because they left us with good players.”
Under McClaren, Derby have collected an average of two points per game – 74 from 37 matches.
The team has found the consistency it was missing.
The team has also had a settled look to it although McClaren made six changes to face Leeds.
This was perfectly understandable, the correct decision.
There was absolutely no need to take risks with the play-offs waiting on what could prove to be a lucrative horizon.
Top scorer Chris Martin, key midfielder Craig Bryson and rock-like defender Jake Buxton stepped down as did George Thorne, Jamie Ward and Johnny Russell.
I have said on many occasions that Martin’s value to the team and to its style of play is crucial as he showed earlier this season when Derby won at Brighton, their opponents in the play-offs.
For Derby to make so many changes and compete as they did in a competitive contest with Leeds would not have been possible in recent seasons and highlights how much the squad has improved.
Two of the players handed a start played key roles when Derby took a sixth-minute lead.
Patrick Bamford found Jeff Hendrick, whose effort was parried by Jack Butland, before Simon Dawkins bundled in the loose ball.
At one up, we started to consider the possibility of an 11th straight win against Leeds, a run that stretches back to 2006.
An open contest unfolded as both sides created opportunities, although Leeds carried the greater threat.
Matt Smith’s aerial presence and power troubled Derby.
You might recall the big centre forward terrorising Liverpool and Everton in FA Cup ties while playing for Oldham Athletic, and he forced two saves from Derby’s Lee Grant who also dived to his right to keep out a 30-yarder from Michael Brown.
Grant was the pick of Derby’s players and he has had a very good season.
Will Hughes, back defending at corners, twice cleared off the line as Leeds continued to press and both centre backs Richard Keogh and Zak Whitbread, on his first appearance since October, had to dig in.
Derby’s football was not as fluid as usual – no real surprise given the changes – and Leeds deservedly drew level five minutes after the break.
Ross McCormack skipped over a rash sliding challenge by Keogh and his smart pass released Smith, who cleverly dinked the ball over Grant.
Smith’s display deserved what was his 13th goal of the season and his strike partner Ross McCormack was looking for his 30th.
He tested Grant with a free-kick and then headed straight at the keeper from a Danny Pugh cross – to the groans of the Leeds’ fans so keen to see their favourite reach his milestone.
McCormack has been a talisman for the Yorkshire club in what has been a troubled season on and off the pitch.
Rams striker Conor Sammon has endured a frustrating season, a season short on starts and goals.
He started for only the third time in the League this season and gave Leeds problems first half, although Derby could not get him in the game enough second half. Wide attackers Bamford and Dawkins also faded.
John Eustace, in for Thorne, was steady throughout and both Hendrick and Hughes plugged away.
Hughes attracted close attention from Brown, an experienced, spikey competitor who seemed intent on ruffling the Rams youngster.
Coping with such run-ins are all part of Hughes’ education.
All in all, it was a satisfactory afternoon or Derby.
They stretched their unbeaten run to six matches, gave squad players valuable game-time and did not pick up any injuries.
Dawkins took a knock, but should be available for the play-offs.
“Everybody has come through, and that is the key thing,” said McClaren.