Opportunity missed by Derby County in January - but don't put all the blame on the manager
MIDDLESBROUGH arrived at Pride Park on New Year's Day as the third-best team in the Championship, according to the table.
Ninety-plus minutes later they had been dismantled 3-1 by Derby County.
Michael Jacobs and Jeff Hendrick scored in the first half before Conor Sammon finished off some excellent work by Will Hughes and Jacobs to make it 3-0 after 65 minutes.
As Sammon's finish ripped high into the net, delight and optimism swept around the stadium.
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Victory left Derby 10th, only three points adrift of the top six.
Only a couple of blips result-wise against Burnley and Hull City had scarred their eye-catching home form.
Middlesbrough joined Watford, Blackpool, Birmingham City and Leeds United on a list of teams dispatched thanks to high-energy displays.
And the display against Boro was up there with the best of them.
Not a boo nor chunter was heard.
The only sound was the standing ovation on the final whistle.
Was that only 10 weeks ago?
Derby have won only one of their 11 League games since and that was against struggling Huddersfield Town at home.
The Rams have gone eight matches without a victory, the current longest winless run in the division.
Eight points from 33 have seen them slip to 15th and the gap between themselves and the top six, once three points, is now 12.
Nottingham Forest and Brighton sat alongside Derby on 37 points after the round of fixtures on January 1. Forest are now sixth on 57 points and Brighton a point behind in seventh. Derby have 45 points.
Plenty has changed in football down the years but there is an old adage that says a team should strengthen from a position of strength.
Opportunity stared Derby in the face after the Middlesbrough victory.
It was an opportunity that should have been spotted and acted on – but the opportunity was missed.
Derby needed to bolster the squad in January.
They needed to inject more experience, a couple of players in key central positions with the know-how to help the younger, less experienced players when things get tough, as they did after an hour at Birmingham on Saturday.
In that moment, Derby needed more players on the pitch who could steady the ship as the Birmingham storm gathered strength.
When the storm blew at its fiercest, they had only three players on the field older than 26.
This is not a case of being wise after the event.
On January 8, I wrote: "Nigel Clough's young team is developing nicely. They are within touching distance of the top six and a good bet to record the club's highest-placed finish since 2007.
"Rather than losing a player or two, the small squad would actually benefit from the addition of a new face or two.
"An awful lot is being asked of such a young squad. The players are giving their all and to be 10th and in a position of promise is an excellent effort in a demanding environment such as the Championship."
January is not the best time to bring in new faces but the reasons Derby needed them were clear when you analysed the size of the squad and the shortage of experience, know-how, call it what you want, within the team.
A small group of players, many of them young in age and the number of games they have played, have carried the burden of a relentless season on their shoulders.
They have done so with great credit but the demands have caught up with them, as was always likely.
The stresses and strains of playing 35 consecutive first-team games at 17 have sidelined Will Hughes.
John Brayford had not missed a minute of 38 games when his hamstring went and he has joined Hughes on the sidelines.
Jeff Hendrick and Paul Coutts, neither of them seasoned campaigners at Championship level, have had peaks and troughs of form.
Jamie Ward has suffered with hamstring problems, Conor Sammon is tasting football in this division for the first time, as are Adam Legzdins and Michael Jacobs, while first-team football is still very new to Kieron Freeman, Michael Hoganson, Mason Bennett and Conor Doyle.
Craig Bryson and Mark O'Brien have had to play at times when not fully fit and the impact of being without the club's best defender, Shaun Barker, has been felt with each passing month.
A squad's frailties start to show up more and more as a season unfolds.
Scratch the surface and Derby's squad looks thin.
There have been a number of impressive performances and extremely close matches in the current run of poor results and luck has been in short supply.
A couple of crucial decisions went against the Rams when they met leaders Cardiff in South Wales last week and they could easily have returned with three points and not one.
Derby's first-choice 11, when fully fit and firing on all cylinders, are capable of going toe-to-toe with any team in the division, as we have seen, but that could never last for the whole nine months.
Clough has said many times that Derby need to be at their best to get results.
This is not a gripe because Derby are absent from the top six and not challenging for promotion because a realistic aim this season was a top-10 finish.
This is more about a missed opportunity to remain competitive in the top 10.
There is still time for that to change.
There are 27 points to play for but the first task for Derby is to collect enough to keep clear of the battle below them.
The manager is taking flak from some supporters, as happens in football.
All managers are under pressure and the amount of pressure is dictated by results but much of the criticism of Clough is harsh.
He has had to work within a tight budget when compared with the spending of other clubs in terms of signing and wages.
Like it or not, money talks.
There are one or two examples to the contrary but, generally speaking, and certainly over 46 matches, investment in the squad is a huge factor.
The table shows this.
Cardiff, Hull, Leicester City and Nottingham Forest occupy play-off places, while Brighton, Bolton Wanderers, Middlesbrough and Leeds have eyes on the top six.
All have invested more heavily in their squads than Derby.
Watford's case is different. They have mounted their challenge by taking advantage of a loophole. Good luck to them.
But the Championship is not a level playing field and Clough's team seems to be kicking uphill.
Derby's ownership group continues to bankroll the club significantly to meet shortfalls year on year, as the balance sheet shows, but are they willing to push the boat out further when it comes to investment in the squad?
The squad contains a number of talented young players who should improve and become stronger with the experience gained this season.
The squad does, however, need to be supplemented by a number of good, solid Championship players who know the division.
This is where investment comes in.
The patience of some Derby supporters is wearing thin. In some cases it has snapped, as we have read and heard in recent days.
Fans are pointing the finger of blame and flak is being aimed at Clough but it is grossly unfair to lay the blame solely at the manager's door.