The start of the four-game run against top-six candidates began in decidedly disappointing fashion. OK, we weren’t massacred, but a decent Derby team barely seemed to be breaking sweat to brush us aside and, as did Bolton recently (even in that context Fleetwood), underlined that collectively we are not good enough to be in the promotion-chasing group. No doubt we’ll go on and blow away Sheff Wed, Peterborough and Plymouth, just to make all of us look stupid, but right now any lingering thoughts of an unlikely run in the final third of the season to get in amongst it have disappeared. Mid-February and we are struggling to see the point of the remainder of the season, given that because of the ownership situation we can’t even start to plan for next season, except for (hopefully) getting Holden sorted out with a reasonable contract.
The game itself was decidedly low-key. We threatened their goal on just a few occasions and generally struggled to retain possession, with some very poor passing and control of the ball. Derby didn’t create many clear-cut opportunities either (a penalty and a set-piece provided the goals), but didn’t need to as having taken the lead inside the first 10 minutes their domination of the game in key areas (not in terms of overall possession) meant they dictated the pace of the game. With our wide men misfiring – although let’s give Derby some credit as they defended very well and made sure Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi were kept very quiet - and outgunned in central midfield, this was as routine and comfortable a victory as it gets.
There is a slightly more positive interpretation, for what it’s worth. Derby came out of the traps fast and really put us under pressure in the first 20 possibly 30 minutes. We did concede once, through Hector’s hand blocking a shot, and it could have been worse if the ref had viewed Clare’s late lunge in just the second minute worthy of a red rather than yellow card (it was one of those you thought it would have been harsh but no real complaints). But we came through that period still in the game; and at least the final part of the first half was more even in terms of territory and threat. Then in the second half we were actually enjoying our best spell of the game, even looking like we could get back on level pegging, when Derby scored their second, a poor decision by the ref to penalise Dobson for a fair challenge, the free-kick whipped in from out wide, their guy showing more ambition and determination than Hector to get on the end of it. To make matters worse, Holden had only just made the first changes, bringing on Aneke and Payne to replace Bonne and Morgan. They had no chance to have an impact before the game was effectively settled.
To recount our best moments, in the first half there was just once when Derby were exposed. A Maynard-Brewer ball out was headed on by Bonne and perhaps more by luck than design fell into the path of Rak-Sakyi in space. His first touch was heavy but he still managed to get to the ball again before their keeper, only for him to smother the effort (and consequently avoid any penalty for his subsequently upending of Rak-Sakyi). In the second half there were more shots from us but none which stretched their keeper. But on one occasion we did, Out left CBT, who had a poor game overall, found Fraser with a ball inside and sent in a smart short from inside the box which their keeper saved well with an outstretched arm. If that had gone in, we would have found ourselves level early in the second period and maybe, just maybe, Derby would have struggled to respond.
Hindsight as usual helps, but you have to say from a distance that we got a number of things wrong; another way of putting it would be our limited options since the transfer window found us out. Team selection was a little curious, with Hector coming in for his debut to replace Inniss (a fair reflection that it’s hard to see them being paired), Morgan replacing Kilkenny, and Bonne starting again instead of Aneke. As all three incoming had been on the bench against Forest Green and all three left out were among the substitutes, the changes had the appearance of just a little reshuffle. But was it best to throw Hector in at the start so soon, in what was always going to be a tough game? Kilkenny has been offering greater workrate in midfield of late and here too you felt for this game we needed that. As for Bonne and Aneke, with Leaburn still not fit enough and Kanu the only alternative, it was always going to be one to start and one in reserve. For sure we’ve no idea who might have been in need of a rest and who was impressing in training, but none of the changes paid off.
Neither did changes made during the game. Again, our first moves came just before Derby’s second, but looking back this was a day when 4-3-3 wasn’t working and CBT and RS were struggling, for whatever reason. Surely there was an argument for putting Aneke on alongside Bonne and switching to a 4-4-2. Might have also involved Kilkenny for Morgan to stiffen things up elsewhere. But again we were having our best period of the game when the first changes were made, so a formation change at that point would have looked odd.
Ultimately too many had an off day for us to match Derby and we are left with some serious questions. Teams low in the division have come to The Valley and given us no space for the wide men to exploit, going on to take the points. Bolton and now Derby have shown that good teams can beat us without having to adopt such an approach. I have no idea how Holden responds to this, other than perhaps to stress that when we are at our best we can compete, but have to be at our very best to do so against the promotion-chasing teams (and it does no good to point to the Plymouth game as that was a freak; sure we played well but were only 1-0 up when we won a penalty and they were reduced to 10 men, then compounded the impact with a blinding shot from Clare before half-time).
There’s still 15 games to go and it’s up to Holden and the players to make a success of this period. Give us some entertainment, keep the commitment levels high, and perhaps play with some freedom (not in defence). We can all see the dangers. Dobson signing up for another year is a real positive, but I believe we currently have 10 players out of contract at the end of the season, plus the ones on loan. It’s all very well to play for a new contract, but if nobody who might make the decision is going to be watching … Contract for Holden, takeover resolved, then some decisions about how we try to create something new for next season.