How would you sum up Derby's season so far?
Deeply, deeply frustrating. It would be easy to sink into feeling like it’s already over, that the narrative is already written – but that isn’t the case and there could be four more games to go. It could still somehow end in the most baffling, hilarious, ridiculous glory.
You brushed Reading aside 3-0 back in October and looked certain to go on and be right in the mix for automatic promotion. However since our 2-1 cup win in February, things looked to have gone majorly downhill... what happened?
Some fans still chunter about that cup defeat, saying that we should have put the strongest possible team out, on the basis that another win would have maintained our momentum. Actually, I think the team we put out was strong enough to do the job, only Stephen Warnock got himself sent off early on and messed it all up. McClaren wasn’t terribly bothered about the FA Cup and didn’t want a replay, so I don’t think we can take as any sort of portents from that game for what will happen tomorrow.
It’s generally well understood that the problems we’ve had since the end of February were caused by the loss of Chris Martin to a hamstring injury and then Darren Bent to a hamstring injury, to compound things - but people outside of Derby perhaps don’t appreciate the importance of the holding midfield role in our preferred 4-3-3 system. As well as the strikers, we lost Omar Mascarell and John Eustace to injury and have nobody else to fill that defensive berth in the middle of the park (Steve McClaren refers to it as the’controlling role’).
With the strikers and defensive midfielders missing, McClaren hasn’t been able to work out an alternative system with any sort of defensive solidity. Of late, he’s erred on the side of backing the attackers to score one more than the oppos and it hasn’t worked, due to a series of staggeringly bad mistakes leading to goals. It’s been emotional.
What have you made of Reading in those games and from what you've seen and heard since?
I’ll be honest, I haven’t paid a huge amount of attention to Reading this season, purely because you haven’t been a direct rival of ours. We won very comfortably at your place (as predicted by Rob Langham of The Two Unfortunates, in a preview piece he wrote for me) and in a routine enough way in the League Cup at the iPro.
What I have noticed is that Reading’s four league away wins this term have come against play-off contenders – Middlesbrough, Norwich, Ipswich and Wolves. This, along with your cup heroics, shows that you’ve got the players to mix it with the best, on your day. I’m just hoping that they can’t get themselves motivated for this one. Other than the hoary old chestnuts about ‘professional pride’ and ‘doing it for the fans’, really, what reason do they have to try a leg? Although it goes without saying that taking anything for granted could prove disastrous.
Any Reading player you're not looking forward to facing tomorrow?
Not really, for the reasons above. I believe that Derby simply need to avoid shooting themselves in both feet, then dropping the gun into the hands of the opponents - which has been the story in recent games. Basic errors in possession and an inability to defend set pieces have been our undoing of late and if we can’t cut those calamities out tomorrow, then we could be looking at a self-inflicted ‘Season Over’, in the most embarrassing fashion.
Who should Reading fans be wary of?
Tom Ince, first and foremost. If we (or you) give him the ball within 25 yards of your net, he will back himself to find it. His finishing has been excellent ever since he arrived at the club. Darren Bent, if fit, is another constant goal threat. Chris Martin, who may come on as a sub if needed, is a completely different sort of proposition up-front – combative and blessed with the deftest of touches ‘for a big man’. There are plenty of goals in the team, especially when they’re playing with their tails up.
I would love to be able to predict a placid, even turgid 2-0 win to Derby, which is over as a contest by half-time and has Sky Sports wishing they could somehow cut to action elsewhere. However, based on recent results and the general air of chaos surrounding Derby County, it will probably be total carnage.
I therefore confidently predict that we’ll go a goal down in farcical circumstances in the first half and trail 0-1 at half-time. Shortly after half-time, having had the mother of all bollockings, Derby will equalise (Ince), then go ahead five minutes later on a wave of adrenaline (Ince again, screamer) – they will then start to dither, ship an equaliser with a quarter of an hour to go, then look completely panic-stricken. We’ll then give away a penalty, which you will miss. We’ll net again shortly before time (Bent) and the game will finish 3-2 to Derby – but grown men will have been reduced to gibbering wrecks in the process.
Thanks to Ollie for the second time this season - you can follow the chaps over at DCB @derbycountyblog