Here it is, it’s not been that long since we last played them but it’s the game we look forward to and dread in equal measures most. A trip to Derby generally isn’t something I’d consider a treat, but as ever – since 1994 no less – it’s been a trip we’ve made when we’ve been in the same leagues with that ever-growing sense of hope that we might actually notch a win there, our first ever at Pride Park.
Our hosts have endured a fairly torrid time of late, a run of impressive results earlier in the season looking increasingly like a blip as a less auspicious run of defeats – including a certain scoreline to a certain team from Nottingham – has left Derby in the doldrums, and manager Clough under increasing pressure leading him to very public outbursts targeted at specific players in his squad.
That might lead to over-confidence from a Forest perspective, but not from me. Derby are a wounded animal at the moment, and when cornered wounded animals can summon one last tremendous show of strength to eliminate their would-be attackers. Of course, sometimes they could just lie down and allow their misery to be ended – but certainly we shouldn’t be taking anything for granted in our preparations, and I’m sure Billy isn’t doing that.
The Reds have no fresh injury concerns, it’s unlikely that Robbie Findley will even be in the country as he’s in the states organising his visa for working here. A formality, but one which will take long enough to keep him out of this fixture – that said, it’s not like we don’t have the luxury of choice from our existing players who of course did such a convincing job on Derby at the City Ground at the end of 2010.
Derby are currently frantically trying to add Martyn Waghorn of Leicester and Ben Davies of Notts County to their ranks in time for this game. Waghorn’s loan is in principle agreed, but pending news on Darius Vassell’s injury before Ericsson is prepared to let the young striker out on loan. Reports suggested yesterday Derby had signed Davies, to be met with fierce denials from Notts County who have been considerably irked by the manner in which Derby have courted their player.
One player they do have available who wasn’t in December is Miles Addison – he’ll provide a welcome boost to the home side, despite perhaps not boasting full match fitness. He even managed to breach the mighty defence of Crawley Town as Derby fell to a rather embarrassing cup upset to compound the misery of their City Ground shoe-ing. Commons is likely to feature despite being the target of abuse from Clough in the aftermath of their 3-0 defeat to Watford last weekend.
Forest have been quietly going about their business on the pitch and remain unbeaten in 2011 – although have relied on a tremendous rallying spirit in our last two home games to come from behind to draw with Barnsley, and beat Portsmouth thanks to both a late equaliser and an injury time winner. Certainly it’s different to this time last year when we were on the back of a tremendously convincing performance against West Brom when heading to troubled Derby where ultimately our away record undefeated fell, and arguably our season started to stutter.
Victor Chandler have us at favourites for the win at 6/4 – with Derby 15/8 to triumph, a draw sitting at 11/5. It would seem from the odds that they’re expecting it to be reasonably close. Certainly I expect Derby, with the likes of Savage and Addison back in their ranks, to have a lot more steel than they showed at the City Ground – and frankly, it could prove to be an ugly game rather than a footballing spectacle.
Which is reassuring because we’ve had to dig ourselves out of dogged games in recent weeks and our young Reds side are showing the kind of resilience and never-say-die mentality that was sometimes lacking last season when we came against more physical and robust opponents. This game will be, despite their poor run, a big test for that new-found resolve, indeed, I’d probably go as far as to say the result of this game could go on to define our season.
It’s tempting to be confident – I’ve not seen that much of Derby, the only two full games I saw were those against us and Crawley which, much as I’d like to believe it was, is certainly not likely to be a true representation of their abilities. Whilst on paper we should be capable of winning, if Derby can’t raise their game for this fixture above all others then they really are in trouble.
Of course there’s also the ‘hoodoo’ of Pride Park to consider – every trip I’ve had there (aside from for the Brian Clough Memorial Service) has been pretty awful from us on the pitch. Aside from a drawn game where David Johnson had a goal wrongly chalked off for offside, I’ve only ever seen us lose there – the lowest being the ‘coffee cup’ game, most frustrating last season where a poor game was settled by an inevitable Rob Hulse header.
I expect Savage to pull an influential performance out of the bag, his ability to deflect attention from his team-mates might prove invaluable, but equally his lack of pace can be exploited by our quicker midfielders. Which Kris Commons turns up will be a factor too – he showed glimpses of brilliance in a dreadful team performance at the City Ground, will he be up to impress and prove Clough wrong with his criticisms, or will he disappear, consumed in the contemplation of his contract situation?
Make no mistake, a win for us in this game will be huge. And it will not be easy. Clough will have his eye on this game as an opportunity to re-ignite his season which is faltering so badly. The fact he’s trying to press-gang players at the last minute is an indicator of his desperation, or perhaps that’s what he wants us to think. Most Derby fans I have spoken too aren’t confident, they’d be happy with a draw and thrilled with a win.
My head says we should most certainly be targeting a win at this game – as, of course, we do in all games. My heart is a little more concerned about things though – so I’m torn on predictions. Having said that, if somebody were to offer me a draw right now without a ball being kicked then I wouldn’t take it. I just have to hope that half-nod towards feeling confidence doesn’t prove misfounded!
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