A sense of relief was the overriding emotion amongst Derby County supporters when the final whistle blew at Deepdale on Saturday afternoon.
It had took Paul Clement six attempts in the league before the 2-1 victory over newly promoted Preston North End handed the former Real Madrid number two his first success as a number one.
The Rams went into the international break winless and on the back of a defeat to bitter rivals Leeds United, which had raised concerns amongst supporters. Despite Clement going into the game his calm and collected manner, the 43-year-old would’ve been desperate to end the search for that first elusive win in Lancashire. His reaction to both of Chris Martin’s strikes symbolised a man who had already began to feel the weight of all the pressures and expectations his new job had brought with it.
In previous outings, the Rams had dominated large spells of their games with possession.
57% vs. Bolton, 68% vs. Charlton, 68% vs. Middlesbrough, 63% vs. Birmingham and 52% vs. Leeds.
Saturday was the first game in which Derby had come second best in the possession stats with 44%. However, the Rams came out victorious.
Up until Chris Martin’s 23rd minute strike, where he latched onto a beautifully lofted ball by wide man Johnny Russell, the Rams had not scored the first goal in a game so far this season.
When the former Norwich man smashed home a free-kick as a result of a foul on man-of-the-match Russell, Derby found themselves in unfamiliar territory when going into half time with a commanding two goal lead.
Clement had exposed a new side to his team’s game with the team looking to expose the home side on the counter attack with quick, direct football. The early season promotion favourites looked deadly on the counter attack and punished their opponents. The 3,000+ travelling contingent would’ve been delighted with what they had seen from their team in the first half.
The second half told a different story as the Rams had to dig in and withstand a barrage of attacks from the home side as they dictated the majority of the game from then on.
Despite wave after wave of attack, Simon Grayson’s side could only manage one consolation goal deep into injury time from a well-struck Daniel Johnson effort.
The Rams back line was able to cope with what the Lilywhite’s had to throw at them, new signing Jason Shackell and former captain Richard Keogh have formed a promising partnership already this season in the heart of the Rams defence.
The team’s character and resilience was truly tested when skipper Chris Baird was stretchered off in the final ten minutes with suspected concussion after a nasty clash of heads with Joe Garner. This left them down to ten men in the closing stages of the game, which included 13 minutes of added time.
A justifiable criticism of Derby so far this season has been their inability to make all of their possession count for anything in games with a lot of their football coming in front of the opposition’s back line rather than behind it.
Preston did not allow Derby to play and was forced to contend with coming against an opponent who chose a more direct style of play and ironically this suited them more.
Clement highlighted early on in his Derby tenure that he was looking to provide the team with solidity when not on the ball and a key focus has been maintaining a good shape. For a team that had leaked 17 goals in their final 10 games of last season, this was of vital importance.
It is not just the result of Saturday’s game that would’ve filled the club’s supporters with more optimism, the effort and desire off the ball shown by the players would’ve been a pleasing aspect of the side’s victory. It is not always possible to win every game well and even the most successful teams have had to learn to adapt to situations where they have had to learn to win ugly.
Derby’s inability to do this in recent seasons has led to their failures to win promotion. Despite it not being as easy on the eye, the Rams’ new found ability to see out games and do the less glamorous side of the game may be the formula they have been seeking to get back to the Premier League.