Where would Derby be without former Man United man?

Derby County look to be on their way back to the Premier League after a seven-year absence. The Rams have managed to shrug off last season’s play-off final heartache – and currently sit top of the Sky Bet Championship table with 38 points from 20 games. But how much of their recent turnaround in fortunes do they owe to their experienced manager Steve McClaren?

When the ex-England boss took over at Pride Park, Derby seemed to be rotting in the Championship and heading for another disappointing season. Nigel Clough tried and failed to get the Rams back to the promised land – and could only manage a couple of mid-table finishes in his time with the club. That led to Derby opting for Steve McLaren, who had brief spells of management in Holland, Germany and a short stay at Derby’s bitter rivals Nottingham Forest, to take over at the helm 11 games into last season.

There was plenty of controversy surrounding McClaren’s appointment, due to the fact he managed Forest two years prior – and because he had failed so miserably when he was in charge of the Three Lions. Nonetheless Derby’s chairman Andrew Appleby, replaced the popular Clough, with the controversial McClaren, in a bold move that looks like it’s going to pay off.

It was a brave decision by Appleby, considering how vibrant the Clough name is around those parts, especially when replacing him with a former Forest boss. But after the dust had settled and McClaren got down to business, it was immediately evident that the Rams were a different outfit. McClaren led Derby to a fourth place finish last term – they saw off Brighton 6-2 on aggregate in the Championship play-off semi-final, before shockingly losing the final 1-0 to QPR in heart-breaking fashion thanks to a late Bobby Zamora strike.

Many teams and managers would have suffered from a play-off hangover, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for McClaren and Derby. The Rams have played some expansive and attractive football since then – on their way to the top of the Championship. They’re by no means the best side the league has ever seen – but with the likes of Craig Bryson, Jamie Ward, Johnny Russell and the prolific Chris Martin all playing to such a high standard – it looks as though it’s going to take something special to knock them off their perch.

It’s no secret that if you have any aspirations of winning the Championship, you need season-long monotonous integrity, the ability to bounce back after a defeat and certainly a bit of luck. Derby, so far have had all three. It’s impossible to say what direction the Rams would have gone if they hadn’t have opted for McClaren, but it’s probably a safe bet that they wouldn’t be doing as well as they are today. The boss has got them all playing to the best of their abilities and they are all singing from the same hymn sheet, at the moment Derby are certainly the team to beat.

It’s well documented just how hard the Championship is to get out of. Many high profile managers, with big, talented squads have tried and failed. Even teams that are top at Christmas have failed to go on and secure top-flight football. But there seems to be a togetherness and hunger at Derby, and that is going to take something extraordinary to stop.