When Steve McClaren was manager of FC Twente in the Netherlands, he dusted himself down after the Enschede club finished runners-up in the league and cup in his first campaign and duly steered them to a historic first Eredivisie title the next year. At Derby County this season, his job is to put May’s agonising last-minute play-off final loss to QPR behind him and go again in search of promotion to the Premier League and the evidence at the iPro Stadium on Saturday was encouraging.
The 30,105 attendance – some 9,000 up on the opening-day turnout here a year ago – illustrated that the optimism of Derby’s supporters remains intact and McClaren’s men responded with a hard-earned victory which offered reason to believe there will be no hangover from their Wembley heartbreak. McClaren and his coaching staff of Paul Simpson and Eric Steele had signed new three-year contracts on Thursday to complete an encouraging summer in which the club’s academy gained Category One status and, moreover, key players like Craig Bryson, Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick signed their own new deals. Hendrick, a 22-year-old Dubliner, underlined his value with the winner eight minutes from the end.
“It was a great finish and a great move,” said McClaren of a goal that also showcased the promise of 21-year-old right-back Cyrus Christie, who caught the eye with his forward runs on his debut after arriving from Coventry. When substitute Jamie Ward picked out his overlapping run down the right, he cut inside and picked out Hendrick, who curled a neat finish inside the far corner. “He defended well one-on-one and was aggressive front foot,” added McClaren.
It was a goal that left Rotherham manager Steve Evans frustrated. He argued that midfielder Ben Pringle had been fouled in the build-up and rued the opportunities that went begging at the death when home goalkeeper Lee Grant made an excellent reaction save from a Paul Green header, and Craig Forsyth blocked Kieran Agard’s follow-up on the line. “The whole ground knew we deserved a point,” said Evans, yet he will be satisfied by the way his side dug in.
By contrast, Rotherham won at Wembley in May, beating Leyton Orient on penalties in the League One play-off final and the opening quarter-hour was a case of ‘Welcome to the Championship’ as Derby, starting at a high tempo, pinned them back. However, the manner in which they responded against last term’s Championship top scorers augured well for their prospects after back-to-back promotions.
In terms of real scoring chances, Derby had little to show for their exuberant start. Midway through the first half Simon Dawkins had a curling 20-yard shot deflected behind. Then Christie crossed for Johnny Russell to draw a fine low save from Adam Collin with a near-post header. Rotherham began to threaten from set pieces and it took a goal-line clearance from Hughes to keep out Kari Arnason’s flicked header from a Pringle corner.
Hughes worked hard in the holding midfield role in the absence of George Thorne, McClaren’s £2m summer recruit, the unfortunate victim of a ruptured cruciate ligament days after signing. But by the time Hughes made way for Omar Mascarell, a loan recruit from Real Madrid’s B team, Rotherham were firmly in the contest and on the hour, striker Matt Derbyshire, one of Evans’ 12 summer signings, could have put them ahead only to direct a glancing header off target.
Instead Derby scored. “For the first 20-25 minutes we were excellent,” McClaren added, “but we got a little frustrated and lost our patience. It was heading for a draw but I told the players to keep knocking at door as we have the quality to win games, which we did.”
Derby (4-3-3): Grant; Christie, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Hendrick, Hughes (Mascarell, 53), Bryson; Dawkins (Best, 80), Martin, Russell (Ward, 64).
Rotherham (4-4-2): Collin; Broadfoot, Morgan, Arnason, Skarz; Agard, Green, Frecklington, Pringle; Derbyshire (Swift, 70), Revell (Bowery, 58).
Referee: Kevin Friend.
Man of the match: Cyrus Christie (Derby)
Match rating: 6/10