May 24th 2014, 5:50pm. I am sat next to a tattooed, 20 stone man who is blubbing into his undersized tshirt. I’m surrounded by pale faces staring blankly into the distance. My own gaze is fixed on the floor, trying to force away the feeling of nausea. This may sound like a scene from a cheap prison movie, but I’m actually sitting in block H of Wembley stadium, witnessing a unique brand of pain that only football can cause. A 49 game season has unravelled in the space of 3 seconds, and Derby have been consigned to another season of Championship football.
Football has tormented me this way before. I’ve watched England lose penalty shootout after penalty shootout (one such event caused a 10 year old me to tear the Jurgen Klinsmann page out of my Euro 96 sticker book). The pain of watching Richard Keogh scuff a ball into the path of Bobby Zamora is sharper and more acute though. It’s not just because we had dominated the game from the off, nor is it that we lost to a team cast as villains for the entire season, it’s the feeling that we may never get this chance again, that lightning struck our bottle and we failed to put the lid on it. As I shamble through the seemingly endless Wembley concourse, surrounded by fans singing “Derby til I die”, I resign myself to the fact that we won’t keep our big players, Mclaren won’t stay, the board won’t shell out any money and we’ll be back at mid table by next season.
Fast forward 8 weeks and the atmosphere in Derby is as buoyant as it was the day before the final. Will Hughes, Craig Bryson, Jeff Hendrick and Jake Buxton have all signed new contracts. George Thorne, although struck down by injury, has signed the permanent deal that every fan wanted, the squad is being padded out and the talk of promotion is in the air. Derby fans on Twitter have fallen into a delirious level of positivity. Thorne’s injury prompted such quotes as “we’ll still have the best midfield in the league” and “he’ll have to just join us in the Prem then”. Many Derby fans, much like England fans, are only capable of miserable levels of pessimism or pure, unbridled optimism. We would do well to curb that, as would Steve Mclaren and the team.
As the new season approaches, Mclaren’s most crucial task is to maintain the confidence that last season bred while tempering expectations and nipping any buds of arrogance before they sprout. Derby spent most of last season as the year’s surprise package, this season will be very different. Teams will be aware of what Derby are capable of and how they will play. They will look to the humbling received at the hands of Leicester (their inability to perform in front of the cameras a painful foreshadowing of that day at Wembley) as a rich example of Derby’s flaws being exploited.
Derby fans have every right to be hopeful and confident as August 9th approaches. They cannot afford to think that any game is already won though. Rotherham will come to the iPro for the first game of the season with nothing to lose, enthused and celebratory following back to back promotions. Every team Derby play thereafter will be equally dangerous, equally capable and require equal levels of preparation and respect. If Mclaren, Paul Simpson and the rest of the coaching team can drill this ethos into every player, last year’s misery might just inspire this year’s ecstasy.