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Derby can use play-off pain to come again in Championship

An often-quoted football cliché says you can’t win anything with kids, but Steve McClaren came so close to confounding critics at Derby County last season. His Rams, beaten in the Championship play-off final thanks to one punished mistake by QPR, are 11/4 with Coral to go one better and be promoted this season.

Both Derby and their bitter rivals Nottingham Forest will each look on enviously at East Midlands neighbours Leicester City playing in the Premier League. McClaren, who managed the Reds with disastrous results, is looking to take the Rams to the Promised Land by playing attractive, expansive and, above all, enthusiastically youthful football.

With the Football League season still a fortnight away at the time of writing, County have happily managed to hang on to their star turns from the ‘oh so nearly’ campaign of 2013/14. Top scorer Chris Martin (10/1 to be leading Championship marksman) and box-to-box midfielder Craig Bryson, who both play international football for Scotland, are set to stay at Pride Park.

Other Scots, Craig Forsyth and Johnny Russell, also formed a successful left-sided partnership at Derby, which must deliver more of the same, namely goals and guile, in support of the exploits of Bryson and Martin. Continuity must come in the take on all-comers mentality instilled by McClaren into these more seasoned pros and the younger Rams.

This tone was set early on in the ex-England coach’s Pride Park reign when County came from a goal down at half time against Blackpool at home to win 5-1. Two red cards for the visitors that day notwithstanding, this swashbuckling ‘great entertainers’ style was repeated in the 4-1 demolition of Brighton in the play-off semi-final second leg.

George Thorne perhaps scored the pick of the goals that day in May, but the deep-lying playmaker will have little influence on proceedings for Derby this season. Shortly after signing permanently from West Bromwich Albion, the 21-year-old sustained cruciate ligament damage in a pre-season friendly against Zenit St Petersburg and will miss nine months.

It would be a major blow, but McClaren has still kept hold of prized asset Will Hughes. The highly-rated England youth international, 19, continues to develop apace and, if remains at the Rams, will soon rack up 100 senior club appearances. There are, however, two players from last term that need replacing.

Right back Andre Wisdom excelled at County on loan from Liverpool, but that altered Thorne’s former club. West Brom have taken the England Under-21 skipper on a similar deal as top-flight experience is more appealing to Reds boss Brendan Rodgers than the same in the Championship.

McClaren swiftly moved for Coventry City academy product Cyrus Christie, and he should be a credible replacement. Chelsea forward Patrick Bamford, meanwhile, may be more difficult, though Simon Dawkins and Conor Sammon should offer extra from the bench.

Northern Ireland’s Jamie Ward needs to produce more too. If McClaren could get him to recapture the form of 2012/13, when he averaged just less than a goal per game, then that additional threat may be enough to take Derby into automatic promotion or even Championship title territory. They are 8/1 second-favourites to win the second-tier.

There should be continuity aplenty in the spine of the Rams. From goalie Lee Grant, through centre halves Jake Buxton and Richard Keogh, on to anchorman John Eustace and Bryson, Hughes and Martin. American defender Zak Whitbread is in reserve, alongside veterans Lee Naylor and club captain Shaun Barker, who may return from a lengthy lay-off.

It’s a case of ‘if ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ for Derby, then. Doom-mongers will delight in odds of 33/1 for them to be relegated, but in all honesty it just doesn’t look like being a struggle for McClaren.

He must instead use past disappointment to galvanise the club, and emulate the likes of Cardiff City and Reading, who both suffered play-off heartbreak before earning Premier League promotion. County’s odds of 11/4, and a happy ending, look just as tasty.