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It was one game too many last season for Steve McLaren’s impressive young Derby side as they were stifled at Wembley and suffered last gasp heartbreak at the hands of QPR. This time around the Rams will be hoping to go one better.
McLaren has managed to keep his squad together, although the summer recruitment policy has focussed on youthful potential rather than proven experienced. Zak Whitbread is the one exception: a proven and accomplished defender at this level, who will certainly add experience and competition to the back line. However, McLaren, it seems, is intent to stick with his philosophy of giving young players a chance.
Retention of midfield maestro Will Hughes will be seen as a considerable coup and they will be hoping the playmaker continue his development and provide again the authoritative displays of last season that further his reputation as one of the best talents outside the Premier League. On the flipside the loss of summer signing George Thorne to a long-term injury is a considerable blow.
Expect more high-energy, attractive football from the ex-England boss this season, and rather than being scarred by last season’s near miss I believe McLaren has the experience and the squad at his disposal to lead Derby to automatic promotion this season.
Last Season: 3rd
Manager: Steve McLaren
Transfers In*: George Thorne (West Brom, undisclosed), Cyrus Christie (Coventry, undisclosed), Alefe Santos (Bristol Rovers, compensation), Jonathan Mitchell (Newcastle, free), Alban Bunjaku (Sevilla, free), Zak Whitbread (Leicester, free), Ivan Calero (Atletico Madrid, free), Leon Best (Blackburn, loan), Omar Mascarell (Real Madrid, loan)
Transfers Out*: Ben Davies (Sheffield United, free), Adam Legzdins (Leyton Orient, free), James O’Connor (Walsall, free), James Bailey (Barnsley, free), Callum Ball (St. Mirren, free), Josh Lelan (Swindon, loan), Michael Hoganson, Valentin Gjokaj (released)
One To Watch: Will Hughes (attacking midfielder)
Has there been a major European club not linked or interested by 19-year-old midfielder Hughes? It is only a matter of time before a big club swoops for the teenager, but while he remains a Derby player everyone associated with the Rams will enjoy every moment.
A midfielder in the mould of Barcelona and Spain’s Andres Iniesta, technically adept and able to manufacture attacking opportunities through his sound technique, or skilfull manipulation of tight spaces; Hughes is probably the most technically gifted player outside the Premier League and almost certainly a future top flight star and senior England international.
Hughes’ development has accelerated under McLaren and there were signs last season of him imposing himself fully on games and controlling Derby’s attacking play. There are still areas of improvement, and with his ability Hughes should be targeting double figures in both goal and assist tallies.
Nevertheless, expect Hughes to be at the heart of Derby’s promotion challenge this season.
Selected Odds: Champions 7-1 joint fav; Promotion 3-1; Relegation 33-1
Opening Fixtures: Rotherham (H), Sheff Wed (A), Charlton (A)
*correct at the time of writing