Albion travel to Pride Park on Sunday for their 52nd game of the season knowing that there will be at least two more before the end of May, hopefully three.
Their opponents, however, need to beat the Baggies to ensure that they extend their season into the play-offs. Frank Lampard’s Derby County (FLDC) sit just one point above Tony Pulis’s Middlesbrough, and two ahead of Lee Johnson’s Bristol City, which means that any one of those three clubs could occupy the final play-off spot come 2.30pm on Sunday afternoon.
Sky TV have chosen the Rams-Baggies clash as their live fixture for Sunday which is no surprise given that automatic promotion and relegation have already been resolved. While FLDC need the three points to secure a play-off spot, Albion have an outside chance of pipping Leeds United to third place. That would not only need Jimmy Shan’s men to beat Derby, but also for rock bottom, Ipswich Town, to record just their fifth league victory of the season and beat Bielsa’s team at Portman Road. It is perhaps unlikely given that the Tractor Boys have recorded just one win in their last eighteen league games, but Leeds will have their eyes on the play-offs and maybe Paul Lambert’s team can produce something extraordinary to sign off from their 58-year spell in the top two divisions.
Back in October, Derby stunned the Baggies at the Hawthorns as the flaws in the Moore-Jones system were truly exposed for the first time. That was in the midst of a six game unbeaten run for the Rams, and it is perhaps symptomatic of their season that three of those six games were drawn. Fourteen drawn games is perhaps a key as to why FLDC are on the verge of the play-offs rather than safely within the top six.
Furthermore, Derby do not have a truly prolific striker. Their top scorer is Liverpool’s on loan winger, Harry Wilson, with 16 goals in all competitions, but then they do have another three players to have made double figures this season in Martyn Waghorn, Jack Marriott and another loanee, Mason Mount. In comparison, after their two 20+ goal strikers, Harvey Barnes remains Albion’s next best goalscorer with nine, despite having left the club in January.
County seem to have timed a decent run of form, however. After three successive league defeats in February culminating in a 4-0 thumping at Villa Park, Lampard’s team have lost just once in the eleven games since, a 2-0 defeat at Blackburn Rovers, although they have drawn as many as they have won in that period. However, they have won their last three at home scoring twelve goals in the process, conceding just one, so it will be a tough test for the Baggies.
Given that Albion have secured fourth place, and the chances of Leeds losing at Ipswich are fairly slim, there could be an argument for Shan to rest a few players for this match. The counter argument is that of momentum, and it is also important to remember the new EFL rule that has come in this season that, from the fourth week in March, at least ten of the eighteen players named on the previous game’s team sheet must be included in the squad.
Since Shan took over, Albion have won 19 of the 27 points available, a record that has only been beaten by Sheffield United and Aston Villa in the same period. I’m sure that he will be keen to continue that good record, as well as maintaining momentum, and I expect to see something close to his first eleven to take the field at Pride Park.
Eight of that first eleven, or maybe even nine, probably pick themselves, but can anyone outside of the dressing room really say with any certainty who Shan will consider his best midfield?
Chris Brunt is perhaps the first name in Shan’s midfield three, but identifying the other two is more difficult. If we look at the midfield selections from the last four games, Brunt, Harper and Johansen have all started three games each with all three starting against both Hull City and Rotherham United.
That suggests that they are Shan’s go-to trio, but there must be a question mark as to whether they offer enough defensive cover. All three are attack minded, and I have previously expressed my concerns over Harper’s abilities out of possession. Having said that, after a tough day against Hull, Harper performed well against Reading and Rotherham, notching his first senior goal against the Millers. Derby County will offer a tougher test, while the midfield of Grealish, McGinn and Hourihane that Albion are likely to face in the play-offs will be tougher still.
Jake Livermore and Sam Field are the obvious players to offer a little more solidity at the base of the midfield, but each has featured only once in the last four matches.
And, of course, we cannot forget the fit-again Matt Phillips. For me, I feel that he should be kept as an option from the bench as I don’t think that he naturally fits a 3-5-2 formation except, perhaps, as an attacking wing back or one of the front two and he would not be first choice in either of those positions.
I guess that the selection against FLDC will offer some insight as to Shan’s thinking, but I’m not sure that there is an obvious answer. It has been a constant quandary throughout the season and, whatever division Albion find themselves in next season, the midfield is an area that needs to be addressed urgently over the summer.
Sunday’s game has another interesting narrative in that, should the Rams make the top six, it could be that the two clubs will meet again at Wembley on Bank Holiday Monday in a repeat of the 2007 play-off final.
That season had many similarities to this from an Albion point of view. Mowbray’s team were free-scoring but leaky at the back, they had a potent front two (Kamara and Phillips) and finished in 4th place. They also played a local rival in the play-off semi-final. Obviously, the Baggies lost that game despite being the better side, which was doubly disappointing given how poor Derby were the following season. Those of us present at Wembley 12 years ago would certainly welcome some revenge.
It will be a slightly strange feeling amongst Albion fans on Sunday. My main concern will be getting through the game without any injuries while a positive result is very much secondary. Obviously, news that Ipswich are beating Leeds may make the result a little more important, but I won’t be holding my breath.
I really hope it is a good atmosphere in the away end. Some fans feel that a play-off position is a failure but, as I have said all along this season, I have always considered the top six to be a success. While the weather seems unlikely to be as pleasant, I look back with fondness at the last away match of the 1992/93 season at Millmoor when the game was forgettable but the party in the away end was the exact opposite. Just like this season, we had seen some fantastic entertainment that season with plenty of goals at both ends. We can only hope for the same result.
There are seven founder members of the Football League in the Championship this season and Derby County were Albion’s second opponents in league football on 15th September 1888. The Throstles kept up their 100% record by winning 2-1 at the County Ground in Derby thanks to goals from Billy Bassett and Tom Pearson.
Five years later, Albion recorded their second away win at Derby, also at the County Ground, in September 1892. A brace by Roddie McLeod and another from Sammy Nicholls saw the visitors win 3-2.
Two years later, the Rams moved to the Baseball Ground and, other than a brief hiatus either side of the First World War, it can be safely said that it was a venue that Albion never warmed to. On their first visit in December 1895, the Baggies were thumped 4-1 but worse was to come the following year. On Christmas Day 1896, the Rams ran wild as Steve Bloomer scored a hat-trick, Hugh McQueen and Archie Goodall both notched a double with John Miller also scoring as the hosts won 8-1. Albert Flewitt scored Albion’s consolation.
Over the next 15 years, the Baggies lost every game they played at the Baseball Ground conceding four goals on a further four occasions until a Division Two fixture in March 1911. Having gone out of the FA Cup at the same venue a month earlier, Albion must have made the relatively short trip to Derby in trepidation expecting a 12th straight defeat but Sid Bowser, Bob Pailor and Harry Wright all scored to put an end to that sequence earning the visitors a 3-1 win.
Albion won there again the following year, back in Division One as both teams were promoted, and again the year after that, both by a 2-1 scoreline. World War I then interrupted league football but Albion were outstanding in that first post-war season and record a fourth successive win at the Baseball Ground in December 1919. Fred Morris bagged a brace with Alf Bentley and Howard Gregory also scoring in a 4-0 win, the Baggies’ biggest at Derby, on their way to winning the League Championship.
And then the Baseball Ground returned to being its usual graveyard for Albion sides. It would be another 57 years before the Baggies won there again, a barren period that included a 9-3 thumping in 1934 and even the great 50s side could only manage a 2-2 draw there in 1953. Having said that, County were relegated that season and the great Albion sides of the late fifties and sixties never got a chance to break that run.
The Baggies next visit to the County Ground was in December 1969 by which time Brian Clough was in charge and the hosts won 2-0. Albion had to wait until their next great side to finally get what proved to be their last win at the Baseball Ground.
It was a big one, however, in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 1978. Bruce Rioch scored twice for the hosts, but Cyrille Regis did the same for Albion with Willie Johnston also scoring as the visitors progressed to a quarter final with Derby’s neighbours, Nottingham Forest.
Albion have found Pride Park much more to their liking. On their first visit in a League Cup Second Round First Leg match in September 2000, the Baggies came out 2-1 winners thanks to goals from Neil Clement and Richard Sneekes, although Derby ultimately progressed to round three as they won 4-2 at the Hawthorns.
The Baggies’ last win there was on their first league visit in August 2003 when Rob Hulse scored the only goal of the game. All in all, Albion’s record at Pride Park is P5 W2 D1 L2, which is certainly a lot more respectable than their record at the Baseball Ground (P47 W5 D11 L31).
The last match between the sides at Pride Park was in December 2009 when Paul Dickov opened the scoring in the first half for the hosts. Simon Cox equalised for the Baggies with eight minutes left before Graham Dorrans scored what looked like being the winner in the 92nd minute. DJ Campbell had the final say as he grabbed an equaliser in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
24 Oct 2018 – League Championship
West Brom 1 (Rodriguez)
Derby County 4 (Marriott, Lawrence, Wilson, Malone)
Last meeting at Derby County
5 Dec 2009 – League Championship
Derby County 2 (Dickov, Campbell)
West Brom 2 (Cox, Dorrans)
27 Feb 2010 – League Championship
West Brom 3 (Brunt (2), Cox)
Derby County 1 (Porter)
Last win at Derby County
30 Aug 2003 – League Division 1
Derby County 0
West Brom 1 (Hulse)
Albion’s Record against Derby County