The 2019/20 campaign was Phillip Cocu’s first as Derby County’s manager following his appointment in July 2019 on a four-year contract.
Replacing Frank Lampard, who had guided Derby to the 2018/19 Play-Off Final before departing to take charge at Chelsea, Cocu oversaw a progressive season as the Rams’ boss.
He had the unenviable challenge of rebuilding the squad after the departure of several of the previous campaign’s key loan players, Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount and Harry Wilson, and experienced trio Craig Bryson, Bradley Johnson and David Nugent.
Cocu, highly regarded as a coach and with a track record of developing exciting young talent, guided the Rams through a challenging start to the season and their progress as a side was evident in the second half of the campaign.
Results after Christmas propelled Derby up the table into the play-off race, with combination of consistent performances and the emergence of Academy graduates Max Bird, Jason Knight and Louie Sibley providing plenty of reasons to be positive about the future.
A 3-1 victory at Birmingham City on the final day of the campaign saw the Rams finish 2019/20 in tenth place in the table and with several foundations to build on in 2020/21.
Looking back on the 2019/20 Sky Bet Championship season, dcfc.co.uk has profiled five of Derby’s most significant victories under Cocu.
Huddersfield Town 1-2 Derby County
5th August 2019
Cocu got off to a winning start in his first competitive game as Derby County’s manager on what proved to be an eventful night at the John Smith’s Stadium against Huddersfield Town.
Wales international forward Tom Lawrence scored twice inside three minutes in he first half to put the Rams in control.
His first came as he lobbed the ball into an empty net after an error by Huddersfield defender Tommy Elphick.
His second was a sublime, one of Derby’s best goals of the season, as he curled in a fine effort from the edge of the area after a flowing team move from back to front.
Karlan Grant pulled a goal back from the penalty spot before the break after Kieran Dowell had brought down Juninho Bacuna, but Derby deserved their lead going into half-time.
Derby had to be resolute in the second half as the Terriers, back in the Championship after two seasons in the Premier League, applied plenty of pressure.
Cocu’s side stood firm, with all eyes on them as to how the side would react the Play-Off Final defeat to Aston Villa at the end of the 2018/19.
On top of the action on the pitch, news had broken earlier in the day of Wayne Rooney’s impending move to Derby from Major League Soccer side DC United. While a media circus quickly formed, Cocu ensured the Rams’ full focus and attention was on getting off to a winning start.
Derby County 3-2 Birmingham City
28th September 2019
That opening day win at Huddersfield was then followed by a seven-game winless run in the Championship.
An inconsistent start to the season, by Cocu’s own admission, presented a few challenges to overcome and when Derby welcomed Birmingham City to Pride Park Stadium in September, they were still without a home win.
Off-the-field issues surrounded the lead-up to the game against the Blues, following a team night out earlier in the week which attracted national media headlines, and prompted Cocu to admit there was more at stake than just a game of football.
When the focus turned to matters on the pitch, a season’s best crowd of 28,454 were treated to a pulsating encounter.
Striker Chris Martin, making his first Derby start since December 2017 after spells on loan at Reading and Hull City after coming off the bench to score in the 1-1 draw at Leeds United seven days previously, slotted home inside the opening minutes after good work by Duane Holmes.
A breathless second period followed, which came to life when Martin capitalised on a slip in the Birmingham defence to set-up up Martyn Waghorn to make it 2-0.
Two goals in three minutes then changed the complexity of the game by the hour mark. Gary Gardner headed into the net from a Jacques Maghoma corner to pull a goal back and Croatia midfielder Ivan Sunjic levelled soon afterwards with a thunderous strike from the edge of the box.
Goalkeeper Kelle Roos then made a stunning penalty save to deny Lukas Jutkiewicz, after a foul by Krystian Bielik, and the Dutchman’s heroics proved to be vital as Jamie Paterson rounded off a swift counter attack, after being played clear by Jack Marriott, to score Derby’s winner with 16 minutes remaining.
The final whistle was greeted by a sense of relief by everyone with a Derby persuasion across Pride Park Stadium. Cocu, with his arms aloft and letting out a roar of emotion, was entitled to enjoy the moment.
Derby County 2-1 Charlton Athletic
30th December 2019
Derby’s inconsistent start to the season saw them sitting towards the lower end of mid-table as 2019 came to a close ahead of the impending arrival of England and Manchester United’s all-time leading goalscorer Wayne Rooney at the beginning of January.
The visit of Charlton Athletic, in the final home game of the calendar year, proved to be a real turning point and set the side up for a much-improved second half of the season.
It was an evening where Derby’s youngsters stepped up to the plate, in what was a fine team performance, and showcased what was to follow in the months ahead.
Max Bird made his first league start of the campaign, after an impressive showing off the bench in the previous fixture at Wigan Athletic, while Jason Knight scored his first senior goals to fire ten-man Derby to victory.
Knight’s early close-range header, his first-ever goal in professional football, opened the scoring. The Academy graduate put his head in where it hurts too, as a Charlton defender prepared to clear Martyn Waghorn’s deflected effort off the line.
However, midfielder Krystian Bielik was sent off shortly afterwards for a late challenge on Charlton’s Conor Gallagher. It left the Rams with just over 75 minutes to play with ten men.
Derby rallied and Knight extended their lead with 13 minutes remaining as he swept home Bird’s inviting cross from the left-hand side.
A Lyle Taylor penalty, awarded for a handball against Curtis Davies, saw Charlton pull a goal back late on before goalkeeper Ben Hamer preserved the much-needed victory by denying Ben Dempsey and then Taylor with a superb double-stop in the final minute.
After picking up three points from their previous seven games - three draws and four defeats - it was perfect way to set Derby up for what was to be a positive start to 2020.
Swansea City 2-3 Derby County
8th February 2020
A five-goal thriller at the Liberty Stadium against Swansea City at the beginning of February saw Derby end their away-day troubles in emphatic style.
Cocu’s side were without a win away from home in the league since the opening day success at Huddersfield.
From their 13 subsequent away fixtures in the Championship, Derby had recorded five draws and eight defeats. It was a statistic that was mind-boggling considering how impressive the Rams were on home turf.
The victory in South Wales saw the Rams produce a combination of flowing football and battling qualities in a topsy-turvy encounter.
Derby took the lead early on when striker Martyn Waghorn scored from close range after Tom Lawrence’s strike from distance had hit the post.
Two goals in three minutes before the hour mark turned the game on its head. Yan Dhanda equalised with a long-range effort and Kyle Naughton put the hosts ahead from close range, leaving Derby with a mountain to climb.
They could have crumbled given the circumstances, but instead they rose to the challenge.
Cocu reacted to the events on the field made changes, bringing Graeme Shinnie and Curtis Davies off the bench, and a switch in the shape of the side had the desired effect.
Six minutes after going behind, Derby were back on level terms.
Craig Forsyth’s left-wing cross into the box, knocked down by the towering Davies, wasn’t cleared by the hosts and Duane Holmes, in fine form prior to picking up an injury a few days later, lashed home a superb half-volley to set up a thrilling last 25 minutes.
With ten minutes to go, a moment of magic by Lawrence secured all three points.
Good play by Bird and Waghorn proved the forward with time and space to let fly with a swerving drive from the edge of the box which flashed past Freddie Woodman in the Swansea goal.
After that, it was all about digging deep and holding on to their lead.
Derby did just that and gave themselves an injection of belief of what they were capable of on their travels.
Millwall 2-3 Derby County
20th June 2020
The last significant victory in this feature was not easy to select, purely down to the number of victories and significance of them in the second half of the season.
The 4-0 home win over Stoke City in January would have been a noteworthy addition to the list, as would the 2-1 victory over Barnsley in the first game of 2020 as back-to-back wins were registered for the first time in the season.
Prior to the three-month suspension of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Derby had also recorded back-to-back victories against Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn Rovers.
The 3-1 success at Hillsborough, and the subsequent 3-0 win at Pride Park Stadium the following weekend, came because of impressive and dominant performances.
But when the Rams did return to action in mid-June, behind-closed-doors, they carried on where they left off with a superb 3-2 victory at Millwall.
As it turned out, it was an afternoon where Louie Sibley announced his arrival onto the first-team scene and that - alongside a strong team performance – made the win at The Den make the cut.
Eighteen-year-old Sibley had scored a stunning long-range strike in Derby’s final game before the suspension of the season against Blackburn, which was his first-ever league start, but his showing against the Lions was one which made people sit up and take notice.
Sibley bagged a hat-trick and could have had even more in a superb individual display against Gary Rowett’s side.
Matt Smith's headed opener put Millwall ahead early on, but the scoreline was level at the break as Sibley showed fine close control and weaved his way through the home defence, latching onto a pass from Jayden Bogle, to equalise.
Sibley’s second was a cool finish into the far corner, this time with his less favoured right foot, from Martyn Waghorn's measured pass to make it 2-1 midway through the second half.
The youngster then completed his hat-trick in the final minute with another low first-time finish from Craig Forsyth’s cross from the left.
Lions substitute Jon Dadi Bodvarsson scrambled in an injury time effort to set up a frantic ending, but Derby did what they needed to do to record all three points in the first of nine matches played in the surreal setting of an empty stadium.
That victory was Derby’s third of what would be five successive league wins and one of their most impressive showings of the season.