Commons shines as Derby show promise
At Elland Road.
There was a weary tone of resignation in Nigel Clough's voice as he fielded the inevitable question about his family's association with Leeds United.
"No, it had meant nothing at all," said Derby manager Nigel when asked if his Dad's forgettable spell at Leeds had made his team's 2-1 victory on Saturday extra special.
"I felt more pleasure because my little lad had not been allowed to walk on the pitch one-and-a-half hours before kick-off. Apparently it was a club rule."
Nigel and his brother Simon both featured in The Damned United, actors portraying them as young children accompanying their old man, who had previously won the League title at Derby in 1972, as he arrived at Elland Road to start his ill-fated reign.
And Nigel was shadowed around the ground on Saturday by son William, the youngster chasing after his old man as he made his way from the gantry where he watched the match to the dressing room for his half-time talk.
Then there was the Brian-esque ploy that saw Nigel stop the team coach 200 yards from the ground and walk his players through the opposition fans to the ground.
The Derby manager insisted that he had done it purely because the team had arrived early and were in no rush to enter the away dressing room, which is often very hot. The slight grin on his face as he delivered his explanation suggested otherwise.
But I'm not sure that Brian ever sent a team out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, as Nigel has done throughout the close season and did so again at Leeds.
"It is a little bit unusual for the players but they have settled in well with it," said Clough.
The Netherlands fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation through the World Cup. The link between the Dutch and Derby comes through Johnny Metgod, who is a member of the coaching staff at Pride Park and was part of the Netherlands scouting team at the World Cup.
The Dutch frequently played Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt behind Robin van Persie in South Africa. Derby fielded Kris Commons, Paul Green and Tomasz Cywka behind Rob Hulse on Saturday - and I thought it worked effectively, with Leeds struggling to pick up the Rams forwards.
Hulse, who struck a superb opening goal with an angled strike, was an excellent target man - a role substitute Chris Porter is also capable of performing.
Cywka was fouled for the penalty that led to Derby's winner, while Green made several telling runs from deep positions - but it was Commons who really stood out.
The 26-year-old former Stoke and Nottingham Forest midfielder is hugely gifted but has been dogged by injury and fitness problems.
Commons tired against Leeds and Clough admitted that he needs to do further work to improve his fitness, but in the first hour he showed the full range of his talents.
Within minutes of kick-off he had burst into the Leeds box after a jinking, purposeful run and only narrowly missed with his left-foot strike. Later, his sumptuous pass played Hulse through for the opening goal and it was Commons cheeky, impudent penalty that proved to be the winning goal. He also picked out Green with another superb through ball and drew a brilliant save from Kasper Schmeichel.
Clough had experimented with the 4-2-3-1 system against Ipswich towards the end of last season, discussed it at length with his coaching staff and felt that it might be the best formation for the players he had available.
After signing midfielder James Bailey as well as full-backs John Brayford and Gareth Roberts during the close season, Clough was finally convinced it was the one to use.
"The performance was encouraging, especially in the first-half when we got the ball down and played," added the Rams boss. "We are in pretty good shape and have some good young players but it is very early days."
There is definite room for improvement in defence - and a tendency to over-play in their own half caused the mistake that led to the Leeds' goal. But the Rams showed a resolve to resist a late charge and held their shape under pressure.
Derby finished 14th last season, winning just three away games, but I reckon they can be regarded as one of a large bunch of clubs that might feel a play-off place is not beyond them. That said, a repeat of the sort of lengthy injury list that undermined Clough's options last season might see his team struggling towards the wrong end of the table yet again.
Of course, trying to read too much into opening-day results is a foolish business. Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest, favourites with the bookmakers for automatic promotion, both lost on Saturday, as did the likes of Reading, Leicester and Swansea.
Millwall won 3-0 at Bristol City - a superb result that ensured the Lions became the only promoted team to mark their return with a victory.
Leeds chairman Ken Bates outlined in his programme notes on Saturday his joy at having won promotion from the "sink estate" of League One.
He presides over what I regard as one of the biggest clubs in England and it will be fascinating to see how they perform this season.
Grayson has admitted that his sights are fixed on reaching the Premier League and is hopeful his team will benefit from the fact that they are no longer such a big fish in a small pond.
Leeds might well have snatched a point at the end on Saturday - and would have done so but for a goal-line clearance from Roberts.
They also have several key players to return from either injury or suspension, including close season signing Billy Paynter from Swindon. The striker scored 29 goals for the Robins and will improve Grayson's options in attack. Saturday saw him deploy a 4-5-1 system with goalscorer Luciano Becchio the lone forward.
"We had six players out who could easily get into the team," said Grayson.
"When we were trying to change the system we did not have too many attacking options."
Leeds were indebted to Kasper Schmeichel, who made a string of brilliant saves on his competitive debut. He will be an invaluable asset if he maintains that form.
"There were a lot of positives to take from the game," added Grayson. "We have to learn quickly and I am sure that we will."
Leeds will face another stern test when they play Nottingham Forest in their next Championship fixture and it could take Grayson's team some time to adjust to their new surroundings.
But what Saturday's match demonstrated was why I find the Championship such a beguiling and exciting division.
OK, some of the defending was atrocious but, allied to some crafty attacking play it ensured a steady supply of chances. There were flashes of brilliance and moments of madness.
It featured two teams who showed a strong desire to attack and was played in front of a loud and passionate atmosphere.
It might still be summer but the Championship is back - and I would not have it any other way.