By Tony Leighton
Derby County manager Steve McClaren will be having a weekend of hard contemplation after seeing his team's promotion drive derailed through a crushing 4-1 Friday night defeat by Sky Bet Championship leaders Leicester City.
A victory at the King Power Stadium would have taken the Rams up to second in the table, but instead they remain fourth with an adversely affected goal difference while the Foxes go seven points clear at the top.
"This is kind of a wake-up call for everybody," said McClaren after seeing only a third league defeat since he took over at the end of September but also the second in succession following a run of eight straight wins and a draw that earned him the Championship's Manager of the Month award for December.
Hours after receiving the managerial accolade, McClaren watched his team go two goals behind through Ritchie de Laet and David Nugent and, although a de Laet own goal gave the Rams hope, Nugent quickly restored Leicester's two-goal advantage with a penalty before a Jamie Vardy strike sealed the big win.
"We were well below our best," admitted McClaren. "I said at half-time that we were lucky to be just 1-0 down. We had a chance still, but then a minute later it's 2-0. Then you get back in it and the next minute it's 3-1. You start to look up into the skies and think this isn't going to be your day. I'm very disappointed."
Disappointed, even devastated, as he was, McClaren stood by his team. "That wasn't the Derby County of recent months," he conceded, "but this is football.
"How can I criticise, when the team has lost one game in November, no games in December? The law of averages says that eventually, especially in the Championship, you're not going to continue that run. You're going to have dips."
With an FA Cup defeat by Chelsea sandwiching the Championship losses to Wigan Athletic and Leicester, McClaren now has the job of lifting his team to get them back on track in their pursuit of promotion to the Premier League.
It's a job that the experienced former England manager feels he can handle without fuss. "I am philosophical about it," he said. "I've been in the game too long to say one win or one defeat changes your season.
"I think what we've got to do is just get back to work. It has been a busy, hectic Christmas period. Chelsea was an emotional high and they [the Derby players] were fantastic in that game and that was four days ago.
"I'm not making excuses, but it's a fact. I just felt, this week, that the [Leicester] game was probably one day too soon. It proved it - they were far better than us.
"I'm not making excuses, but it is a reason. As I said, I can't really criticise the boys because they've been magnificent since I've come into the club.
"Tonight is part of a long journey of ups and downs in this Championship. We've had a lot of ups and we have to take this on the chin. The key thing is that we know why we lost and the players know why we lost. We've got to put it right.