What a difference six weeks (and the influence of England’s record international goalscorer) makes.
Derby have been trending upwards since the first-team arrival of Wayne Rooney.
After a 1-1 draw at then-bottom Wigan on Boxing Day, the Rams were 20th in the table after 24 games and just six points above the relegation zone.
But since a 2-1 victory at home to Charlton at the end of December, and Rooney becoming available on New Year’s Day, they have looked legitimate play-off contenders.
A run of 13 points from their last available 18 has seen Derby climb to 13th.
To put that form into context, only Bristol City have registered more points in that time, with second-placed Leeds taking six fewer and league-leaders West Brom eight down on the Rams.
Their 34-year-old captain, meanwhile, has contributed two goals and two assists in five league games.
Despite that impressive run, Phillip Cocu’s side still have 10 points to make up on the play-off spots with 16 games to go – as difficult an ask as a price of suggests.
But with five games to play against teams between themselves and fifth, they have a chance to pull off the unlikely.
LEAGUE ONE: GILLINGHAM
Steve Evans has made Gillingham difficult to beat and, in doing so, turned them into a team with an outside shot at a play-off spot.
The Gills are currently 12th in League One and haven’t lost any of their last 10 league games – the longest unbeaten run in the entire EFL.
They have conceded just 27 goals so far this season – the equal second-fewest in the division – and have already won eight home games, one more than throughout all of last term.
So far, their lack of goals had held them back from a sustained play-off push. They have netted only 33 times in the league, while three players are tied on six as the club’s top scorer.
But the arrival of John Akinde from Lincoln could change that.
The 6ft 2in front man scored eight goals for the Imps this season and gives Gillingham a more reliable focal point in attack. He has even supplied two assists in his first two games for his new club.
With 18 games remaining, the Gills trail sixth-placed Portsmouth by eight points – but their proximity to fourth-placed Ipswich is more relevant.
Evans’ side are only nine points behind the Tractor Boys having played a game fewer.
They have picked up 21 points in their last 12 matches – the fourth-most in League One and seven more than Ipswich.
Replicate that in their next 12 and will feel like a generous price for them to make the top six.
LEAGUE TWO: CRAWLEY
League Two sides have a history of leaving it late to make their move on the play-off positions.
Last season, Tranmere and Newport made up respective eight- and 10-point gaps between themselves and the top seven, having been 10th and 14th at this stage.
Blackpool were 14th and overcame an eight-point deficit to make the play-offs in the 2016/17 season, eventually beating Exeter at Wembley to win promotion.
And in the 2013/14 campaign, York were 13th and 12 points behind seventh at this stage before taking the final play-off place.
At , Crawley are worth backing to add themselves to that list.
The Red Devils are 13th in League Two and nine points behind seventh-placed Cheltenham.
But with the Robins and three more of the current top seven still to play in their final 15 matches, they are capable of bridging that gap.
Under manager John Yems, who took over on 5 December, they have lost just two of their 12 league games. A total of 11 points from their last six is only bettered by Plymouth and Swindon – two of the top three in League Two.
Crawley have shown that they are capable of competing with the promotion contenders during that sequence, too, beating Northampton and Bradford, and drawing with in-form Plymouth and Forest Green.
On that basis, their price for a place in the top seven looks lengthy.
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