A LOT has happened since Graham Potter spoke about the challenges facing Albion defender Matt Clarke on loan at Derby County.

Not so much at the consistent Seagulls but up in the Midlands where Phillip Cocu’s Rams are preparing for one of their biggest games of the season against arch rivals Nottingham Forest on Saturday.

Clarke was sent on a season-long loan to get competitive Championship football and continue his development.

Little did head coach Potter and Albion know their asset would have to do it amid a storm of controversy surrounding the Pride Park club.

The waters were relatively calm when Potter was asked about Clarke and Ben White after Derby had snatched a point against Leeds in September.

Fellow on-loan centre-back White was already getting rave reviews at Leeds – and that has continued – while Clarke and his team-mates were producing Jekyll and Hyde performances.

Clarke was singled out for his composure in the opening Championship win at Huddersfield as he partnered club captain Richard Keogh in central defence.

He helped the Rams to a draw against Swansea in the next game alongside Keogh too. His confidence seemed to dip then as Derby struggled but their problems were nothing in comparison to the turmoil to follow.

The game at Elland Road was the last time he was to partner Keogh, a veteran of more than 350 games for the Rams and a regular partner of Albion’s Shane Duffy on Republic of Ireland duty.

The incident that followed has been well documented as a team bonding evening ended with Keogh out for at least a year with a knee injury sustained in a car crash that resulted in two team-mates being convicted of drink-driving.

Despite Keogh’s injury, Clarke was an unused sub for the next game – a 3-2 win over Birmingham.

He came on at half-time in the next match against Barnsley and has gone on to start the last five alongside Curtis Davies in central defence.

It has been a lot to cope with, probably a lot more than Potter expected when the summer buy from Portsmouth was sent to last season’s losing play-off finalists.

Speaking after having watched the televised game at Leeds, when Albion’s technical director Dan Ashworth was in the stands, Potter said of Clarke’s move: “It’s good experience for him, he played at Portsmouth last year and it’s a step up.

“At Derby it is a good test as they are adjusting to a new coach, they lost a few players and also Frank Lampard, so it’s a bit of a settling down period for them.”

The Argus: Matt Clarke on Albion duty during pre-seasonMatt Clarke on Albion duty during pre-season

It seems more than a little ironic now that Potter referred to a “settling down” period.

There is still no sign of that happening with the sacking of Keogh again putting the club in the spotlight so it will be reassuring to hear for Albion that Clarke has drawn praise from boss Cocu for his determination to learn and improve.

He said: “Matt is a very hard worker, he always wants to see images (of the game).

“We select clips for him and after training he stays and does extra work. Then you see in his decision-making and passing, and it is paying off. You see his confidence is better.

“He was used to a different style of football and he is trying to adapt to our style, with his qualities. He knows what he can do and what he cannot do, and that is an important start for a player to develop. I am convinced he will improve more.”

Sussex-based Derby supporter Phil Abbott believes Clarke’s dip in form may in part be down to Cocu’s own tactical tinkering.

Abbott, a fan of more than 40 years, said: “Clarke started off really well. Good in the tackle, a good header of the ball, comfortable in possession and in breaking forward.

“He’s also shown a decent reading of the game but he’s not the quickest defender – particularly when compared to having Fikayo Tomori last season – but he’s no slouch either.

“In the fourth game in, away to Stoke, we were getting a bit of a runaround, so Cocu changed at half time from a back four to a back three.

“Clarke struggled in a three and seemed to lose some all-round confidence over the next few games.

“I don’t think things were helped for Clarke by Cocu’s understandable desire to try out different team formations and different defensive partnerships. Clarke found himself in and out of the team over the next few games.

“Things changed again after the draw at Leeds. This meant a central defensive opportunity alongside Curtis Davis.

“He has played the last five-and-a-half games and, barring the really poor team performance away at Charlton, has started to get back to his very early season form. Against Boro on Saturday, he looked good – and confident – again.

“Barring injury, I believe he will now get a good run of games and will prove to be a very good all-round Championship defender.

“We’ll know more about his wider potential after a season in the division.”