CHERRIES right-back Simon Francis feels Derby will be in the mix for automatic promotion to the Premier League after witnessing the Rams in action first-hand on Saturday.

Francis, well-placed to make such a judgment given that he has yet to miss a single minute of Cherries’ 2013-14 campaign, believes the Dean Court outfit were unfortunate to lose 1-0 to a side snapping at the heels of second-placed Burnley at the top end of the Championship.

And Francis reckons that Steve McClaren’s troops, who secured three points thanks to Chris Martin’s controversial late free kick, are in great shape to challenge for a top-two spot this term.

He told the Daily Echo: “It’s a tough league and you’re playing against tough teams week in, week out and Derby are one of them.

“I’ve got no doubt that they will be up there at the end of the season fighting to make the top two, not just the play-offs.

“They are a top-quality side with good players and a good squad.”

However, the defender stressed that Cherries were unfortunate to emerge from Pride Park without anything to show for their efforts.

He said: “I don’t think Derby were at their best. They were missing a couple of players and we took advantage of that, especially first half.

“You can’t switch off for a minute and I don’t think we did.

“What can you do if you concede a free kick that we didn’t think was a free kick and they score from it?

“We had our chances and although second half we were a little bit more limited, the work rate was fantastic and the gaffer commended us on that after the game.

“I thought everyone was excellent to a man.”