With ten minutes remaining at Pride Park, a fellow stood near me remarked that those minutes could make or break our season. Hold on for victory, and the play-off charge would receive a massive boost. Slip up, and we could be switching our attention to 2011/12.
We won. With results favouring City elsewhere, the Tigers moved two places up the table – eighth, five points adrift of sixth. It’s good. Our form’s good, confidence is high, and when that tricky final period at Derby was safely negotiated, the parallels to 2008 become even harder to ignore. City might actually do this.
Save for the troublesome fact that City hadn’t won away to Derby since 1968, the omens were good. Nigel Pearson’s men are virtually unbeatable on the road, they’re tumbling down the table – what could go wrong? Veteran Tiger-watchers would, at this point, doubtless intervene with a recitation of the number of times City have cocked up in such circumstances; yet, the side that Pearson is building is founded on granite. No-one will be getting an easy ride while he’s in charge.
On a cool evening in Derbyshire, City made just one change to the side that rescued a point at Ipswich three days earlier – the luckless Cameron Stewart is unlikely to be involved again this season following an ugly knee injury at Portman Road, so his place was taken by James Harper. It meant that the Tigers lined up:
Rosenior, Gerrard, Chester, Dawson (c)
Koren, Harper, Evans, Belaid
Interestingly, Mannone was on the bench – not an instant recall to the side upon recovering from injury for the Arsenal loanee. He was accompanied by Hobbs, Solano, Devitt, Cairney, Barmby and Simpson.
Derby had lost their last three home games, two of those being against East Midland rivals Leicester and Nottingham Forest. They added extra pungency to a foul run that saw them kick off with only a handful of points protecting them from the bottom three. Included on their bench was Theo Robinson, loaned from Millwall earlier that day, while starting in defence was Daniel Ayala, forced to join Derby instead of returning City by Liverpool’s pettiness. Tomasz Cywka, recently described by his own manager as “not very bright”, was a late replacement for Paul Green.
The match started with Derby attacking the stand containing the 1,500 City fans, and the first action of the game took less than 15 seconds to arrive when the aforementioned Pole Cywka lashed a shot over from outside the penalty area.
However, that aside it was a bitty start from both sides, with referee Woolmer attracting plenty of attention – firstly giving Derby a preposterous series of decisions, then going the other way and irking the home crowd by awarded a run of odd awards to City, then just oscillating wildly for the remainder of the evening. Chiefly involved in a number of juvenile skirmishes was Robbie Savage, formerly an effective and energetic midfielder, now reduced to nothing more than a fouling, disruptive, gobby irritant. He tangled with Aaron Mclean, then Belaid was cautioned for a silly foul on Savage, then Mr Woolmer hauled Messrs Mclean and Savage over for a good ticking off. Suffice it to say, none of this was making for a great game.
A few minutes after Daniel Ayala headed wastefully over from a corner, Jamie Ward had a great chance for the Rams midway through a first half they were arguably shading when the ball dropped to him a dozen or so yards from goal, but he impetuously slashed at the ball and it whizzed well off target. Robbie Savage finally got the yellow card he’d been craving, and reacted with comical, histrionic disbelief. He really is a parody of himself these days. One could almost sense Mclean smirking to himself.
Ward then missed another fine opportunity as City began to wobble slightly – a superb cross from the right saw him steal in at the near post, but his header was badly misdirected. Nigel Pearson made his first change of the night by withdrawing Belaid for Simpson as City moved to a 4-3-3 formation – tactical, or an injury? Hard to tell. Aaron Mclean was cautioned for, apparently, persistent infringement, pleasing the home fans and mystifying us. Nonetheless, the sides remained level at the break.
Not a great half, in truth. City had played some decent football emerging from defence and in a midfield that looked to have the measure of Derby, but up front there was little. Mclean and Fryatt had looked a bit leggy at Ipswich and appeared the same here, while Belaid’s disappointing contribution hadn’t helped the Tigers apply pressure. It was a scrappy affair in a quiet stadium, and already 0-0 looked a likely outcome.
The second half started much more brightly. One fancies that both managers will have impressed upon their sides the fact this was a winnable game, and was reflected in a zippier tempo. City nearly scored a freakish opener when a cross was cleared only to strike Simpson and loop over Bywater – he was motionless, though to be fair he seemed to have judged that the ball would go a couple of feet over.
Unfortunately for Bywater, a City loanee more than a decade ago, that was his last action – he’d been struggling during the evening and had already delegated goal-kicks to a defender, but could continue no more and was replaced in the Derby goal by teenaged debutant James Severn.
Just before the hour James Harper nearly scored a sensational goal when a shot from nearly 40 yards whistled through the air and smacked Severn’s crossbar and flew to safety. The ball appeared to be in motion for about half an hour and seemed certain to go miles over, only to strike wood and narrowly miss out on the goal of the season for the preposterously maligned midfielder.
City were improving all the time after their earlier moribund offering, with Rosenior venturing further forward and Koren’s eternally astute passing causing problems higher up the pitch than before. Derby boss Nigel Clough reacted to this by introducing Robinson from the bench in attempt to force City back – an intelligent thought, but with Gerrard and Chester looking as imperious as the TurnerBrown partnership three years ago, a futile move.
However, it did cause an initial problem: Robinson’s muscular influence played a part in a move that culminated in Ward having a shot that Guzan could only parry – Dawson, the Dawson of old once more, hacked the ball to safety. This saw a brief spell of Derby pressure at the far end to us that also saw Chester cautioned, and with twenty minutes left it looked as though we’d need to navigate a difficult end to the game in order to secure another away point.
Then City scored.
Barmby had recently replaced Mclean to make his 700th sub appearance of the season (approximately), though he wasn’t involved in the move that saw City force a corner on the left. The ball was curled in by Koren, Severn and most of his defence witlessly rushed to the near post and got under its flight, leaving Gerrard with a two yard volley. He made no mistake and wheeled away in delight to be mobbed by his teammates as the Tiger Nation shook with glee.
City were strutting now, and could have made the game safe minutes later when some silken passing saw Fryatt emerge with a shooting chance from twenty yards – his shot was powerfully struck but straight at the keeper. That was about it for City as an attacking force. A few minutes later, Nigel Pearson brought Jack Hobbs on for Fryatt, with City appearing to line up 5-3-2. Three centre-halves, is that wise? In Nigel we trust, but it briefly appeared to unsettle the Tigers.
There were a couple of nasty moments to survive. A Davies shot from about 18 yards took a deflection from a City defender, but Brad Guzan’s handing had been virtually impeccable all evening and he made a safe save despite being initially wrong-footed. Derby were pressing, desperately but a little cluelessly, though they still forced another goalmouth scramble that involved Guzan, Dawson and Chester. The Tigers made it. Just. And three points were won.
It’s on. It really is. Five points, with 39 to play for – that’s doable. As we filed out of Pride Park, singing songs of triumph, if felt as though something important had just happened, something more than just a win. Other results went our way, so we’re now eighth. That feels within touching distance of sixth in a way that tenth, obviously never can. How far can we go? I can’t wait to find out.