With an hour on the clock and the game already won, City took hold of the ball, and kept it. And kept it, and kept it, stroking the ball around, through, behind and beyond their broken opponents. The Tiger Nation oléd delighted, Derby miserably slunk about the pitch, like a dejected Year 8 side being cruelly tormented by the bigger boys. It was an absolute joy to watch. Systematic destruction, you could say.
This was just one memorable episode from yesterday’s trip to Derby. Everyone will have their favourite from an afternoon studded with glittering moments. Two goals, a raucous atmosphere in the away end, the elevation to sainthood for Nicholas of Barmby and proof, undeniable proof, that one man’s departure is not going to ruin our season.
The appointment of Barmby as “caretaker” manager is not without its risks. However, one thing that offers no risk is his relationship with the Tiger Nation. His name was sung incessantly throughout the game and he steps into the job with a tsunami of goodwill heading his way – if this can win football matches, West Ham and Southampton are playing for second place.
Sadly it doesn’t win games. That’s what footballers are for, and whatever one’s view on Nigel Pearson may presently be it cannot be disputed that Barmby’s inheritance is a rich one. Liam Rosenior has said he didn’t sign for Pearson but for City – fine words, but words only. Happily, he and his colleagues seem willing to back them up with actions, and a fraught fortnight without a match has ended on a stunning high.
On a grey day in Derby, we lined up with an open, attack-minded 4-4-2 formation consisting of: Gulácsi; Rosenior, Hobbs (c), Chester, Dudgeon; Stewart, Evans, McKenna, Koren; Fryatt, Mclean. A welcome return to action for Cameron Stewart, whose appalling injury in February had robbed us of a precocious talent for too long.
Brady, Adebola, Cairney, Basso and McShane were on the bench for City, while Derby were able to reintroduce John Brayford to the side after missing the last six games. There were over thirty thousand in the stadium, a healthy gate indeed. We were only seventeen hundred strong, squeezed into half of the stand behind the goal, but it was plain to see everyone was hugely up for the game, with mass standing and a (literally) unceasing barrage of noise. Great stuff. Great fun.
Derby kicked off attacking the goal nearest to us, and they were to enjoy the best period of the game during the opening minutes. Little was created, but they had a considerable advantage in terms of possession and territory. One moment of alarm came when Theo Robinson fell rather theatrically in the area – the referee was well-positioned to wave it away. At the other end Koren had a long-range shot that was uncommonly mis-timed and provided an easy save for Fielding.
The only other thing of note was a light aeroplane flying over the stadium trailing a banner relating to Derby’s recent victory over Nottingham Forest, which we were informed came with “only ten men”. Whatever stance one takes on such antics, it came on a day when Forest won and Derby rather conspicuously didn’t. Bad timing, boys.
Equally ill-timed for the home side was the premature departure of Theo Robinson. He pulled up chasing a long ball, clutching his hamstring. It’s not an injury you can hope to run off and he was immediately replaced by Chris Maguire. A couple of minutes later Derby’s day took a decisive turn for the worse.
Liam Rosenior took a moment out from being harshly penalised by referee Darren Deadman to burst forward on the right and advance towards the area, before playing a cute ball to Fryatt, who’d stolen a yard of pace. When Fryatt’s on form one yard and one chance is all he requires – his control was instant and his shot unerring, and the City support 120 yards away erupted in crashing delight. A lovely goal.
The party in the away end lurched from ecstasy to outright delirium six minutes later when Fryatt set Cameron Stewart free on the left. He hared into the box, wriggled between the two players attempting to halt him and smacked a shot goalwards. It seemed that Fielding really ought to have saved it, but it was close-range and the effort struck with no little power and it beat him on pace alone. We capered insanely and Nick Barmby’s name pealed into the darkening skies.
2-0 after 23 minutes, and Derby were utterly flattened. The atmosphere in the ground, not great to begin with, was utterly silent. Apart from us. We declared ourselves to be a Barmby Army, made lurid suggestions regarding Nigel Pearson’s preferred means of private relaxation, rejoiced in Nick Barmby being “one of our own” and cooed over the quality of the football.
For quality it was. The goals had come perhaps a little against the run of play, yet they were ruthlessly executed and established a platform for one of the best passing displays of the last few years. Derby were simply left reeling by it. Additional chances were few in number: Mclean screwed a shot wide, and Fryatt was narrowly beaten to a defences-splitting by Fielding alertly racing from his line. Derby’s contribution? Nothing.
Rosenior picked up the first yellow card of the afternoon after a foul on the right – Mr Deadman explained it by pointing to the several different areas of the pitch in which he’d wrongly given fouls against the City right-back, as though highlighting his previous errors somehow justified his latest one. As the half drew to a close, suddenly Derby came into the game a little. A goal just before half-time could have completely changed the afternoon, and they nearly got it – a corner from the right saw a Ram head the ball up in the air close to the penalty spot. Maguire executed an outstanding bicycle kick that Gulácsi and Chester jointly repelled.
City made it through to the half with no further scares, or opportunities to add a third. The concourses were purring with satisfaction and the air was thick with admiring sentiments about our new manager, yet when the second half started it was an oddly quiet affair, even the City fans falling quiet for the first time that afternoon. Perhaps we were expecting Derby to tear into us, or perhaps the realisation that Justin Whittle was among us had awed everyone into reverent silence. Derby tried to make things happen, but a wall of amber frustrated them at every turn and Gulácsi was a virtual spectator.
Mr Deadman was rather more involved though, waving yellow at Evans and Chester. Probably right, those two. For their part, City sailed through what could have been a testing opening to the half, and proceeded to put on a real show for us. Football’s a beautiful game when played well, and the passing, movement, control and enthusiasm had us sighing with dreamy delight.
Shortly after the hour and after the particularly lengthy spell of possession alluded to above, City introduced a different shadow for Derby to chase when Stewart was withdrawn to a tumultuous ovation, with Robbie Brady his replacement. An expected move, with Stewart understandably tiring after being out for so long.
Brady nearly added a third when he cut in from right hand side and walloped a left-footed shot that Fielding could only parry – luckily for him it didn’t drop to anyone in amber. With twenty minutes left Mclean picked up his fifth caution of the season and easily the harshest of the lot when he attempted a shot at a ball that’d broken loose – a Derby player had got there first and Mclean caught him, yet the suspension-inducing booking just didn’t seem fair.
On we went. Derby had given up by this stage, whereas we didn’t want the game to ever end, so attractive was the football. Fryatt sent a header just wide from a Brady set-piece, Mclean lashed one wide – chances were sporadic, but were still solely the preserve of the Tigers. Cairney replaced the magnificent McKenna, who’d earlier received our fifth yellow card of the afternoon, the referee decided to add only four minutes, we partied and bounced through them all as Pride Park emptied at a startling rate, and the points were ours.
The players embraced and soaked up the roars of acclaim when they came over at full-time, but easily the most deafening cheer was reserved for Nick Barmby, which must have been audible back in Hull.
So, we’re back on track then? Hopefully. The departure of Nigel Pearson may yet come back to trouble us. At the very least, it seems likely to have the effect of adding Leicester to our list of promotion rivals. Nick Barmby’s mettle will have stiffer tests than that offered by a supine Derby. However, he commands the unquestioning adoration of the City fans and evidently has dressing room behind him, two useful ingredients for success.
We’re sixth again, meaning a crack at promotion is very much still on. Could this work? Might the Hull-born hero take his club all the way? Football sometimes does let dreams come true.