All good, productive seasons of football have that “moment”, that bit of a game that makes a supporter believe in a happy ending. Usually such a “moment” is dramatic, out of context, unexpected; it comes when there is a sense of deflation and suddenly everything looks rosy again.
There are many games still to play and twists in the tale to negotiate, but nevertheless the winning goal by Ahmed Elmohamady felt like this season’s “moment”.
It came slap bang in the middle of two windows of three minutes; there were three minutes left of normal time and Derby had poached an equaliser three minutes before. Maddened and saddened, the Tiger Nation were again ready to let a late goal soil their hopes for a little longer, following the free kick at Brighton that confiscated City’s share of the points at the weekend. But this time, the team responded, and the mighty roar that mushroomed its way out of the KC Stadium and into the cold night sky was a very special one indeed.
Steve Bruce made just one change from the team that lost unluckily at the Amex; with his lad Alex injured, Corry Evans reclaimed the role at the base of the midfield. Both new Egyptian signings, Gedo and Ahmed Fahti, were on the bench. So it looked like this: Stockdale; McShane, Hobbs Chester; Elmohamady, Meyler, Evans, Quinn, Brady; Koren, Simpson.
The Friends for a Fiver innovation seemed to beef up some areas of the crowd but the efforts were negated by a truly paltry turnout from Derby. A few years ago, I remember voting Derby County fans the most impressive to come to the KC during the season, taking both definitions of the word “volume” to their peak. Maybe the cold weather, the midweek rescheduling or the poor away record had an effect, but even so it was a stunningly low number that chose to venture up from the East Midlands.
Also stunningly low was the interest level garnered by the first half. It was a shocker, devoid of entertainment or even desire to play, certainly judging by City’s passing and Derby’s priority of wasting as much time as possible. Occasionally some football did break out, though. Jack Hobbs made an exquisite sliding tackle on Jamie Ward after the impish Derby player had robbed a slapdash Stephen Quinn in the City half, and then Craig Bryson switched passes with Jeff Hendrick before cutting in and curling a smart shot just over David Stockdale’s bar.
City really didn’t get going until after one bunching session too many – shades of school PE – the crowd refreshingly went from serial moaning to serial encouragement, and as the singers began singing, the players opted to play. Robert Koren headed a typically wondrous Elmohamady cross just wide and then the Egyptian sent over a similarly scrummy ball that Quinn managed to glance just beyond the post.
No mention of Jay Simpson in these moves. This is because he simply doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to understand where Elmohamady – or Robbie Brady, as potent on the opposite flank – is going to put the ball. He works hard, drops deep, spreads play and generally leads the line well in open play but there is no gutbusting from him, nor any element of game reading. He’s a centre forward who, when most required to do the basics of his position, is not in the centre nor especially far forward. Good player, massively frustrating. And he will feel it more than anyone.
Teenage midfielder Will Hughes set up a neat one-two opportunity for Bryson and Hendrick again, and this time the tremendous Paul McShane was able to administer a crunching block on the final shot. A couple of soft bookings were traded – the one for David Meyler was especially curious as the referee initially didn’t even give a foul, and instead relied on his linesman belated flag prior to issuing the caution – before the grateful crowd, with freezing toes and underworked eyes, sloped off to find warmth and refreshment at half time.
Roary and his Derby equivalent – a very thin person with a camp gait and a truly gigantic ram head on – provided the interval entertainment with one of those oversized football slalom games. Not many of us could now tell you who won, but it was at least evident that both participants were interested in winning. This wasn’t the convincing case being offered by the players thus far.
And Bruce knew it. Something eternally admirable about this gaffer of ours is that he knows when something, or someone, isn’t working and he will unfussily get out the shepherd’s crook and do something about it. When the teams emerged for the second half, the off-form Koren and the wretched Simpson were not among them. Bruce had been presumably enraged, or at least, mildly vexed, by the strike duo’s minimal contribution and got rid. Nick Proschwitz and the new boy Gedo were on, both of whom physically built in a manner much more suited to inviting centres from each flank.
And what an inspirational move it was. Less than two minutes into the second half, the Tigers were in front. Quinn sent Brady scampering down the left and the Irishman’s devilish cross was headed across keeper Adam Legzdins by Gedo, in at the far post. He had to step backwards to reach the ball too, therefore making the accuracy more important as he wasn’t in the ideal position to put much power behind it. Natural finishing. A fine goal. A fine bit of play. A fine example of management.
(Is he Gee-do or Geddo, by the way? The former makes those of us with a far-reaching (and ancient) taste in music want to sing a hit song by Boz Scaggs, which is no bad thing. The latter lends itself to a Pras Michel rap, or an Elvis Presley dirge, but to this author just prompts thoughts about an otherwise unremarkable goalkeeper that played for Southampton called Terry Gennoe. The former is preferable. But if he plays well, scores goals and helps us go up, the appropriate attachment of sounds to the letters in his name will be largely irrelevant. Most of our fans still don’t pronounce Daniel Cousin’s surname correctly).
Gedo flick-volleyed an Elmohamady cross just over the bar shortly afterwards, then Proschwitz smartly laid a ball back for Meyler to hit a goalbound shot that was deflected on to the post, Legzdins nowhere near it. Quinn was tripped while seeking a rebound but got no penalty.
Derby’s timewasting suddenly came to an end – there was actual comedy to be had from their players complaining about City being less than swift in their own resumptions of play – and they began to work their way back into the game. For a spell they looked good – progressive, resourceful, patient; it’s a pity for their sake, and football’s, that it took the concession of a goal for them to remember that playing football was what they were there, in theory, to do.
Stockdale used two fists to batter away an awkward Ward drive from the edge of the box, then the dangerous Conor Sammon took down a Ward cross, evaded James Chester’s challenge and toed a shot over Stockdale and on to the underside of the bar, with the bounce favouring the prostrate City keeper. City were fortunate here, but Derby used it as a spur and soon Stockdale was wrongfooted by a Hendrick shot in the box that struck an amber-socked shin, but the ball trundled just wide.
City tried to grasp back some momentum, and a Brady free kick went over the bar, but it was all about Derby now as the game entered its final ten minutes, and Elmohamady was culpable when going too weakly into a challenge with Bryson on Derby’s left. The Egyptian wasn’t as culpable as Stockdale though, as the keeper had no business whatsoever trying to punch away the cross as there were ample defenders equipped to deal with it, but ultimately everyone got in each other’s way, the punch didn’t connect and Ward was on the other side, grateful for a tap-in.
There were 84 minutes on the watch and it was now 1-1. Again, something had gone the shape of a pear. And, in fact, Derby were so in command that they could have gone on to win. Mercifully (and, from their point of view, insanely) they reverted to first half type, primed and positioned to protect a point and run down the clock, and City started afresh.
Evans had a shot from distance deflected wide for a corner, which was swung in by Brady and headed home, via a high bounce by the relieved Elmohamady, who celebrated his first goal at the KC by removing his shirt and trying to climb into the south west corner of the spectator area, receiving the inevitably joyless yellow card for his troubles. Almost immediately from the restart, Derby’s fiery left back Gareth Roberts (good name, though misspelled a bit) lifted his studs into Proschwitz’s back and got an instant straight red card, an action that prompted skipper Richard Keogh to have a stampy tantrum more suited to a three year old who can’t have ice cream for breakfast.
An extra four minutes were added, just enough time for the miss of the season from Proschwitz, who seemed to suffer some kind of seizure in front of goal when Gedo broke the offside trap and took Legzdins out of the equation with a perfect low ball. The German, whose abilities continue to be questioned, did himself no favours by essentially missing an open goal from three yards but at least it didn’t affect the final outcome. Liam Rosenior replaced Evans for one of the shortest sub outings of recent times as the final whistle signalled a major, major win for the Tigers.
Back to second, and in a climactic manner too. It feels like a vital, special victory, as we try to put behind us the iffy spell in evidence since the turn of 2013. Two more home games in seven days will aid that process substantially if, again, City can rise to the occasion. The fans were on good form too and during this time of the season, especially when there is an obvious prize within our sights, it seems that the form of the supporters and the players have married once more. If the best happens come May, this game could feel like the “moment” everything slotted back into place.