When you come to think of it, this season could have been a lot worse. Despite the ritual lack of pre-season investment, the alarmingly dreadful first three months or so of the campaign which resulted and our owner in one of his rare media interviews giving what some might describe as a most passable impression of being a pathological liar there has been much cause for quiet satisfaction at the way that things have been turned round. On the whole, it’s probably fair to say that, wherever we end up in the final reckoning, it’s all turned out better than expected.
But not yesterday which, frankly, was something of a shitshow.
Derby, for all their investment in players, were not honestly any great shakes. They were in fact not really any better than Sheffield Wednesday or Stoke, and not as good as Leeds, all of whom have of course received a summary swatting aside at our hands in recent weeks. More about our hosts later, but this was a game which we were eminently capable of winning but in which we looked decidedly off-colour throughout. The problem didn’t seem to be the tactics or formation but rather some very below-par individual performances, particularly among those who have been instrumental in our surge up the table.
There was a bit of talk, en route from pub to ground, about how this game would likely to be a pointer as to where City would find themselves come the season’s end, in some ways akin to the West Brom away game in 2008. And you probably have to conclude that, certainly on yesterday’s showing and in light of the relative stutterings of the last three weeks, making up the ground that presently lies between us and sixth place is looking too tall an order. Some might say though that that’s not necessarily a bad thing, lest it result in the largesse bestowed upon us in the event of a successful play-off campaign not disappearing into the trouser pockets of the Allams – because they have never taken a penny out of the Club, oh no – but mysteriously not finding its way into the playing budget either.
So, not quite managing to whelm the Tiger Nation were the following: the same starting XI, in fact, as had so summarily dispatched Stoke:-
Kane McKenzie Lichaj Kingsley
Irvine Henriksen Stewart
The high winds which had battered the East Midlands all night and morning (I live about 12 miles from Pride Park and was most amused that my next door neighbour had chosen yesterday to replace his garden fence) had subsided to an extent by kick-off time and we got under way with City playing towards the corner in which the noisy away contingent of, I would say, 1,200 or so were encamped.
The early stages seem pretty cagey, both main talking points in the first few moments surrounding Tom Huddlestone, namely the elegance and accuracy of his distribution (you do wonder why top-flight clubs have never been tempted to take him on if his performance yesterday was representative of how he’s been doing all season) and the fact that he seemed to be wearing the sort of shoulder pads that were beloved of female power-dressers in the 1980s.
With seven minutes on the clock, though, comes a moment which contributed as much as any to the eventual outcome of the game. Henriksen dispossesses a Ram as they try to play out of defence, the leather moves like quicksilver from him to Stewart, Campbell and into the path of Grosicki with most of the goal to aim at and home keeper Roos scrambling to get across. We’re hugging ourselves with the joy of taking an early lead as all Grosicki has to do is caress the leather into the bag, and from where we are it looks as though he has succeeded, only for the ball to clip the outside of the post. No excuse for him to have missed: he even had time to have taken a touch and buried it. Had we scored at that point, it might well have been a very different game.
For the moment the atmosphere remains tense. Pride Park, a joint usually jumping except when we are busy ripping them a new one in the play-offs, seems under strain. The home side, aided at times by the rub of the green around refereeing decisions, have plenty of the ball and even a few shots but without ever really putting us under threat, Marshall only having one easy save to make from a Tomori header. The first real scare arrives on 24 and even that is courtesy of an effort from Holmes which takes a wicked deflection, but Marshall reacts well and saves. Shortly afterwards we go close again when Campbell, attacking down the inside-left channel, flashes one across the face of the goal.
I note on the half hour mark that our shape is good but we’re hampering ourselves by coughing up possession too cheaply too often, Grosicki and Irvine being the main offenders at this stage.
For fully ten minutes there’s barely a threat to our goal except when we make a horlicks of dealing with a through ball and Marshall has to race out of the box and head clear from Harry Wilson. Five minutes before the break though and we trail. Holmes threads one into the box and suddenly Waghorn is eight yards out in splendid isolation with the ball at his feet and our defence manifestly away with the fairies. The ground falls silent as though he’s offside, but in fact he’s very much on. Marshall blocks the first effort but with his back to goal Waghorn tucks the rebound on the turn inside the far post. Lichaj has had the presence of mind to cover the goal line and might regard himself as unlucky as the second shot went in the one place where he couldn’t reach it, and from where the shot was hit it’s unlikely that that’s exactly what Waghorn meant. The rest of our defence is still conspicuous by its absence, though.
Music after the goal. Dearie, dearie me.
It could have been worse three minutes later, as well, when Derby win a free kick about 23 yards out. It’s a soft one, conceded by Stewart, but given Harry Wilson’s well-known deadliness in such situations he should have been more careful. Of course Wilson’s going to score. He doesn’t.
So, half time, and a chance to take a closer look at the goal as well as Grosicki’s miss on the concourse screens. Not happy viewing. Changing the subject, why do I always get stuck behind the bloke in the kiosk queue who takes three or four minutes to conduct his transaction and then walks away clutching a single pint of beer?
The second half offers no immediate sign of improvement. We’re lively enough but there’s no consistent ingenuity or flair: our play is effective only in flashes. A couple of borderline offside decisions against us don’t help. We nearly get punished for this on 52 when Tomori wastefully plants a free header wide from a corner. They really aren’t that much better than us though, and that is frustrating.
Suddenly it all clicks together on the hour, when Stewart feeds Grosicki, who gloriously skins Keogh and delivers a peach of a cross onto the head of Irvine, whose glancing header is maybe three or four inches wide of the far post with Roos beaten. Some of my companions opine that he should be hitting the target but that might be a bit harsh as he was clearly trying to place the leather in the right spot.
Unfortunately we don’t retain the initiative and the game enters a rather scrappy phase. Again we concede a soft free-kick outside the box on 66 (Stewart again, this time on Waghorn) and this time surely Wilson must score. He doesn’t.
We’re looking bereft of ideas, and the constant chanting of the names of some of the subs from the more prattish sections of the City support isn’t helping (and I know he wasn’t a sub yesterday, but does anyone else find that Jackson Irvine song piss-boilingly inane?). This is all only going in one direction, and it’s not really that much of a surprise when Dorrbeh, as the locals refer to it, double their advantage with twenty minutes left. A Kingsley clearance is blocked and he’s chased down into the corner. Nobody comes to help him until Stewart arrives belatedly on the scene after Kingsley has been dispossessed, and Bogle’s low cross is drilled in at the near post by a not-very-closely-marked Waghorn.
More goal music. For the first time the home fans seem able to let their hair down.
A rash of substitutions – too little too late, ensues. In the midst of them we manage what proves to be our only on-target shot of the afternoon, Grosicki’s low drive being pouched by Roos. Irvine’s volley on 82 is too high.
This is early-season rather than late-season stuff, and that’s all the more regrettable because Derby look decidedly lacking in resilience: it’s a game that we really, really should not be losing. Not that there’s any chance of matters being rectified as we deteriorate from being merely careless and lacking inspiration at key times to falling apart completely. Thankfully Derby aren’t good enough to capitalise on this and the game peters out to its drear and disappointing conclusion. The applause that the City players receive at the end of a second half that increasingly, as it wore on, looked, smelled and felt like an end-of-season dead rubber was rather more than they deserved, in all honesty.
That said, it really wasn’t the putting to the sword that some organs of the national media would have had you believe. Yes, Derby deserved their win because they took full advantage of some sloppy defending, but to suggest that the scoreline hugely flattered City as certain reports did is redolent of some quite nauseating brown-nosing of the home manager.
Which brings me nicely onto my concluding observations. I’ve had a soft(ish) spot for Derby for some years, as I worked there at a previous firm, during which time I acted for the Club on a number of occasions going back to when Adam Pearson was running things, and Derby is clearly a proper football town with loyal and knowledgeable supporters. For that reason I always pay a bit of attention to how they’re doing, and their present situation is most intriguing. They aren’t really doing any better than in recent years, in that they might or might not make the play-offs and on yesterday’s showing don’t seem to have the quality required of credible promotion candidates. Furthermore, their owner is an ambitious and demanding fellow, whose reaction to exactly the same situation in previous seasons has been to change the manager. What’s different this time is the current manager is a figure clearly regarded by a sycophantic media as one who can do no wrong. This places the owner in a real dilemma if things don’t improve, as any attempt to remove the present incumbent is likely to unleash unprecedented opprobrium upon him and by association his club on a grand scale. A very delicate situation, potentially.
Nevertheless, I’d swap our position for theirs, any day of the week.
Ian Thomson (via Tiger Chat)