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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 17/09/03, 7.45pm
Derby County
Mutton dressed as mutton
By Matt Rowson

The good and the bad rubs even themselves out over the course of a season, we're told; never has that been more starkly illustrated than this week. On Saturday, we were presented with a goal and a numerical advantage through an opponent's witless stupidity... last night, the boot was on the other foot as a critical dismissal irrevocably changed the path of the game in our opponents' favour. As if to underline the point, referee Mike Dean, who so controversially permitted Tommy Smith a second go at a penalty at Sunderland in last season's Cup tie, evened out his hand with some decision-making of questionable consistency. All of which contributed to an evening of arm-chewing frustration for the travelling Hornets, but such is to be expected when it's your turn to be on the receiving end of one of Lady Luck's hissy fits.

Watford started in the thoroughly botched-together looking combination of yellow shirts and white shorts for the third time this season. I hardly need make the observation that such unpleasantness wouldn't arise if we used red shorts as our home kit and black for the second kit, but I digress. On the plus side, we were able to field the same eleven that did such a competent job of beating Millwall at the weekend, the only changes being the return from suspension of Neal Ardley and the appearance of new loanee Lenny Pidgeley in place of the injured Richard Lee on the bench.

Both sides had chances in the opening sizey-up period, but Watford will have been feeling the more optimistic by the quarter-hour mark. Effectively exploiting the very welcome width and balanced threat that Paul Devlin lends to the side, we didn't have to work terribly hard to expose cracks in Derby's rearguard. Jamie Hand had one shot charged down, a neat bit of passing gave Danny Webber an opening to fizz in another effort which Oakes palmed away, and a couple of very ordinary looking crosses had the keeper flapping and conceding corners. At the other end, Junior headed onto the bar and Huddlestone had an effort from range comfortably fielded by Chamberlain.

When the deadlock was broken it was completely without warning... a free-kick was sent into the Watford box and came back out again. The focus that descends on a crowd during moments of intensity dissipated, conversations and chants began to start up again... and were interrupted, as Ian Taylor took the ball out of the air and lamped it past a startled Chamberlain from twenty-five yards.

An exquisite goal, and a kick in the bollocks for Watford who proceded to lose shape completely for the next ten or fifteen minutes. Our principle objective in this period seemed to be to give the ball as much altitude as possible. Given Oakes' earlier discomfort with high balls this approach may have yielded profit if undertaken anywhere near Derby's goal, but this seemed a distant target in this spell. Derby meanwhile looked increasingly confident and their support had been stirred into life. More of them later.

One footnote to this period was a booking picked up by Paul Devlin for a late challenge on Zavagno. A mild irritation at the time... Devlin's first misdemeanour and hardly a vicious challenge, the card seemed a little unnecessary. The frustration was exacerbated by Zavagno's triple pike with twist and subsequent rolling in an agony which seemed to die away with the yellow card's appearance. More of him later, too.

Gradually we worked our way back into it, largely as a result of remembering how limited Derby actually were, bringing the ball down and passing it. One move, taking in several players, found Dyer on the end of a cross... he headed high and wide and should have done better, the offside flag an irrelevance as it turned out.

Another move started with Gavin Mahon playing the pass of the game, virtually over his own head just inside his own half and into the path of the escaping Devlin on the right. Devlin took the ball towards the by-line and played in a cross which went past Dyer, who the increasingly popular Zavagno had been forcing down in a stranglehold since before the ball came in. The cross was met further across the face of goal where Mahon, who must have made up an astonishing amount of ground, steered a volley narrowly wide under challenge.

Derby's increasingly stretched rearguard was dealt another blow when Michael Johnson, playing on the left of the central defence, went into a challenge on the by-line with rather too much momentum and piled headfirst into the advertising hoardings. He was eventually replaced, but not before ten minutes of umming and ahing from the Derby camp.

The equaliser came following more pressure from Cook on the right. A spasmodic threat throughout the game, Cook took the ball around the enormous Huddlestone near the edge of the box, who dwelled on the incident for half-a-second before executing a quite deliberate bodycheck. It was a silly foul, born of inexperience rather than anything particularly violent, but its premeditation warranted a yellow. This wasn't forthcoming, something that Paul Robinson might have dwelled upon when booked for a similar incident in a much more withdrawn position on the halfway line close to the end.

Cook took the free-kick himself and it was a peach, whistling towards the far top corner. En route it was met by a delicate flick from Marcus Gayle; it wasn't easy to judge how crucial that was, a fair proportion of the team seemed to think that Cook's shot had gone straight in.

We were flying, and the world seemed a fine place again but by half-time the tables had turned once more. Eyes were following a Derby attack when referee Mike Dean pulled the play back, to the initial frustration of the home support. However, a second yellow card was produced for Devlin, ostensibly for another foul on Zavagno. Not having seen the incident it's difficult to comment fully - media interpretations certainly differ wildly. Two certainties however... one, Paul Devlin really ought to have the experience not to expose himself to such risks when already on a yellow and facing such a spring-footed opponent - he'd been excused another mistimed challenge five minutes earlier. Two, the Watford side were not best pleased with Zavagno, whose pain again dwindled with the production of the card, and there were confrontations at the half-time whistle. Whether due to injury (yerright), to protect the player or as a comment on his performance, George Burley didn't send Zavagno out after the break.

Inevitably, the game took a different shape after the break. We started with Bruce Dyer in Devlin's place on the right with Webber scampering around on his own up front but it was quickly evident that Webber didn't have the physical strength to play that role. Lewington took Webber off, opting for Ardley's efficiency with possession on the right and Dyer's greater aggression as the lone striker.

Significantly Derby's defence, perhaps due to a collective lack of confidence, didn't adapt their gameplan and Dyer was frequently fighting a losing battle against two or three opponents. The weight of odds didn't affect the commentary to my left though... whilst Dyer has yet to inspire fervour on his return to the Vic, the application of the boo-boy mantle could do with a dash of realism now and again.

The red card cost us badly in attacking positions as we were no longer able to stretch the play as effectively as had been possible previously, and whilst defensively Derby had looked poor, they had enough going forward to cause problems if we invited their possession. Possibly as a consequence of their reticence to throw men forward, however, Derby made little of their numerical advantage in attacking positions. Within the first half of the second period, only the fitful Junior made any inroads, swaying through some challenges on the edge of the box before planting a shot criminally wide of the post.

When the goal came it was, annoyingly, the result of a mistake. Marcus Gayle has had some awesome games at the back for us over the last twelve months, but this was the kind of balls-up that I used to make when I was still brave enough to venture onto a football pitch... sixteen year old Lee Holmes sent over a ball from the left that should have been dealt with comfortably. Instead, Gayle misjudged it and cushioned a header towards the penalty spot where Svensson, the on-loan Rod Stewart lookalike who probably wears a tatty denim jacket with sew-on patches when he's not in football gear, accepted gratefully and clinically.

Derby's support exploded with joy and, reinvigorated, regaled us with an entertaining repertoire. It's worth digressing for a second here to mention this lot... it's never easy to feel well-disposed to opposing fans when you're losing away from home, it's true. But with Wolves out of the way, and without wishing to cast aspersions on your Derby-supporting mate/Gran/dog sucked up into the collective psyche, it's hard to think of a more objectionable, irritating and downright moronic bunch of tossers in the division than this lot. Okay, except Burnley. "You're so quiet you sound like Nott-ing-ham". What? "You're going down with the Wombles?". Oh, really. "You've never won f*** all". No, but at least I don't try to convince my mates that my Honda Civic's really a Rolls Royce.

Lewington made the change within five minutes, and again it was utterly sensible... Scott Fitzgerald, ever a source of optimism, and the surely buoyant Ashley Young on for a slightly unfortunate Jamie Hand and an exhausted Lee Cook.

Our attack had more vim immediately... surely Fitzgerald's the last thing any defence wants to see coming off the bench towards the end of a game. Earlier incidents were again recalled when Boertien escaped with a late hack on the young striker, albeit near the halfway line, but we weren't allowed to grumble for long. Fitz was soon flying down the right and played a ball inside that Dyer flicked to the far post for Ashley Young to gobble up in similar fashion to his clincher on his debut at the weekend.

Certainly our high-point of the evening, and our tails were up again now... Fitzgerald went on a terrifying charge from the halfway line which ended with Oakes pushing his belted shot round the post for another corner. Young's jubilation was also evident in his effervescent contribution, and from a goal down and a man down the three points loomed into view...

Bollocks. It's impossible not to feel sorry for the side, even those that made mistakes, after this. The detail is that Lee Holmes got the ball on the left and did well to get a cross past Cox who really ought not have permitted it - his first major failing of the evening. Junior, who had wasted much easier chances, peeled away from Gayle at the far post and planted a header back across the face of goal and into the net.

Compared to some of the other blows we've had this season this is relatively tame, but an ill-timed pain in the arse with a tougher looking trip to Wigan on the way at the weekend. Plenty of positives though, once the bitter frustration of the final goal had subsided, not least the guts of the side in battling against numerical disadvantage and some one-handed refereeing, and in the typically astute management decisions that at least twice looked like salvaging something from the game.

On the way home, we listened glumly to Arsenal fans on 606 snivelling about being stuffed by Inter. A single Derby fan interrupted to burble excitedly about the club's impending world domination. "The future's Ram!" he closed, almost beside himself. Ahhh, but the future what, exactly? We can only speculate.

The games come thick and fast now. Which is probably a good thing.