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FA Carling Premiership, 3/1/00
Derby County
A whale of a time
By Matt Rowson

During the summer, a Watford-supporting friend and I met a Charlton fan at a football tournament. Mindful of the rollercoaster of excitement, the season of bloodying Premiership noses that was to come we asked how he'd enjoyed the previous term.

"Awful" he told us, "I hated every minute of it. Turning up knowing we were going to lose, realising that the game was over as soon as we went behind, that all of these narrow defeats weren't just bad luck, that we'd have lost them all by one goal if we'd played them a hundred times".

We were incredulous at his lack of bravado. Then. But his words came back to me on the long walk back to the car from Pride Park, and not for the first time. Cold, wet, thoroughly depressed, the funeral procession pace dictated by my brother's crutches was very appropriate. Just how much more misery does this season have to offer?

It was difficult to reconcile this with the unfamiliar emotion bordering on optimism before the start. My girlfriend brought two friends along, both Africans, both at their first football game. "This is an important one" I had told them, wisely. "But Derby are terrible at home, if we can keep them quiet for twenty minutes the crowd will get at them and we'll be looking good".

Fat chance. We're getting used to the Hornets launching with bluster into the first five minutes of games, but this time our hosts beat us to it, the crucial first puff in a game of blow-football. The first two minutes of the game consisted of Derby lamping things at the Watford goal, and the defence steadfastly refusing to boot it into oblivion. Finally, almost ruefully, the ball dropped at Strupar's feet (and judging from his performance for the rest of the game, it's unlikely that he would have moved far for it) and he cracked it into the top corner.

This was like being smacked in the face. "Terrible", as my girlfriend said later, almost tearfully. Pride Park exploded, and although I'm sure a rare home win does wonders for the vocal chords, it should be noted that this soulless ground is one place where the home fans have actually out-sung us this season.

Derby continued to hammer forward, with much attacking effort concentrated down their right flank where Robinson was largely anonymous. What has happened to him? Last year his tackles were terrifying, but he's barely made a challenge in the last three games. Delap, in any case, has perfected the art of sending in vicious, curving crosses from very deep positions, and Sturridge almost took advantage of one such ball with a header that came back off the post.

Sturridge departed injured soon later to be replaced by Robinson, much to the detriment of Derby's attacking options. For all the greater incision and control in their build up play, Sturridge's mobility and aggression were missed, and most of Derby's subsequent chances in open play resulted in shots well across the face of goal.

Watford's best chance of the half, meanwhile, came to Ngonge, who broke onto a ball on the left of the box, and attempted to lift it over Poom much as he had over Neil Sullivan on the first day of the season. Poom has five inches on Sullivan, however, and these proved crucial as he made a comfortable stop.

Watford had a reasonable amount of possession at the end of the half (albeit without threatening terribly), and with Derby's finishing in particular betraying a side short on confidence, the game did not seem to be up.

Midway through the second half, however, with Watford still making limited headway, it was all over. Page collided with an escaping Derby attacker, and the ref copped out completely by booking him - whether the collision was intentional or not, this was surely the only invalid option with Page the last man.

Strupar hit the free kick. It went in. On target, off to one side. Nice height for the keeper though... should Alec have got there? Didn't matter anyway. One goal had been looking increasingly insurmountable; this just put an end to the excruciating lingering hope.

We did have chances; most of them created by the persistently bullish Gravelaine. On one occasion, he swivelled impossibly through three defenders before tamely prodding a shot at Poom as he fell, twisted. On another, he exhibited an arrogance that we may grow to depend on, with a splendid fooling of Poom and crisp finish. Sadly, the whistle had long gone for offside, which didn't stop our new Hornettes screaming in excitement, but to no avail.

Otherwise, most of our attacks seemed to result in comfortable crosses into the arms of Poom. With the exception of Gravelaine, only Perpetuini displayed any sort of commitment or self-belief in this sorry period. A telling moment was when Ngonge raced onto a raking pass on the right. Unmarked and with plenty of time and options, he send his cross into the back of the stand.

Ngonge and Miller - who had looked tired before the end of the first half - were replaced by Smith and Foley. The latter made the greater impact of the two, by volleying haplessly over as the ball dropped to him, admittedly in limited space, ten yards out. A woman behind me exploded - "F*** off Foley, you shouldn't even be on the f***ing pitch". Clearly being sworn at as a form of encouragement is a technique that's passed me by. Certainly it's never really motivated me. At any rate, the two guys in baseball caps at the front of the block - identified at half time as Nick Wright and Allan Smart - barely flinched, despite at least the latter having borne a fair amount of similarly intelligent criticism. One of my African friends, her eyes blazing, turned to me in frustration, but also didn't respond directly.

I did, though, my one source of pride to be taken from the day.

There were several factors that contributed to this defeat. Losing that early goal was one. The tedious "gap in class" was another, although perhaps not crucial... Delap's crossing is something we don't have, Poom is a huge keeper although we rarely tested him, Strupar finished well but otherwise looked cumbersome.

The biggest difference, sadly, was the fight. Derby outbullied us in almost every department, particularly in midfield where Powell and Burley were as fierce as we'd expected Johnson and Hyde to be. This, for me, is the most depressing aspect of our current plight. The papers talk of us being "gutsy fighters", but I'm seeing precious little of that when the chips are down at the moment.

None of this stopped our African friends from having a whale of a time, however. One commented that she's afraid of being hooked if she comes along again, which just goes to show that there's nowt as strange as folk. Personally, only at Selhurst Park have I spent as much time with my head in my hands this season.

Later, on "Match of the Day", GT repeated his promise not to jeopardise the club's future by panic buying, which has fuelled the arguments between those of us for and against him doing precisely that. It's a source of frustration that, whatever the outcome of this season or next, neither group can ever conclusively be proven right.