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FA Carling Premiership, 8/4/00
Derby County
You look like a fish
By Ian Grant

One league, twenty teams, enough hot air to keep Richard Branson in world record attempts for the rest of his life.

So what have we discovered on our year-long fact-finding mission? What will we tell our Nationwide chums upon our return? That it's quite impossible for clubs of our size to survive in the top flight? That there's a gap so great that it can never be bridged without the help of either massive resources or Kevin Phillips? That there's no point in even trying?

Not really. As long as the Premiership remains at its current size, it will contain enough guff 'n' nonsense for a club of our stature - and, more importantly, our strength - to scrap towards the forty point mark. The teams that survive at our expense this season, whether they regard that survival as success or not, are really not so vastly superior. I don't know about you, but the thought that I'll be taking back to the Nationwide is that I want another crack at this. We've failed this time, but I'm not convinced that we'll fail for ever.

Our first goalless draw of the season contained the evidence for all this and more. Not much incident, plenty of implications. The media found great sport in describing our earlier near-goalless encounter with Sheffield Wednesday as a game that had "First Division" scrawled all over it...but, in all honesty, this was little better. The point is that, on this occasion, our opponents will probably not be joining us next season. One of these sides has established itself in the Premiership. We can too.

Derby have a familiar blend. A smattering of genuine quality - the wandering Kinkladze, making a very welcome return to these shores; the driving, forceful, enterprising Johnson, last seen at Crewe and fulfilling that promise; the scampering Christie, who really should've been on from the start - and a good deal of quantity, if you see what I mean. They fall between two stools, almost inevitably. In a ninety minute football match, they're not out of our reach.

That said, they should've won this. The thing is, of course, that they didn't - we may have been on the wrong end of some ruthless finishing throughout the season, but it was certainly absent here. From the second minute, when Sturridge drifted in to head wide from Delap's long throw, chances were wasted. Although Darren Ward's first start at this level offered a glimpse into another bright future, we still allowed our opponents far too many free headers and were fortunate not to be punished. As against Wednesday, the clean sheet owed more than a little to luck.

Neutral observers - such as those utterly confused by the concept of a "fanzine" as I chatted to Craig, SW Hornet # 1 and part-time "Yellow Experience" seller - would've gained little enjoyment from the afternoon. Personally, I'm in up-beat mood at the moment and left with a slight spring in my step. For arguably the first time since that ludicrous afternoon in Swindon, this just seems like fun. Not glorious, not painful, just fun. The pressure's off, the sun's shining, another season's just around the corner.

Back on the pitch, the distinctly wayward Strupar was wellying a shot into the Rookery from Powell's lobbed through-ball - he did similar things periodically throughout, so we'll not bother to mention them again. It was a game that always needed a goal, that often threatened to ignite but only did so once. I've seen worse, of course - as the saying goes, "the white jelly beans that no-one really likes are still better than no jelly beans at all".

Either side might've scored in the first ten minutes, but neither did. That sort of match. An extended bout of crossing and clearing ended with a snappy interchange between Micah Hyde and Allan Smart, the latter slashing an effort narrowly wide on the turn. As Poom dived at Ward's feet to punch clear and prevent the defender from getting on the end of Smart's knock-down, we had a fairly lively start to enjoy.

It never delivered on those early promises, though. The opportunities became more sporadic as the play began to disintegrate. Once again, our midfield failed to dominate and left the forwards to fight for scraps. We missed Nordin Wooter as badly as we've missed anyone this season - whenever the ball went to the right, an instinctive yell of "G'WAAAN NORDIN!" rose from within...and then faded again as the ball bounced over the touchline and I remembered his injury.

Still, none of that would've mattered a great deal if we'd taken a lead back to the dressing room at half-time. We weren't so far away from doing that - Hyde's astute and swift free kick picked out David Perpetuini's enterprising run, and the youngster was only denied by the combination of a tight angle and a fine stop from Poom.

Ten drab minutes later, Strupar's only on-target effort of the match came from Derby's best chance of the half. Waiting while defenders were distracted by decoy runs, he took aim from twenty-two yards and Alec Chamberlain needed to get down smartly to his left to push the shot wide - he was just practising for later, as it happened. Powell - another notable waster of chances - headed over after the short corner routine had created a crossing opportunity for Burley.

Ten more minutes before Poom collected Smart's looped header from a Hyde cross and Easton volleyed way over. Finally, with half-time beckoning, a classic Sensible Soccer move down the left involving Perpetuini, Easton and Smith ended with a low cross into the box from the young striker. Cox, who spent most of the game playing as an extra forward, dummied and Johnson arrived to shoot over under challenge. Good football, no finish, a familiar tale.

And it was much the same for the first twenty-five minutes after the break. Almost immediately, fine work from Smith on the wing set up an opening for Cox, but he hastily curled his shot over from the edge of the box. But it was quarter of an hour before I had another effort to record, Strupar heading wastefully over from a corner.

The support was again impressive, although attempts to pay tribute to Poom with a chant of "You look like a fish" never really took off. But the game finally did take off, and it did so in breathtaking fashion. Heidar Helguson replaced Smart, not nearly as effective as in recent outings. Burley was fortunate to escape a second booking for a scything foul on Perpetuini, the only mitigating factor being the speed of the Watford player's pirouetting turn. Hyde lined up the free kick on the left and whipped in a cross, Helguson rose among the crowd to meet it - from his first touch of the afternoon, the ball bounced slowly beyond Poom's outstretched hand, we tried to suck it into the net, it hit the post in slow motion.

Within a minute, Sturridge had outpaced Ward and shot across the face of goal. Within seconds, Powell had robbed Hyde in midfield, strode confidently forward and been brought down by Page's desperate challenge. The first contact may have occurred outside the area but Powell fell inside. Prior to watching the replays on "Match Of The Day", nobody seemed to question the validity of the decision - to my mind, when things are so marginal you have to let referees make a decision and get on with the game. Thankfully, Schnoor's penalty was unconvincing and Chamberlain saved well, particularly in reacting quickly to grab the ball and prevent the taker scoring from the rebound.

Those incidents changed the whole atmosphere. Suddenly, it was really Saturday afternoon. Moments later, Richard Johnson lost out to Kinkladze, who sprinted down the left, crossed for Strupar and must've been more than slightly disappointed to see the striker shovel the ball wide from the edge of the box. The Derby fans showed their displeasure as the Georgian was substituted - the swap for Dorigo appearing more than slightly defensive - and then cheered up considerably as Christie came on a couple of minutes later.

Still in desperate need of a goal, the game died once more and the atmosphere did likewise. At the Vic Road end, only Christie's lively, adventurous presence looked like changing the scoreline...and he nearly did just that, except that Powell wasted the chance with a weak, wayward header. Strupar ended his afternoon with his umpteenth off-target attempt, albeit a spectacular overhead that would've been a 'goal of the month' candidate if it'd been a couple of feet lower.

It all ended with an incident that somehow sums the afternoon up. A hopeful through-ball missed by two Derby defenders. Neil Cox, who may not have had the best game of his life but was at least stupidly enterprising, hurtled into the box in pursuit. Poom advanced from his line. Everyone collided, no-one made contact with the ball, it trickled wide of the unguarded goal. The kind of thing that brings you to your feet in excited anticipation, only to make you feel slightly embarrassed as you sit back down afterwards. Much like the rest of the game, really. It was involving and engrossing for the partisan...but I feel slightly ashamed about admitting that in public.

By the final whistle, my attention had been distracted by Miles screaming in my left ear whenever Poom took a goal kick. Even after all these years, I was taken aback by how such righteous fury, such absolute indignation, such undisguised venom can come from the simple act of watching football.

The cause of Miles' anger? Not the referee, not the players. Long after everyone else had forgotten about it, Miles was yelling "FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISH!" at Poom with everything he could muster.

You make your own luck, as the cliché goes. You make your own entertainment too, I guess.