|RamsWeek 7 - Keep This Fire Burning|
Mon 15th Feb 2010 00:59 by Paul Mortimer
After a spirited performance in the 1-1 draw at Sheffield United last weekend, the Rams faced Championship leaders Newcastle United before an FA Cup 5th Round date with Premier League Birmingham City.
As expected, Millwall winger David Martin joined the club on loan until the end of the season, with a permanent deal to follow.
It’s a good opportunity for the improving winger, who can give Derby pace and zest down the flank and he is also a good few years younger than Gary Teale. The ex-Wigan winger is in any case now sidelined for a few weeks with a calf injury.
After the Rams’ recent improvement, defeating the Trees and coming close to winning at Bramall Lane, hopes were high that a stronger Derby squad could give leaders Newcastle United a good game on Tuesday night.
The Rams have been reinforced by key players like Hulse, Green Commons and Barker returning from injury and playing themselves back into match fitness. With loan signings Nicky Hunt and Michael Tonge making good contributions, better performances and results had been forthcoming - essential for putting Derby into a more comfortable league position.
Nigel Clough named an unchanged team for the first time this season and was able to add David Martin to his substitute choices, along with Manchester City forward Javan Vidal. Newcastle were on a 15-game unbeaten run; with the fewest defeats, fewest goals conceded, they are the stand-out team in the Championship.
Toon managed to keep their Premier League squad intact after relegation and have fully embraced the challenge of bouncing back through automatic promotion.
Ask Nothingham Forest and Sheffield United, though - Derby are now no pushovers and as capable as the Geordies are, they were simply swept away 3-0 in Derby’s best performance of the season!
Derby started superbly and took the game to Toon, attacking incisively and belying their lowly league position. Newcastle couldn’t gain enough possession to mount any real threat after an early penalty scare when in-form Andy Carroll went down - later, Barker headed just past his own post when United did threaten.
Derby scored as half time approached; Kris Commons - a livewire all night who tormented United and put in spades of hard work too - lifted a smart cross onto the head of Rob Hulse and the centre-forward made no mistake from 6 yards. It was no more than the Rams had deserved, with heroes in every position.
Stephen Bywater, under-employed for half an hour - made two brilliant close-range saves as Toon tried to fight back. Pride Park Stadium was buzzing at the interval and fans hoped that the team could sustain their excellent display over 90 minutes.
They did just that, even though United had come out desperate to claw back the game. Then, Tonge was clipped in the penalty area just before the hour mark and Commons coolly shot home the penalty.
Derby secured the game a few minutes later, as Hulse returned a clearance into the danger area for the colossal Shaun Barker to pivot and slam in the third goal like an auxiliary centre-forward – it sent the stadium into raptures.
It had been another great defensive performance too - albeit with a few self-inflicted heart-in-the-mouth moments from Hunt and Barker, as the Rams’ new star centre-half almost netting own goals with desperate clearances and Hunt almost gifting a goal.
Stephen Pearson, whom we all know has a great ‘motor’, finally powered up his sat-nav on Tuesday and proved dangerous and incisive when galloping into the final third, which he did on countless occasions. Believe in yourself, Pearo - you DO have it in you! Tonge was strong on the right and Paul Green was hoovering up the miles, chasing, tidying, covering, and prompting - getting back to his best.
Clough used his substitutes wisely as time ran down ran out with Derby comfortable enough. This week, the matchday officials cleverly spotted that Clough had lined up his substitutes, and Derby milked it.
Clough gave a taste of action to Javan Vidal and David Martin as the Rams ran out the game, Rob Hulse and Robbie Savage received standing ovations as the mute Toon Army could only play 2nd fiddle to the Pride Park appreciation - just as their team had to the Rams all evening.
It was a tremendous win and left Newcastle stunned - they were second best all over the park with no answer to Derby’s fire, pace and passion. United were dislodged from the top spot for the first time for months by WBA - and the Trees couldn’t capitalise either, losing at Coventry. Shame.
Special mention to tedious tea-time dumb-down cheeky-chappy TV presenters Ant & Dec; their Radio Derby preview for the December game at St James Park was replayed on Tuesday. Before the Rams took an unexpected point at Newcastle, the faux-celebrity Toon fans had predicted 3-0 to United for that game. Awaa’ the lads way-ayy - youse got the prediction the wrong way round!
Given how tight it is in the lower half of the Championship table, the three points were vital to Derby; they still need a good five or six more wins before they can breathe easily this season. The result pushed them up to 15th in the table but the Rams stood just 4 points above the relegation zone - with rivals playing League games on Saturday whilst Derby were engaged in FA Cup action.
Despite the relief that Rob Hulse was settled at Derby and glad that all the transfer speculation was behind him, one tabloid ran a story saying that Coventry City wanted him on loan and are ‘planning a summer raid for him’. Why on earth would Rob be tempted to go to the Echo Stadium, when he’s successful and settled at a rival Championship club which attracts crowds that the Sky Blues can only dream of?
The Rams have arranged a prestige pre-season friendly match on 31st July, when they will host Italian club Fiorentina. They have recovered from their financial traumas over the past decade and are having a good Champions League campaign. It is slightly disappointing that tickets are at least £20 but there will be a further friendly which will be free to season ticket holders.
FA Cup progress was desirable for the Rams though they were under no illusion that the upcoming Championship games against Preston and Swansea were of more importance. Having spent so much of the season in poor shape with results to match, safety is the priority but the visit of Birmingham City was an opportunity to carry on the improvement and keep the recently successful Derby side playing together.
Nigel Clough named the same side that held Sheffield United at Bramall Lane and thrashed Championship leaders Newcastle United; just how long is it since Derby went three games unchanged? Academy youngster Ryan Connolly, an 18-year old midfielder, had a taste of first team duty as he was selected as a substitute, with Paul Connolly unavailable through illness.
There was a magnificent following for the Blue Noses, some 5,500 making their presence heard in the away end and City’s excellent showing since promotion has fed their optimism that they could add a serious assault on FA Cup glory to a highly satisfactory return to the top flight.
Derby carried on from the start as they had done against their previous defeated home opponents, Nothingham Forest and Newcastle United - they kept on the front foot, attacked Birmingham and had much the better of the first half.
Kris Commons - all spark, fizz and fire now he is fully fit – put on a man-of-the-match display and alongside the battered but unbowed Rob Hulse, kept the resolute Blues defence busy all afternoon. In reality, neither goalkeeper was over-employed in the first period. Stephen Pearson thumped in a drive that Joe Hart kept away and the highly-rated keeper also denied Shaun Barker from close in.
Then, ten minutes into the 2nd half, Jay McEveley remembered how his crashing drive had put out Doncaster Rovers in the last round so he endeavoured to repeat the feat. He blasted Derby in front from 25 yards and the Rams had a real chance of claiming a very tough FA Cup scalp.
Brum demonstrated their determination and team spirit however and with the introduction of veteran goal-sniffer Kevin Phillips, became more dangerous. The Blues turned the game with two scruffy but decisive goals from set pieces. Derby’s recently tight defensive ship sprung a couple of leaks and defender Scott Dann headed in a corner with 17 minutes remaining.
City sealed a last-gasp win when Kevin Phillips was allowed to nip in and shoot goalwards from 6 yards, with the game 3 minutes into 5 minutes of added time; he hit the post. The ball spun back kindly for Brum to the feet of Liam Ridgewell, who beat Shaun Barker’s despairing lunge, bundling the ball over the line to clinch their narrow 2-1 victory.
Even then, Robbie Savage, putting in another sterling performance to captain by example, almost forced a replay by striking a thunderous 35-yard shot that Hart leapt and arched to tip over the bar.
With a series of spirited and entertaining performances behind them, the Rams may well have put the ‘watershed’ horrors of their shocking Christmas performances behind them. The performance level from his players has lifted dramatically and they have reaped the rewards in results more often than not, even if the outcome of the Sheffield United and Birmingham games was cruel.
Kris Commons and Paul Green made it into the Birmingham Sunday Mercury's "FA Cup Team of the Week" - in which not a single Brum player appeared.
Manager Nigel Clough says that he will happily take that performance level for the remaining 16 Championship games - if the players can ‘keep this fire burning’, then we should have no worries about being pulled into the dog-fight at the bottom of the table.
The focus is now firmly upon the two consecutive home games with Preston North End and Swansea City. Victories in those matches would propel the Rams into mid-table and that is the target this season.
RamsWeek 7 last year saw no disgrace as Derby’s recovery under Nigel Clough was halted only by Premier League Champions Manchester United. Having overcome the Rams in the Carling Cup semi-final, the sell-out FA Cup 5th Round tie at home to the Red Devils brought an honourable Cup exit at the hands of the league leaders.
Nani put United ahead after half an hour and their 2nd goal, with Danny Gibson pushing home a loose ball from Ronaldo’s free kick looked offside. It counted however and that took the wind out of Derby’s sails on the stroke of half-time.
Ronaldo himself scored shortly after the break and the Rams had a mountain to climb. They rallied, though and Miles Addison headed home from a Kris Commons cross. United soon snuffed out any hope of a Rams’ recovery when Danny Welbeck thumped in a clinical drive to make it 4-1.
The Rams had enjoyed an excellent season in both domestic cup competitions but the quest for Championship points was now the only thing that mattered. Clough had refocused the squad and several players, Savage, Bywater and Teale were enjoying a renaissance after the jumbled, unstable and formless days of Paul Jewell.
Derby County announced a price freeze on the 2009-10 season ticket tariff, most fans feeling that was justified given the poor value for money over the past two campaigns.
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