Monday, September 17, 2007

Generous to a fault

Derby 1 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Last time we played Derby at Pride Park, in April 2002, our hosts were bound for the Championship and we were heading towards fourth and a Champions League place. After a drab and goalless first half we were stunned to find ourselves 2-0 down and making relegation fodder look like world-beaters. But then, with 17 minutes remaining, Laurent Robert struck a masterful free-kick and from then on it was a rout. Robert hit the post, Jermaine Jenas - on for the injured Alan Shearer - hit the bar with a 30 yard volley, Kieron Dyer got an equaliser and then, in the last minute, Lomano Lua Lua got his first Newcastle goal at the umpteenth attempt to wrap up a 3-2 win which will live long in the memory. The two clubs' courses towards their final destinations remained unswerving.

Tonight we again fell behind, to a side that finished on the wrong end of a 6-0 mauling at Anfield in their last outing and that look like relegation certainties - but this time there was no fairytale comeback, just a humiliatingly appalling performance that made a mockery of all our pretensions towards a renaissance and a possible UEFA Cup spot. As the old adage goes, you can't polish a turd, and this was a turd of the most unpolishable kind.

Inevitably it was Rams debutant Kenny Miller, a £3m signing from Celtic, who did the damage - had Glenn Roeder remained in charge until the summer, he could well have ended up a Newcastle player. Our defence had looked relatively solid up until the decisive moment in the 39th minute, when they allowed a long kick from Derby 'keeper Stephen Bywater to bounce to Miller, who took one touch and hit a shot from 30 yards over the stranded Steve Harper and into the top corner.

By that point, having been relatively comfortable in containing the Derby threat, we should have been in front. Michael Owen, played in by James Milner, was forced wide by Bywater, but his low cross should have been buried by David Rozehnal, who only succeeded in driving it wide. Geremi's curling free-kick was pushed behind for a corner, and we should have been awarded a penalty for Dean Leacock's penalty area grappling with Rozehnal immediately before the Derby goal. Even after we'd gone behind, Shola Ameobi - in for the injured Mark Viduka - should have done better than prod harmlessly wide when well placed.

We hadn't played well, though - but even then I made the fatal mistake of imagining it couldn't get much worse. Oh yes it could, and certainly did after the break. We couldn't do anything - pass, cross, shoot, tackle, take set-pieces, control the ball. It was abysmal. Any opportunity we had was blazed high over the bar, while former Toon season ticket holder Steve Howard - the sort of square-foreheaded lunk who makes for an effective battering ram in the Championship but who is hopelessly limited in the top flight - could and should have plundered a hat-trick of headers.

Fat Sam has to cop some of the flak for his bizarre substitutions, as much as anything else. Owen may have looked a little sluggish, but to withdraw him after 55 minutes with us 1-0 down made no sense. He's a man in great form and it wasn't his fault the service was so poor - apparently he touched the ball 14 times all game. Even more mystifying was the decision to replace captain Geremi with debutant Abdoulaye Faye with half an hour remaining, when of the two central midfielders it was Nicky Butt who was "busy" turning in his most pathetic performance in a black and white shirt to date, seemingly intent on helping Derby's Stephen Pearson earn a move to Real Madrid.

Butt was merely the biggest culprit - Ameobi, Alan Smith and Charles N'Zogbia should all be publicly flogged for their displays too. The only player to emerge with any credit whatsoever was Rozehnal, who defended with guts and passion, and often also offered an attacking thrust from the back. He was unlucky to be denied a second penalty when Leacock again got all touchy-feely in the box. By the time dozy referee Peter Walton woke up to the situation and had words with Leacock, it was too late.

The result's not so much a cold shower as a dunking in an ice-cold plunge pool. Not only are we no longer unbeaten, but from this new vantage point our two victories to date look decidedly underwhelming - a late, late 1-0 win at home to Wigan, and the other a defeat of the side that now, thanks to tonight's result, props up the table. It could be a long winter after all.

It's worth bringing this tale of woe to an end with a brief note on the suitably farcical circumstances in which the two halves of Black & White & Read All Over experienced the game. Both of us were at that game five years ago, but tonight one of us was at an ante-natal class keeping tabs on proceedings via text updates while the other - yours truly - would have quite honestly much rather have been embarking upon a 12 hour labour. As if watching a televised defeat of the most ignominious kind in exile could be any worse, the pub I was in had one working TV out of about four - the small one behind the bar. Every time someone ordered a pint of San Miguel or John Smiths, my view was obscured by the barman's head.

A thoroughly shitty night all round.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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