Derby County 0 Nottingham Forest 0

It’s entirely possible.  It also made me started idly thinking about the maximum total number of East Midlands Derbies that could theoretically happen in a single season. Home and away league fixtures, a two-legged League Cup semi-final, an FA Cup tie and replay, then promotion play-off semi-final to top it off would add up to eight.

In reality, 2008/9 where we played them four times and didn’t lose any of them is probably as good as it will ever get.  I wrote a story about the home FA Cup tie, which I watched in a pub in London…

Anyway.  Thankfully, this instalment of the ongoing psychodrama is over and the Brian Clough Trophy remains in Derby where it belongs until at least the end of February.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, it is now more than three years since the Rams lost to Nottingham Forest (seven games ago)…

In that time, Forest have only scored two goals, both of which came in the annoying 2-2 draw at the City Ground in 2017.

However, as pleasing as those records are, in reality the two sides are very evenly matched now.   Last night, Aitor Karanka’s double defensive midfield shield cancelled out Derby’s bright young attacking things very well and at the other end, a counter-attacking guerrilla cell led by Lewis Grabban kept the Rams’ rearguard occupied in sporadic, but occasionally deeply worrying bursts.

For the first half an hour, Forest pretty much just hung in there and I felt confident that Derby would go on to score the opening goal.  From there on in though, the balance of the game changed considerably and there was never really a comfortable moment.

I felt instinctively that a long 45 minutes was ahead when the second half kicked off and so it proved, with the Red Dogs a lick of paint away from executing the perfect away performance.  Stifle, frustrate, break – but luckily, not quite score.  The much-hyped Joe Lolley was kept quiet for long spells, but still eventually wriggled away from Tom Huddlestone too easily and almost nearly nicked it.

But in the end, possession was 51%/49% and Forest shaded the shot count (12-13 in total, 3-4 on target).  The numbers tell the tale – a game of only occasional chances between two teams who eventually boxed each other to a standstill and withdrew, happy with a point each.  Either side could have edged it and if they had, the other couldn’t have complained.  Both sides had players with the quality to turn a game, but nobody could quite manage it.

Derby were wrongly denied a penalty for the clumsy Tendayi Darikwa’s bizarre chest-kick on Tom Lawrence, but on the other hand, another referee might have seen fit to dismiss either Jayden Bogle, who should not have charged into an aerial challenge he was unlikely to win without catching his man, or Fikayo Tomori, whose two-footed sliding tackle was actually as clean as a whistle and, in the context of a tense derby game, a thing of ugly beauty, or beautiful ugliness – but is also the kind of thing I thought they were trying to do away with.  That high-risk, flying tackle was emblematic of what had become a heated, frantic scramble of a game, with nobody able to bring it under control and the referee doing his best to keep his cards in his pocket.

Derby under Frank Lampard are undoubtedly more of a passing side than they were under Gary Rowett, but my perception was that they went considerably more direct than usual for this game.  Their pass success dropped to 69 per cent, well below their usual average.  There were a lot of long clearances from Scott Carson, who even waved Richard Keogh away to take a long free kick from outside of his box on one occasion, something he doesn’t usually do.  The idea was to allow Jack Marriott to charge around and worry Michael Hefele and the German felt it necessary to rugby tackle Jack to the ground at one stage, earning a caution.

But the relentlessness of the forward balls meant that possession was often squandered unnecessarily.  Annoyingly, there were plenty of presentable opportunities for the defenders or central midfielders to pick out a pass, only for them to sling it straight out of play, or into the clutches of the beartrap midfield of Claudio Yacob and Jack Colback, who acted as a robust barrier in front of a makeshift-looking visiting back four – which creaked under pressure, but didn’t get pushed enough to cave.

Mason Mount, who hasn’t scored since September and has been subbed three times in the last five games, couldn’t find any room to operate and was worryingly quiet, other than smashing a decent chance well over the bar on the volley.  Tom Huddlestone’s passing started to fail him and, unable to calm down and control the game, Derby played into Forest’s hands.  They became bogged down in a second half which was more like trench warfare than a game.  There was no flow or momentum, not least because Derby conceded a free kick pretty much every time they conceded possession – 21, in total, with every outfield player fouling at least once.

Nevertheless, for all that the game became bitty and formless, there were moments which could have swung it decisively towards the home side, with a bit more luck or a better decision.  Firstly, Tom Lawrence burst through a challenge and reached the D, where he went for glory, smashing the ball wide when he could have released Marriott clean through on goal.  It looked an awful decision, but one entirely typical of a player whose first and only thought is for how he can score himself and never to check whether a teammate is in a better position.

Next came a beautifully struck volley from Harry Wilson – perhaps he hit it too purely when a slight scuff might have sent it trickling past the keeper.  Jayden Bogle had earlier caught a rasper absolutely wonderfully, only for it to land directly in Costel Pantilimon’s midriff.  And of course, also in the first half, Tom Huddlestone had been just an inch away from converting a nod-down from a corner; having cleverly stayed onside, he wasn’t quite athletic enough to make the connection he needed.

At the other end, Grabban, apparently played onside by Bogle, went clean through and forced a save from Carson when the goal looked very much to be gaping.  The fine margins which could easily have tipped the balance in either direction ultimately conspired to keep both sides in a grim deadlock.

Taking the local hoo-ha out of it, this was a clash between two serious play-off candidates and was therefore predictably tough, tight and gruelling.  I half-wondered beforehand if it might be akin to October’s difficult Sheffield United game – the return leg of that is coming soon, by the way – which ultimately swung our way and it was certainly nearer to that match in terms of being evenly poised throughout.  In this case, however, there was to be no breakthrough.

In a way, it’s good that Forest are good again and that the next City Ground game is likely to be one freighted with plenty more meaning than just the destiny of the Brian Clough Trophy.  We need these matches, even if they always have the potential to turn into sour, grim slugfests – particularly when they stay goalless for a long time.

Saturday 23 February – or whatever date Sky Sports decide it needs to be moved to for the sake of their ratings – will be not be a day for the faint-hearted.

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