To misquote the great Barry Davies: “You have to say that was magnificent”.
For a team who had been so bewilderingly poor, who had been completely written off and who were, let’s be honest, widely tipped to roll over and have their bellies tickled by Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City to put in that level of sheer effort was fully deserving of both the three points and of maximum praise.
Against Boro, they put in the work, but were punished for their mistakes and looked much too blunt in attack. Against Cardiff, they had the rub of the green on two occasions at the back. Bradley Johnson got away with his latest brainfart because there’s no VAR and Gary Madine missed his kick when a strong connection from his left foot probably would have billowed the net for 2-0.
But Derby were the dominant force for most of the game. They pressurised a notoriously miserly and physical Cardiff defence and, by banging at the door long and loud enough, forced them into a series of game-changing howlers. It wasn’t pretty, but my word, it was stirring stuff when the levee finally broke.
They didn’t create any goals through pure quality. They just summoned them into being through sheer force of will.
It started with a panicked Aron Gunnarsson muffing a clearance when a cooler head – an “Iceman”, you could say – would have realised that ‘keeper Neil Etheridge could have claimed the loose ball comfortably. It reached its delirious zenith when a dozy Yanic Wildschut failed to realise that Andre Wisdom, playing as right wing back, had pushed right up to him, nearly on the Cardiff goal line. If I’d been in the Dutchman’s shoes, I’d have skipped the dressing room, walked straight out into the car park and hailed a taxi back to Cardiff, rather than face Warnock’s wrath.
But most appetisingly, most satisfyingly of all, it ended with Warnock’s captain and leader of men, “Mr Big Willy” himself, Sean Morrison, suddenly being obliged to reassess the relative scale of his genitalia, as the clearly handsomely proportioned Cameron Jerome thrust him aside and stabbed the ball under Etheridge’s dive for a truly hilarious clincher.
What a night. What a turnaround. And what a colossal shift the Rams put in to make it happen.
Cardiff are horrible to watch, but horribly effective. Suddenly, after weathering five minutes of pressure, there they are, in and around your penalty area, testing your physical strength and tenacity with crosses and long throws. They play something more akin to rugby, or gridiron, punting it forward to gain yardage before heaving the ball over the line. Even throws from their own half are hurled as far as possible away from their own goal.
To be in contention for automatic promotion to the Premier League with an overall pass success for the season of less than 60 per cent flies in the face of every trend going and even common sense. But it’s working because they almost exclusively pass it into straight into the opposition’s final third, from wherever they happen to be standing – if you don’t keep it in you own third of the pitch, you don’t usually run the risk of giving it away there. There’s a cynical logic there and while Warnock’s style of football might have gone out of fashion years ago, he abides, the last of his dinosaur race, stubbornly refusing to go extinct.
For Derby to stand up to the aerial barrage and hassle the Bluebirds at the other end until they could take no more and collapsed was a terrific achievement. Granted, the Rams could have shown more precision with their final pass into the box at times, but the bottom line is this – the players proved that they are prepared to work together and fight together as a team.
People like to talk about managers ‘losing the dressing room’ and after some of the recent performances, that cliched accusation has been thrown around a bit. This performance, rough around the edges though it may have been at times, proved that was absolute nonsense. Teams who aren’t motivated to try don’t win games like that. They lose and reach for whatever excuses they can grab.
The manager has to be credited for his bold decision to drop Matej Vydra, but also for introducing him when he did. Vydra was very quickly booted up in the air, forcing the ref to book two Cardiff players, because they couldn’t live with his pace and skill. He didn’t necessarily turn the tide of the game single-handedly, as Derby were pushing hard anyway, but he had the quality we needed to take the chance to win it when it finally arrived. And now, the Rams have got the Championship’s leading goalscorer.
Let’s just put everything else to one side for a minute – play-offs, promotion, forget all that – after all the disappointments of recent times, it was just vital that we won a game of football. To go and do so in that manner, to beat that lot in a way which genuinely restored pride and put a smiles on faces again, was absolutely amazing.
Rowett deserves credit for having the stones to change the shape and risk it backfiring. There was more fluidity, more movement, seemingly more freedom for players to get forward into areas where they could hurt the opposition. Maybe not enough precision at times, but if the players can settle into this new formation – and Rowett said after the game that 4-2-3-1 was “done” for the season – then it bodes well for the future.
Certainly, Keogh warmed to his task of striding out from the back, at times, playing more like an all-action box-to-box midfielder than a defender. Maybe Morrison’s pathetic video had an impact on Keogh, after all – but if it did, it was the exact opposite of what the overgrown child responsible had intended.
Love how in honour of Morrison Keogh never passed back once.. Bounded forward EVERYTIME .. ???
— EmJay ✌️ (@EmmaKinsey7) April 24, 2018
Ok. Having refused to do so since Sunderland, I’ve now been drawn into the madness of checking everybody’s remaining fixtures and trying to work out what will happen next. It’s very quickly made me feel a bit dizzy.
The bottom line is that nobody should presume that a play-off spot is in any way guaranteed, just because we’re playing Barnsley on the last day. If you think that’s a banker after everything we’ve already been through, honestly, there’s no helping you… The Cardiff win is a start, but that’s all it was.
Defeat at Villa would see us drop straight back out of the top six if Millwall also won at Middlesbrough – a tough assignment for them, sure, but they can’t be underestimated. Whatever happens, it’s almost definitely going down to the final day and oh my head.
Of course, if we do manage to sneak into the play-offs, the most likely opponents are either everyone’s favourites Fulham, or Cardiff again…
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.