Gray the difference as luckless Derby County downed by Burnley

Burnley’s big money signing Andre Gray was the star of the show in a game that swung alarmingly away from Derby County in a disastrous second-half spell.

Gray, signed from Brentford for an initial £6.25m, possibly rising to £9.75m with add-ons, was Burnley’s only real goal threat, but did enough on his own to swing the game to Sean Dyche’s Clarets – hassling Richard Keogh into deflecting Matt Lowton’s cross into the net to put Burnley 1-0 ahead, before winning a penalty, which he converted for 2-1.  Jason Shackell – harangued by Gray’s lurking presence in the box – conceded a second penalty minutes later, this time scored by the otherwise largely anonymous Sam Vokes.

Gray’s pace and willingness to drive in the box and put the centre backs under pressure created three goals for Burnley, while Derby’s slick build-up play resulted in countless crosses into the home side’s box, but with no takers.

Scott Arfield’s deflected fourth, scored after a shellshocked Derby were caught pushing too many midfielders forward, was simply a case of standing in a dog turd after you’ve just realised that your bike’s been pinched.

It was a sickening result, nothing like what Derby deserved, but leaves the Rams well off the automatic promotion pace and in dire need of something to drop their way, before a blip turns into a full-blown 2014/5 style blow-up.  The FA Cup tie against Manchester United on Friday night could actually prove to be a welcome distraction from Paul Clement’s Championship travails.

It could have been so different and at the interval, Derby could count themselves very unfortunate to only be level.  For the first half-hour, they were back to their old selves, putting in an assured passing performance that was simply the polar opposite of the disjointed, incoherent back-to-back home disappointments of last week.

In the second minute, Chris Martin had a deflected close-range shot saved by Tom Heaton, after Burnley failed to clear a free kick.  A promising situation for Derby was then wasted by an awful throughball by Bradley Johnson, before Tom Ince was allowed to wriggle inside on his left foot and shoot from twenty yards, only to see it beaten away by Heaton. Derby came forward again and a lovely cross from Cyrus Christie was cleared behind by a relieved Burnley for a corner.

On 15 minutes, a smooth Derby move forward resulted a great ball from Ince to find Nick Blackman, stationed on the left wing, whose low cross was cleared away.  At this stage, Derby were dominating possession and creating all the opportunities.  They won two more corners, both taken short, and from the second, George Thorne saw a drive from the edge of the box blocked by an onrushing defender.

Stephen Warnock then had a drilled low cross deflected behind for another corner, as Burnley stood up to something of an onslaught, retreating to their own box and weathering the storm.  Another short corner led to a Christie cross, but Shackell could only loop his header onto the top of the Burnley crossbar.

Blackman went on a menacing run down the wing, but after eluding Lowton, was tackled by the covering George Boyd.  Blackman, who has now been deployed on the right, left and in the centre in his first three games for Derby, showed flickering promise, but was ultimately unable to deliver any end product on the night.

Another flowing move saw Christie’s cross cleared away as Derby continued to test Burnley’s resilience – but again, the home side were up to the task and cleared the danger.

At this stage, Derby had managed six shots to Burnley’s one, but they fell behind in the 29th minute.  Lowton’s nifty footwork on the right gave him space to whip in a cross from the touchline, which Keogh, stalked by the lurking Gray, diverted beyond Scott Carson. Picking the ball out of his net was pretty much the first thing the Cumbrian ‘keeper had done all night.

How would Derby respond?  In the most spectacular fashion.  Seconds later, Martin’s lay-off sat up for Jacob Butterfield, who guided a world-class volley from just outside the box beyond the sprawling Heaton and into the far corner of the net.  It was a beautiful goal and the least the Rams deserved on the run of play.

But Burnley came close to retaking the lead only seconds later.  Keogh, again pressurised by Gray, failed to deal with an aimless punt into the box and allowed it to bounce.  Gray got a toe onto it, divert the ball beyond Carson and beyond the post.  It was a bit of a let-off and a harbinger of the Rams’ eventual fate in the match.

The next chance, only a couple of minutes later, came to Derby and was spurned.  Christie’s cross was controlled by Blackman, whose shot was deflected behind for yet another corner.  Ince’s delivery was cleared back to him to volley a cross, which was flicked on to the back post, where, with Derby players queuing up to stick it in the net, Blackman extended his favoured left foot, rather than his right, and somehow hooked the ball over the bar from virtually under it.  What an opportunity – and how that miss would come to be rued.

Turf Moor was eerily quiet at this stage and the Burnley fans were reduced to repeatedly screaming for handball in the box under the flimsiest of pretexts and castigating the referee for giving Derby a free kick, after Ben Mee clearly nailed Martin in midfield.

Martin then had a shot blocked after another Derby move forward, before Burnley broke themselves and Vokes fashioned himself a rare shooting opportunity with neat footwork, only to pick out Carson with a drive from inside the D.  Burnley were finally starting to pose more questions of the Derby defence, for the first time in what was becoming a lively match.

Blackman had another foray down the left halted by another good tackle from Lowton, before Gray was released forward, only to be tackled out by Shackell and whinge at the ref for a non-existent foul.

Ince then drove forward to the edge of the box, but had his shot charged down, before Warnock sent a lovely ball flashing across the six-yard box, which was turned behind for yet another corner.  It was a cross which demanded attention, but mysteriously, there were no takers in a white shirt and Burnley escaped.

That was the last chance of a half dominated by Derby – a welcome 45 minutes of spirited and often strikingly fluent play from the Rams, who were unrecognisable to this point from the shambles of their preceding two matches at the iPro Stadium.  Certainly, it was the best half of football they had turned in for some time and a very welcome reminder of what the players are capable of – a less defensively competent side than Burnley would have crumbled under the pressure.

But Derby had failed to take advantage of holding the upper hand for long spells and there was always the lingering fear that they would be made to pay for not being ruthless enough.

Gray certainly wasn’t going to allow Derby to have it all their own way.  His terrifying run across the defence and into the penalty area looked certain to end in a goal before an excellent intervention by Christie, who then strode forward to release the Rams on a promising counter.  Ince made his way into the box, but was always looking to get himself onto his favoured left foot before, under pressure from Mee, his right-footed effort rolled across Heaton and wide.

Then came a moment of play which finally elicited a roar from the torpid Burnley fans.  A scrap for possession on the Derby left saw Warnock put in a block tackle, only to slip as he threatened to release the Rams forward.  Johnson tried to retrieve the ball and looked to have been fouled, but the referee waved play on and Scott Arfield nutmegged the retreating Warnock and strode forward, playing the ball to Vokes, who won a corner.

Keane’s header was deflected behind for another corner, from which Derby launched another dangerous counter-attack.  Blackman was released in plenty of space and had Ince screaming for the ball on the left, but delayed the pass and the move only resulted in a corner, when Burnley were looking vulnerable to a quicker spring.

It was another chance passed up and Derby were made to pay in the most dramatic fashion.  Gray got into the box again and twisted his way past Shackell before hurling himself over the desperately covering Keogh.  The penalty was won and duly converted, down the middle by Gray.

Derby had to pick themselves up again – but on the balance of play, the game was by no means up.

Then suddenly and shockingly, it was.  A ball into the box caught Shackell, marking Gray, in two minds and he handled it.  This time, Vokes took the penalty and made no mistake.

Still, there was more than half an hour to go and Derby had certainly created enough chances in the game to make you think that mounting a comeback was not beyond them. , Johnson was presented with the next shooting opportunity, striding through the midfield, but failing to properly catch his strike from about 25 yards and seeing it trickle through to Heaton.

And then, finally, it was over – Derby tried to push forward to nick the ball, Thorne absented his holding position, Arfield was found in a pocket and drove towards the Derby box with zero resistance. He reached shooting range, let fly and with a savage inevitability, the ball looped off the onrushing Shackell and over the curiously positioned Carson, who was several yards off his line, and into the gaping goal.  It was enough to make you want to throw up.

At this stage, the danger was of a five or six goal hiding.  Not because Burnley had particularly created anything, but simply because every time they went anywhere near Derby’s goal, it went in.  They had nine shots and scored four.  That is freakish.  If 45% of all shots went in, every game would finish about 5-5, at least.

Johnson was hooked before Joey Barton got him sent off and has absolutely no right to expect to play against Manchester United in the cup.  Abdoul Camara came on and looked like what he is – a quick, skillful, natural left winger, who absolutely should play on Friday.

And in the last few minutes, there was a cameo for Craig Bryson.  The forgotten man.  One of the positives to take out of this debacle – and there are some – is Bryson’s return, because he could be the man we need at this stage.  What Bryson can do, which Butterfield and Johnson apparently can’t, is burst into the bloody box and get on the end of crosses and flick-ons.  If anybody had shown the desire to get in there in the first half, when we had a chance of winning the match, perhaps we wouldn’t have ended up on the end of such a lop-sided and ridiculous scoreline.

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