Derby County show hunger and desire to defeat Leicester City and gain vital breathing space
A MOST welcome first win in six weeks lifted Derby County from the jaws of the relegation zone to a place in the top half – albeit briefly – encapsulating perfectly within the space of a few hours the madness of the Championship.
The division plays havoc with the emotions, as East Midlands rivals Derby and Leicester City can vouch.
Results had been unkind to Derby throughout Saturday afternoon in the countdown to a clash staged in the early evening for the benefit of television.
The selfish tinkering by TV companies of when fixtures are played and at what time is grossly unfair on supporters but is an issue nobody in football appears to have the stomach to address.
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And so Rams fans waited and fretted, their team sliding down the table without kicking a ball.
When the sliding stopped, Derby sat 18th – their lowest position since August – and three points above the bottom three.
The threat of being dragged into a late-season survival scrap was very real but what was happening elsewhere was out of their control.
They could only concentrate on the task ahead and deliver.
And they delivered.
It was tense and scruffy for much of the time but this was about the result and not the performance.
Derby's displays in recent weeks merited more points than four from 24 but that was their return and things had to change.
Needs must in such situations.
They deserved this 2-1 win and ground it out thanks to hunger and desire.
They also produced the two telling moments of quality in a first half in which they were the better side.
The first goal came after 16 minutes. Jamie Ward, back from injury, curled in a free kick and the pace, trajectory and quality of the delivery had Leicester's defence at sixes and sevens.
Whoever was meant to pick up Richard Keogh failed to do so and the Rams skipper easily climbed above Sean St Ledger to glance an unstoppable header past Kasper Schmeichel from eight yards.
Playing Ward was a gamble, given his hamstring trouble, but the gamble paid off.
He gave St Ledger a tough time from his position on the left and was unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty when the Leicester defender, caught out of position, seemed to push Ward as the forward moved to reach a Paul Coutts cross.
Derby also wanted a penalty when Kieron Freeman went down under a challenge from Richie Wellens but the Rams were celebrating again when Chris Martin put them two up a minute before the break.
Sammon, who won the free kick for the first goal, found Ward and he fed Craig Forsyth, who was up from left-back. Forsyth's centre dropped over Michael Keane and Martin planted a free header wide of Kasper Schmeichel.
Martin's first goal of his loan spell from Norwich was a reward for the impact he has made. The striker drops off defenders to receive possession and brings control and a calmness to Derby's play.
Leicester's defending on both goals made a mockery of the fact they still own the best defensive record in the division.
And the Foxes, promotion hopefuls, did little going forward in the first half to trouble Frank Fielding, who was recalled for his first appearance in more than five months.
Fielding, preferred to Adam Legzdins, watched Lloyd Dyer drag a shot wide before he saved a low effort from David Nugent.
Leicester went more direct in the second half and pulled a goal back just after the hour when Nugent's neat control and lay-off invited substitute Jeff Schlupp to smash a ferocious finish from 16 yards past Fielding.
Nugent had a golden opportunity to level moments later but shot straight at Fielding and the pattern was set for a nerve-jangling final half hour.
Although Derby had their moments through Martin, Sammon and Ben Davies, the visitors piled forward.
Derby dropped too deep at times – understandable when Schmeichel constantly smashes the ball to the edge of the box – but central defenders Keogh and Jake Buxton patrolled magnificently.
They were supported by full-backs Freeman and Forysth, who filled in at left-back for the injured Gareth Roberts.
The midfielders grafted, and the energetic Craig Bryson somehow managed to complete the game despite being a major doubt with a groin problem.
All those in a white shirt epitomised the spirit, none more so than Keogh.
At fault for the first goal in the defeat at Birmingham, the skipper responded with a display of great determination and guts. He headed and cleared every ball that came his way.
With his mud-splattered shirt, Keogh looked like he had played three games and not one.
He also gave the impression he was willing to go through another 90 minutes, if needed.
Yes, there was a lack of composure to Derby's play in the second half and it was not pretty but it was great to see the team dig in and the crowd played their part. They appreciated the efforts of the players.
Leicester boss Nigel Pearson described the game as "awful" and yet the way his expensively-assembled stuttering side huffed and puffed in a desperate manner was as much to blame as anything.
With only one win in their last nine, this was another wake-up call for Leicester, who are down to sixth and might find themselves edged out of the promotion picture.
That is of no concern to Derby.
They have played much better than this, and lost.
What mattered on this occasion is that they won.