Managerless Blackpool are left rocking as the Rams burst from the blocks
HOW would losing their manager, Ian Holloway, to Crystal Palace only hours before kick off affect Blackpool?
Derby County fans wrestled with the question as they took their seats at Pride Park ahead of Saturday’s Championship clash.
The answer quickly unfolded.
Concerns we might see a defiant “it’s business as usual” response from the visitors soon eased as determined Derby took a firm grip that they rarely looked like relinquishing.
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Stung by defeat seven days earlier, the players were clearly in the mood to make amends for what had been a sloppy, mistake-ridden display at Peterborough.
They burst from the blocks in a manner that sends a chilling signal to opponents that they could be in for a long afternoon.
Theo Robinson and John Brayford struck in the first half and although Tom Ince converted a penalty four minutes after half-time, Derby rallied again and the game as a contest was over with almost half an hour still to play.
Robinson grabbed his second goal and Conor Sammon gleefully found the net from a yard to complete a convincing 4-1 victory.
Whichever team in the Championship had stood in Derby’s way and whether they had a manager or not, they would have had their hands full.
Robinson had already seen a shot parried by Matt Gilks before the striker fired Derby ahead after 12 minutes.
A neat move started deep in the Rams’ own half when Will Hughes caressed a pass into Craig Bryson’s path. He found Robinson, collected the return and worked it out to Paul Coutts. His low centre found Robinson, whose crisp first-time shot from eight yards fizzed low past Gilks.
Derby had dominated and it is always important to score when on top.
Blackpool had seen little of the ball, although they were nearly level as Matt Phillips’ pacy low centre found Gary Taylor-Fletcher, whose effort was diverted narrowly wide courtesy of Richard Keogh’s last-ditch tackle.
But the half belonged to Derby.
Bryson drilled a shot at Gilks and Robinson was inches away from a telling connection when Hughes whipped in a low cross before Derby doubled their lead after 31 minutes.
Coutts played a short corner with Jeff Hendrick and picked out Brayford, who swept a shot from just inside the area beyond Gilks.
The quality of the finish belied the fact it was only the right-back’s second goal of his Derby career and his first in two years.
Bryson’s return from injury injected the energy that had been missing at Peterborough and although it meant Hughes moved from the centre to a role on the left of midfield, the 17-year-old was a threat when he popped up as an inside-left, from where he almost made it three when his shot was deflected inches wide.
Blackpool are now without a win in five and they have picked up only five points from the last 24. They appeared to be feeling sorry for themselves.
Steve Thompson was in charge as caretaker manager, a tough ask at such short notice, but the team seemed to lack the urgency that Holloway’s sides possess and the urgency he tends to infuse from the touchline.
They managed to reduce the deficit early in the second half.
Sammon lost possession in attack and Phillips broke at pace. When Keogh slid in and blocked Phillips’ shot, referee Mick Russell awarded a penalty for handball.
Keogh’s arm was up but the decision was very harsh.
Adam Legzdins, who saved a penalty at Peterborough, guessed the right way. He got a hand to Ince’s low spot kick but could not keep it out.
Blackpool threatened to add a second and James O’Connor blocked Taylor-Fletcher’s strike, an important moment, but it took Derby only five minutes to restore their two-goal cushion and their control.
Kirk Broadfoot’s careless pass invited Robinson to pounce. He surged past Alex Baptiste, held off Angel Martinez, kept his concentration despite Ian Evatt thundering in and finished with some aplomb under Gilks at the goalkeeper’s near post.
The timing of the third goal was perfect because by arriving within minutes of Blackpool’s goal it did not allow home nerves to fray.
Robinson has scored five goals in his last six games and has seven for the season. He will not be drawn on targets but, at this rate, last season’s tally of 12 is under serious threat.
Sammon has found goals more difficult to come by.
He needed one, having gone nine matches without scoring, and his second in a Derby shirt arrived after 65 minutes.
Coutts exchanged passes with Robinson to work his way out of a tight situation on the right and fired in a low centre for Sammon to finish from close range.
It was the sort of opportunity strikers dream about when the goals have run dry.
It also felt like a big moment for Sammon, who had a poor afternoon in the previous home game against Blackburn Rovers.
Against Blackpool, there was an improvement in his control of the ball when it was played up to him. In the main, it stuck and this allowed Derby to build attacks.
He can still do better in certain situations but his unselfish hard work for the team has been evident in his 13 appearances and while front men should not be judged totally on their goals’ return, a few along the way tends to keep criticism at bay.
Another of the summer signings, Coutts, had a hand in three of the four goals and his combination with Brayford up and down the right is blossoming. Both impressed again.
When Derby needed to defend, Brayford, Keogh and “steady Eddies” James O’Connor and Gareth Roberts did so. O’Connor, a right-back, came in for the suspended Jake Buxton and his best performances for Derby have been at centre-back.
Roberts had too much experience for young Ince in the second half.
Ince is a jewel in Blackpool’s attack but he became increasingly frustrated and petulant and was one of three Blackpool players booked in the final 10 minutes as realisation dawned that they had been well beaten.
Ince’s team-mate, Phillips, saw a rising drive tipped over by Adam Legzdins, something none of the officials spotted, but Derby could have stretched their lead.
Sammon and substitute Michael Jacobs had sights of goal and the referee ignored loud appeals for handball as Nathan Tyson battled in Blackpool’s area. It looked more of a penalty than the one given against Derby.
Robinson and Hughes received hearty ovations when replaced, as did Hendrick, whose display at Peterborough had been criticised by manager Nigel Clough.
There was an arm around the shoulder from Clough and a word in the ear of the young midfielder when he came off after 82 minutes on Saturday.
Asked what he had said to Hendrick, Clough replied: “I asked what he thought the best part of his performance had been.
“He mentioned closing down and putting the ball in good areas and he did both.
“But I told him the best part was the crunching tackle he made in front of the dugout.
“That was as pleasing as anything because you have to have aggression in your game and he didn’t get near anybody at Peterborough.
“It was much better from Jeff. He knows what we think of him and how much we rate him as a player and as a lad.”
Kieron Freeman came on for his debut. He was one of six players aged 20 or under in the Rams’ 18.
Blackpool was the first of four home games this month. It is never wise to look too far ahead in the Championship but should Derby take advantage of the remaining three, belief will continue to grow.