Like many supporters of the Royal Blue the expectations of a positive result from this encounter were high in my mind but that did not hide the nagging doubts that any away tie in the FA Cup brings regardless of the opposition. We had of course negotiated tricky ties against Forest following a replay and the Daddy of them all Everton whom I have to say I did not expect to get past at Goodison. After all that we couldn’t fail at Pride Park could we?
The 147 miles from home to a potholed muddy car park near the ground went without hitch. I travelled up alone for this one since Will had failed to get his act in gear in time to get a ticket before they were sold out. I rang him having just enjoyed a truly delicious hot roast pork bap with sage and onion stuffing; yes proper meat! I had a pint in my hand and was among the faithful throng and said to Will that I could not believe that he was not with us instead of being at home romancing his wife. “She wo’ appreciate it Will” I said “Sod off Baz” came the rather disgruntled reply. I promised to keep him posted although he was going to be sitting by the radio all afternoon; logic eh? He may as well as come to the game if he was going to ignore his missus anyway! 😛
Blues were back to the eleven that have served us so well over the last four or so months and for the first twenty–five minutes appeared to control the game well although there were no clear chances for either side. The poor weather had clearly taken its toll on the Derby pitch and the surface was in poorer condition than the one we have got used to at St Andrews. This made it difficult for the Blues to get their passing game together and may explain the greater use of the longer ball into channels and onto the pacy Jerome. Derby did play a high line encouraging this ploy presumably to squeeze the midfield and stifle Bowyer and Fergusson. These tactics started to pay off in the last 15 minutes of the half when Blues got sloppy and began to give the ball away cheaply. Derby were working very hard and gave us all a reminder of what it is like to play Championship football week in week out with an industrious, in your face, attritional performance which began to pay off with threatening crosses into the Birmingham box. The game plan appeared simple to get it wide, get it in and fight for the scraps.
It took half an hour for the first chance on goal when Bowyer getting his head down and going for goal from well outside the area. The shot lacked the power to trouble Bywater but the keeper needed to be mindful of the bumpy pitch which could have taken the shot in. This effort seemed to act as a catalyst for further chances as they came and went in a flurry. Christian Benitez connected with a weak header that was gathered easily and by far the best chance of the half fell to Jerome when his strike partner put him clean through for a one-on-one with the goalkeeper. His side-footed effort was well saved round the post for a corner but Jerome should have scored. This was for me a defining moment in the game because I believe that if this goes in Blues go on to win this match comfortably instead of the heart stopping event it became.
Derby buoyed by their fortunate escape grew in confidence aided by sloppy play from Blues to create one or two chances of their own just before the break. Stephen Pearson drilled a fierce shot into the chest of Hart standing at his near upright in the first half after a neat exchange of passes with Michael Tonge and then Shaun Barker was denied by an exceptional point blank save from the keeper that was cleared finally by Dann. Blues were lucky to get away with this and shouts of ‘wake up’ could be heard among the large contingent of away fans.
Like many, I had hoped that McCleish would get Blues refocused following what had been a careless, complacent and sloppy 15 minutes that a better team than Derby would undoubtedly have exploited. Unfortunately, the stuporous torpor continued and Blues allowed Derby too much play. Derby are what they are; a below average Championship side but they were working their socks off and were first to every ball at this stage and deservedly took the lead on 55 minutes. From a remarkably similar position to Bowyer in the first half, McEveley hit a highly speculative shot from over thirty yards across Hart who appeared to have it covered. He seemed to go down too early so when the ball kicked up wickedly off the pitch (I’ve seen ploughed fields flatter that this) over him into the roof of the net. Alex McCleish said in one of his interviews after the game that it looked like we were going out of the Cup and for the 18 minutes that followed the goal so did I. Derby’s tails were up now and they continued to harass our midfield. Changes were needed and they duly came on 65 minutes when the disappointing Benitez was replaced by Kevin Phillips and Fahey came on for the ineffective Larsson who had not had one of his better games. This seemed to wake Blues up and Derby started to defend deeper. However, we were not really threatening Derby’s rugged defence but corners and free kicks were stating to happen more. On 73 minutes there was salvation. McFadden’s in-swinging corner was won by Scott Dann whose powerful downward header squeezed in at the foot of the post despite the presence of a defender on the line. The 5,500 Blues fans erupted the previously taunting home fans silenced. The game was opening up now and both sides went full bloodedly for the win. Derby were now under the greater pressure as fatigue began to get the better of their valiant midfield still led by the classy Robbie Savage who, whatever we all may think of him, is a cut above anything else Derby currently have in their side.
Big Eck made the last of his substitutions on 82 minutes when McFadden got the hook for the oncoming Craig Gardner. This was to prove decisive. In time added on, a free kick given away by a tiring Derby defender was lined up by Gardner. He fired it in but I’m unconvinced he caught it as cleanly as he would have liked. The ball nevertheless came fast at Phillips standing round the penalty spot. The little fox in the box controlled it swivelled and sent a shot off in the direction of the goal in one flowing, instinctive movement only for the ball to thump against the foot of the post. What happened next seemed to occur in slow motion. The ball ricocheted across the goal spinning as it did so but agonisingly slowly. Unhindered the ball would undoubtedly have crossed the line to complete a truly brilliant strike but with two defenders nearby it would probably have been cleared. Liam Ridgewell who seems to be making a habit of being on the far post when needed lunged at the ball and from two inches crashed the ball into the net for the winner. The roar from the Blues fans was tangible and the fat bloke next to me hugged me like a long lost cousin; a dramatic end to a full blooded, no quarter given cup tie. There was still time for Joe Hart to redeem himself from his misjudgement earlier. Robbie Savage, of all people, cracked a wonderful thirty yards volley which dipped viciously and was destined for the top corner before Hart dived acrobatically to get both hand to the ball to send it over the bar to safety. It only remained for Phillips, Jerome and Gardner between them to play keep ball in the corner for the win. Another tricky tie negotiated for Blues. Derby will feel they deserved a replay and I have much sympathy with that view. They will claim that they had periods in the game when they were the better side but this is illusory. Savage, Tongue and Commons were excellent for Derby with our old player being the pick. However, despite their hard work and laudable unsettling of their Premiership opponents, they were never really good enough to hold on once they had got ahead. They were undone by the fact that they failed to defend two set pieces properly and that will cost you whatever level you are playing at.
Derby: Bywater 7; Hunt 7, Barker 7, Buxton 7, McEveley 8; Tonge 8, Green 6, Savage 9, Pearson 7; Hulse 6, Commons 8
Birmingham: Hart 6; Carr 7, Johnson 7, Dann 9, Ridgewell 8; Larsson 6 (Fahey 64 7), Ferguson 8, Bowyer 7, McFadden 6 (Gardner 82 6); Jerome 6, Benítez 6 (Phillips 65 8)
Referee: Martin Atkinson 7
Attendance: 21,843 (amazed that for a local derby with a quarter-final place at stake that Pride Park wasn’t packed. We did our bit though! 😀 )
Man of the Match: Robbie Savage worked tirelessly all afternoon and is still a stand out player despite the ravages of time. I enjoyed the incident when he inadvertently kicked the ball into the nether regions of the assistant referee in the first half. He behaved impeccably despite enormous provocation from the Blue Army and he only reacted once when he gestured towards us by rubbing his fingers together in response to “there’s only one greedy bastard!”