Derby running free

Derby County 3 Simpson 12, 75, Van der Laan 21 Huddersfield Town 2 Booth 2, Thornley 81 Attendance: 17,097
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The Independent Online
MONEY counts more and more these days when it comes to reaching - and staying in - the Premiership, but it is not always about how much you spend; often it is more about how you spend. Having tried throwing money at a promotion challenge, Derby County now look, finally, to have it about right.

With his detailed knowledge of the Endsleigh League, their shrewd and experienced manager Jim Smith has assembled at a more reasonable expense a side capable of making the leap forward. Yesterday, they extended their unbeaten run to 19 matches and their lead at the top of the First Division to nine points.

It was a closer-run thing than it should have been, but Huddersfield Town have also prospered under their new manager Brian Horton and have promotion ambitions of their own. But for playing the brighter passing football in the face of some worthy but ponderous stuff from Huddersfield, Derby deserved the win.

While Smith has done well to recruit such notables as the Croatian sweeper Igor Stimac and the Dutch attacker Ron Willems, Horton has made sound signings in Lee Makel from Blackburn Rovers and the on-loan 20-year-old Ben Thornley - a Manchester United wonderkid until a nasty injury.

Horton has also done well to hold on to the lanky England Under-21 striker Andy Booth and it took just two minutes to see why they are so keen to keep him for a while yet: when Steve Jenkins's low ball came in from the right, Booth darted ahead of Stimac and turned the ball in for his 17th goal of the season.

Derby were stunned; the prospect of their first league defeat since last November, was clearly not one they enjoyed, as they demonstrated in a vivacious response engineered from midfield by Robin Van Der Laan. Within nine minutes they were level. In another nine they were ahead.

First the Dutchman won the ball in midfield and threaded forward a neat ball for Dean Sturridge, whose low cross from the right was turned home by Paul Simpson. Then Van Der Laan took over himself for an excellent second, again winning the ball in midfield and bursting through three Huddersfield tackles before driving home a fierce left-footed shot. Sturridge looked about to take the ball from his feet at one point then clearly thought better of it.

Now the score reflected the merits of the two teams with Derby flowingly creating some good chances. The other Derby Dutchman, Willems, playing just behind the strikers, headed just over and then drove narrowly wide, while Darryl Powell forced Steve Francis into a scrambling low save. Van Der Laan was at it again with a thumping 25-yard shot a yard too high as Derby sought to stretch out.

In a second half that did not reach the same heights as the first, Derby finally stretched them with a splendid third, Simpson's second. When his corner from the right was cleared, he retrieved the loose ball and curled home a powerful shot.

Nine minutes from time, a neatly headed goal by Thornley - a classy outlet on the left - caused home palpitations, but Derby clung on.

As Smith says: "There's a resilience to us to go with the ability. We have a tremendous opportunity now."

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