Football: Derby miss the target

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The Independent Online
Derby County 1 Simpson 55 Birmingham City 1 Breen 74 Attendance: 16,757 Jim Smith, Derby County's ever-realistic manager, had said that automatic promotion to the Premiership rather than through the play-offs was entirely in his own team's hands, not to speak of their feet. But their feet trembled horribly at the Baseball Ground yesterday, leaving them needing to beat their nearest rivals, Crystal Palace, next Sunday to secure their place. The real benefactors of this draw were Sunderland, who are now guaranteed promotion.

Derby had already assured themselves of at least a play-off place by drawing with Charlton last weekend, but what would a place in the Premiership bring? If Bolton Wanderers, a better balanced and brighter attacking side than any now in the First Division, have found it such a struggle to stay up, what of the new hopefuls? To begin with, Derby are going to pay heavily if they reject the sort of scoring openings gifted to them yesterday when Ashley Ward made nothing of three chances that could have wrapped up the game within the first seven minutes.

Admittedly, Derby were slightly under strength, but they never took advantage of their opportunities or even of the farce in which Birmingham's keeper, Bart Griemink, threw the ball out and hit his colleague Paul Barnes's shoulder. Derby failed to notice and the ball rebounded to Griemink. The game soon became a humourless struggle in which an uncertain Birmingham defence held on without hope of long-term security.

Derby's decision to leave Marco Gabbiadini on the bench was done for the best of reasons - that his goalscoring form seemed to have deserted him - but his control was missed and the whole team lapsed into ill-considered, long-ball optimism that did them little credit.

So, for a brief while, Birmingham glimpsed a victory that their defending never justified. In the end, though, it was that defensive insecurity which was to dash their hopes. In the 55th minute, Paul Trollope industriously built up one of Derby's more positive attacks down the left. As Paul Simpson collected Trollope's low ball into the heart of the area, Griemink came out and made to block the expected shot. As it was, Simpson merely rolled the ball past him.

Briefly, Derby seemed about to consolidate their advantage, but misdirected passing in midfield and lack of leadership in attack let them down. To the relief of their fans, Gabbiadini came on after 71 minutes and immediately found space ahead of Birmingham's defence.

But three minutes later a long throw by one substitute, Andy Legg, followed by a headed flick by another, Kevin Francis, let Gary Breen in at the far post to head the equaliser.

Derby's hopes of having something to spare over the last few days of the season had now given way to a feeling that the closing stages of the promotion race would resemble a marathon runner's final steps up the Mall.

Jonathan Hunt's late shot was deflected on to their crossbar by Russell Hoult and, even though Gabbiadini also hit the Birmingham bar in the last seconds and Matt Carbon headed over the rebound, there was nothing in the least convincing about Derby's performance.