Football / FA Cup Countdown: Gabbiadini gets to grips with hoodoo: A powerful and pacey Ram aims to buck the trend of lack of success at home. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
NOW that he has finally purged himself of what had begun to feel like a personalised FA Cup hoodoo, Marco Gabbiadini would like nothing more than to lift the Curse of the Baseball Ground in Derby County's fifth-round tie against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday.

Home is where the hurt is for Derby's pounds 10m team, who have forgotten how to win before their own supporters. The situation is so bad that a spiritualist buried special herbs in the pitch last week in an attempt to exorcise a gypsy spell. The night before the next game Gabbiadini and his colleagues stayed in an out-of-town hotel, as if it were an away fixture, but the result was the same.

Despite going 2-0 up on Peterborough, Derby suffered their ninth defeat in 12 First Division games there. Even when they reached Wembley in the Anglo- Italian Cup, triumph turned into anticlimax when Gabbiadini's 11th goal of the season was overturned by two for Brentford in the dying minutes of the semi-final home leg. Derby had to rely on the away- goals rule.

Bafflingly, Arthur Cox's side can be brilliant on their travels; witness seven wins and five draws in the League plus a 5-1 Cup rout of Luton. The 25-year-old Gabbiadini, an articulate individual, fumbles for words when he tries to explain the discrepancy, suggesting tongue in cheek that 'we'll be OK as long as the press stop reminding us about it'.

Until last month Gabbiadini had a similar difficulty with the premier knock-out competition. It dated back to when he was a rookie striker under Denis Smith at York. 'We were drawn away to Caernarfon and I travelled but failed a fitness test,' he recalled. 'We drew and I wasn't picked for the replay, which we lost. That set the tone for my record in the Cup.'

As Smith moved on to Sunderland, his protege developed into a prolific scorer. Yet when Bobby Saxton, the next York manager, called him in one day he assumed he was in trouble. 'He told me there had been an offer for me and it was a big club. I was just 19 and very excited, thinking of Liverpool or Man United. When he said Sunderland I was disappointed, but not when I got there.'

The feeling was mutual, the Roker crowd christening their pounds 80,000 snip 'Marco Goalo' (not as naff as it sounds: though his mother and his accent are from Yorkshire, his father comes from northern Italy like the great explorer). Gabbiadini's goals - one every two games over four years - helped Sunderland climb from Third to First. But his Cup luck was unchanged.

In his first season they went out at Scunthorpe. The next year Oxford beat them, then Reading, and Arsenal, all at the first hurdle. Nor did matters improve when, after Sunderland failed to strengthen their squad sufficiently to stay up, he was sold to Crystal Palace for pounds 1.8m in late 1991. When Gabbiadini was substituted in Palace's exit at Leicester, however, it was symptomatic of a broader malaise.

Signed by Steve Coppell to replace Ian Wright, he found the task no easier than Wright has found that of filling Gary Lineker's boots. Statistically he did better for Palace than his predecessor has for England, scoring seven times in 25 appearances, but Gabbiadini's strengths are not those of Wright. He likes to run with the ball rather than on to it, to provide a target instead of playing off one.

An off-guard remark by Coppell's assistant, Alan Smith, brought matters to a head a year ago. 'A reporter rang him about another matter, said he knew me and asked how I was doing,' Gabbiadini explained. 'So Smithy said (mimics southern voice): 'To tell you the truth he's extremely average in training'. Next thing I knew it was headline news.

'We loved it in London, and blended in well, but the football side wasn't right. I wanted to do better than I did. Obviously it turned out not to be the right move.'

Which made his next one all the more important. At Derby, Cox had Lionel Pickering's millions to spend and wanted a piece of the auction. 'I had to consider it carefully, because it meant dropping a division. I could have stayed at Palace, but when the manager tells you he has agreed a fee with somebody, the white handkerchief is out.'

That fee was pounds 1.2m, then Derby's record, and Cox had to convince him there would be further buys. 'It seemed like every two weeks after that there was another big signing. The boss would come up to me grinning and say: 'Just watch the papers tomorrow.' '

He saw Derby, in terms of city and club, as similar to Sunderland; the steep-sided stands and partisan atmosphere (which makes their home form all the more bewildering). Sunderland, though, never made such a splash in the transfer market, and the sum Cox paid for Gabbiadini was quickly overshadowed.

Four months and several vital goals later, Derby missed automatic promotion by a point and faced Blackburn in the play-offs for a Premier League place. It was not to be, but playing in the FA Cup final the same weekend, bizarrely so after their wretched run during his time there, were the club with whom Gabbiadini had started the season.

'It was probably only because I left that Sunderland got to Wembley] I saw the semi-final at Hillsborough from the Norwich end, giving me the full effect of the fans massed on the Kop, but I had to watch the final on TV. I saw all the build-up, like the interviews on the pitch, and found myself feeling really nervous for the lads and getting itchy feet.'

Fast forward to this year's third round and overdue catharsis at home to Stockport. 'I think it was the first tie I'd ever won,' Gabbiadini said, 'and that was with a last-minute own goal. Maybe it really is changing - I actually scored at Luton in the fourth round.'

Such asides betray dissatisfaction with his scoring rate this season. On the credit side, he used his strength and pace selflessly to make Derby's goal at Newcastle recently and created both goals against Peterborough. He has never been Marco Solo, once pipping a certain Paul Gascoigne to the North-east's award for most 'assists'.

Talking of which, Gabbiadini believes victory over Second Division Bolton would help revive their promotion chances by boosting a young side's confidence. But when he finds himself mouthing the words 'home advantage' he breaks into a self-effacing laugh. In Derby's case they have become, like 'extremely average', a contradiction in terms.

(Photograph omitted)

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