Football: Harper puts out Welsh fire

Swansea City 0 Derby County 1 Harper 81 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 11,383
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The Independent Online
THE fiery football with which Swansea had engulfed West Ham in the third round of the FA Cup blew hot and strong without quite causing the same damage yesterday in the wet and wild arena that was the Vetch Field. Derby County felt the scorch marks from the Third Division side, yet they escaped with an undeserved victory, earned by a header from the substitute striker Kevin Harper nine minutes from the end.

Harper, brought on for the injured Deon Burton just before half-time, was one of the few visiting players to do anything for their reputation on a day that was a real throwback. Signed this season from Hibernian, he must have enjoyed - or endured - ties like this back in Scotland, but too many of his highly paid colleagues from abroad did not seem to have grasped the essential requirements for an FA Cup match away to a team from three divisions lower down.

As Swansea's strapping striker Julian Alsop had put it before the start: "When their foreign players see the pitch, cramped changing rooms and our crowd, they'll be shocked." After Pride Park, Old Trafford, Highbury and the rest, a venue like the Vetch is even more of a culture shock these days to a pampered elite. After the West Ham tie, a London supporter had written to Swansea saying the crowd was the loudest he had ever heard, and the North Bank alongside one side of the pitch, given so little to shout about since topping the old First Division 17 years ago, was again heaving, swaying and, of course, singing fit to bust. Then there was Cyril the Swan, the nine-foot tall mascot, who has become a cult figure since his introduction last year and at present faces a disrepute charge from the Football Association (you couldn't make it up).

A pitch that had not been dry enough to stage the previous week's scheduled League game was not helped yesterday by a five-a-side youth game played before the main attraction. There was method in the apparent madness, however, for the home side were quite happy for their visitors' superior skills to be neutralised by a pudding of a surface.

That was the way of it from the start, with wind and driving rain making life even more difficult for Derby to impose themselves. Still missing Igor Stimac, Stefano Eranio and Paulo Wanchope, they gave Roger Freestone barely a couple of shots to save all afternoon and took 20 minutes to launch an attack of substance.

By that time Mart Poom in goal had suffered some uncomfortable moments, and a painful one early on as the midfielder Steve Watkin, pushing the ball too far ahead on a break, lost it to the goalkeeper and then slid into him.

A scuffle broke out as Derby players piled in, but at the end of it, Watkin was the only man booked. The incident may have unsettled Poom, who lost possession in the next attack and was fortunate that Spencer Prior hacked clear. Stuart Roberts, the 18-year-old who had left West Ham's Julian Dicks dizzy, and had a particularly good first half yesterday, caused the threat on that occasion and became an important part of Swansea's attacking strategy again.

Two good efforts either side of half-time by their captain Nick Cusack were the closest they came to a goal. In the 24th minute, Poom had to readjust and drop on the ball at the last moment as Cusack sent a low free-kick through the wall following Prior's push on Alsop. Seven minutes into the second half, Cusack was almost the hero again again, striking his shot equally well from outside the penalty area and seeing Poom save with his legs.

Harper brought a little more life to the Derby attack, forcing Freestone to two saves after what was presumably a lively pep talk from the visitors' manager, Jim Smith. The latter was still not happy and withdrew the ineffectual Francesco Baiano long before the end, sending on another defender in Steve Elliott.

Smith must have been more relieved than anyone nine minutes from the end, when Harper was left unmarked at the far post to head in a well-placed chip from the Argentinian Horacio Carbonari.

"I must admit I didn't think anybody was going to score and I do feel a bit sorry for John Hollins and Swansea," Smith said. Hollins was unusually downbeat as he said: "I'm really choked. We only really gave them one chance, but that's all a Premiership side need.''