None of the recent excitement of seeing his dogged, depleted sides pull themselves back from the tentacles of defeat against Chelsea in the FA Cup or drag weary bodies through a Coca-Cola Cup semi-final against Wimbledon had altered Martin O'Neill's opinion that yesterday's match against one of Leicester's fellow relegation candidates was the most important of the fortnight, if not the season. Afterwards he was elated and at the same time pragmatic. "We are not out of the quagmire but you can't ask more of anyone than our players gave today." The line is becoming repetitive though, in the circumstances, no less acceptable.
Leicester were familiarly bereft. Neil Lennon, Matt Elliott, Muzzy Izzet, Sam McMahon and Emile Heskey were all suspended while among the many injured was the unfortunate Robert Ullathone who broke an ankle on his debut on Tuesday. And misfortune failed to stop there. In only the third minute Derby's Paul Trollope miscued a shot that was flying harmlessly yards wide when it hit Dean Sturridge and completely beat Kasey Keller.
The cruelty of that odd goal was quickly relieved when an ingenious back- heel by the shrewd Garry Parker allowed Jamie Lawrence to offer an early centre that Marshall volleyed in superbly. But this was a day always dwelling in the bizarre. When Chris Powell played what seemed to be a safe back- pass, absurdly the Derby goalkeeper, Russell Hoult became fumble-footed and the ball ran loose for Marshall to side-foot a much easier second goal.
Not even 30 minutes had passed when Marshall completed his hat-trick with a comfortable prod in after a long pass from Spencer Prior to Steve Claridge that should have been stopped by Igor Stimac. The centre was a gift to Marshall. Not only that, five minutes later Marshall should have added a fourth but slithered an inviting shot a few inches wide. After all of their problems you could hardly begrudge Leicester their joy, yet Derby were far from demolished in spirit.
That spirit was lifted two minutes into the second half and extraordinarily Sturridge claimed another Derby goal without knowing much about it. This time, Keller had failed to get purchase on a punch and the ball fell to Stimac, whose shot Sturridge somehow turned in. Inevitably the errors and craziness continued when Hoult failed to claim a header by Steve Walsh and Claridge scrambled in Leicester's fourth.
Relegation after Leicester's brave adventure would now be a wretched twist in the tale.Reuse content