Derby County 1
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 18,581
JIM SMITH has been in football so long, and with so many clubs, that after three decades as a manager he should be forgiven for any kind of cynicism. But he is anything but cynical and his delight and enthusiasm, both undimmed by the years, were manifestly apparent at Filbert Street yesterday where his struggling Derby ended a run of five defeats with a scrappy victory.
A solitary, but extraordinary, second-half goal from Darryl Powell, looped in out of the blue through a mass of bodies in the goalmouth from 45 yards, settled the outcome, consigned Leicester to a second successive home defeat in the Premiership and fourth game without a goal, but did not camouflage the fact that this was a contest devoid of quality and entertainment.
"I thought the goal was great," beamed Smith, tongue firmly in his cheek. "Obviously it was vital for us. We knew we had to battle, tackle and block everything here and my players did all of that and more. Now we have to play every game that way if we are to climb out of the bottom three." His joy in seeing his team, assembled from discounted imports and promising journeymen, regain a semblance of form after last week's humiliating home defeat by Burnley in the FA Cup was plain to see.
Equally obviously, he chose a team intended to survive rather than touch the heights, leaving Georgi Kinkladze on the bench alongside his new pounds 3m Belgian international, Branko Strupar. The latter made a brief, late cameo once the game was won.
Smith, one of football's travelling Mr Fix-Its, admitted he has a soft spot for Derby, where his four years in charge represent his longest spell as a manager. "I have to admit I feel very differently and specially about the Derby club and its people," he said. "I don't suppose I'd have been here this long otherwise." Given his striking problems, due to injury and falsified passports, it was encouraging to see him as sane and amusing as ever.
His Leicester counterpart, Martin O'Neill, was equally honest. Three days after seeing his team beat Leeds United, albeit on penalties, he admitted: "We were very poor. There was not much entertainment at all and I send my apologies all round to everyone who sat through it."
He admitted injuries, particularly to influential midfielders Neil Lennon and Steve Guppy, had weakened his team, but did not offer excuses. "We all enjoy playing in the Premiership so we shouldn't moan when a few setbacks like this come along."
O'Neill's summary was accurate. As a spectacle, this fixture should have carried a health warning. There were 24 fouls in the first half alone. And, on one of his fussier days, David Elleray brandished his yellow card six times. Anyone hoping to enjoy a full-blooded Midlands derby replete with passion and skill was desperately disappointed.
Derby understandably lacked confidence. Leicester, even with the pounds 3m new boy Darren Eadie, seemed frozen by fatigue after their midweek exertions and mounting speculation over the manager's position in the build-up to an Extraordinary General Meeting of the shareholders at Donington Park on Wednesday.
O'Neill said it was probably "a very important week" for him which, given his Irish gift for understatement, represented a truism. If the so-called gang of four succeed in overthrowing the chairman, John Elsom, it could signal his departure.
O'Neill suggested last night that the votes were going in favour of the present regime. "We won't know anything properly until Wednesday," he said. "But unless he's giving me a bum steer, it's looking good."
It was not quite the welcome diversion he wanted from seeing his team slide to defeat on a day when they did little right and Smith left celebrating his team's first win since beating Chelsea at home on 30 October.