Football: Safety first for Strachan the Euro sceptic

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The Independent Online
Coventry City 1 Derby County 0

SO ACCUSTOMED are Coventry to playing brinkmanship around this time of year that they seem frightened to admit they might actually be safe with eight matches still to go. Having won six of their last seven in the Premiership, the unpretentious Midlanders will usher in April from ninth place in the table. Keep it up and they might even qualify for Europe.

And yet Gordon Strachan, to whose fledgeling managerial skills Coventry owe their new-found prosperity, will not hear the word mentioned, even as a theoretical possibility. "Three more points and I'll consider us safe," he said in the aftermath of Saturday's success. "We'll look at where the League table puts us at the end of the season."

In a way you can forgive his caution, ridiculous though it may seem when others such as Newcastle, six places and eight points worse off, insist they are unconcerned. For 30 years Coventry have clung to their top-flight existence, often escaping the drop with virtually the season's last kick, as happened 12 months ago. One day, reasoned thought insists, their luck will run out.

But surely not this year. Penalty shoot-outs excepted, they have lost only one match in 15 since Boxing Day - not the form of a team destined for failure.

And it is not just down to Darren Huckerby and Dion Dublin, outstanding though the two have been in a partnership that has yielded 31 goals this season. Behind them, Paul Telfer and Noel Whelan have acquired noticeable maturity and George Boateng has added vision and drive in a midfield from which the long-term injured Gary McAllister has been scarcely missed.

Strachan can take much credit. As he warned beforehand, Derby are essentially a decent side, regardless of recent results, yet Coventry made them appear second best in almost every position. Dublin certainly looked a better centre-forward than the unreliable Paolo Wanchope, Huckerby a more effective foil than the jaded Italian, Francesco Baiano. Coventry's midfield was the more creative and even in defence, previously their Achilles heel, they looked as solid as their opponents. But for one horrible mistake from which Wanchope should have scored, Gary Breen could have congratulated himself on a splendid game.

In fact, Breen atoned immediately, scrambling into a covering position to block Wanchope's goal attempt. At the other end, he helped make the goal, flicking Whelan's cross into the path of Huckerby, who hooked in his 12th goal of the season.

There was a slight suspicion of offside but not enough to convince the referee, Keith Burge, that he should not let it stand. In any event, Coventry deserved the points.

Goal: Huckerby (44) 1-0.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Nilsson, Shaw, Breen, Burrows; Telfer, Soltvedt, Boateng, Whelan; Huckerby, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Hedman (gk), Williams, Moldovan, Strachan, Shilton.

Derby County (3-5-2): Hoult; Dailly, Stimac (Rowett 72), Laursen; Delap, Carsley, Bohinen, D Powell (Burton, 54), C Powell; Baiano (Solis, 86), Wanchope. Substitutes not used: Knight (gk), Hunt.

Referee: K W Burge (Tonypandy).

Booking: Coventry: Telfer.

Man of the match: Breen.

Attendance: 18,705.