Football: Smith defends the indefensible

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The Independent Online
Derby County 0 Liverpool 1

In a relentlessly good natured, entertaining and often successful manner, Jim Smith's managerial career has run through the past 25 years of English football like letters in a stick of rock.

On the rare occasions that the Bald Eagle has sent out a side with less than positive intentions, as happened in last week's bore de force at Leeds, there have invariably been mitigating circumstances. In Derby's case it was an injury list that even the scriptwriters of Casualty would have deemed implausible.

It was in this context that Smith's defence of Darryl Powell, whose sending- off on Saturday arguably cost his team a point or even three, was as sad as it was surprising. Powell's recklessness in lunging, studs-first, into the thigh of Liverpool's Bjorn Tore Kvarme could conceivably be explained, if not excused, as an ill-timed act.

The righteousness of the Derby manager, like the rancour and missile- throwing of a few outraged and outrageous spectators, was rather harder to rationalise. Smith began by claiming that there had to be "intent" on the part of the perpetrator in order for the red card to be produced. That has not been the case for two years now.

He also doubted that the referee, Peter Jones, had actually seen the incident, which happened two and a half minutes after the interval. Worse still was his suggestion that Kvarme, a rugged Norwegian defender and no student of the Jurgen Klinsmann school of amateur dramatics, may have dived. One can only hope that, as one of the most honest men in his profession, Smith revised his opinion after studying the assault on television.

One explanation for the challenge lay in the way Liverpool had been softened up by Mark Hughes's muscularity in the FA Cup at Chelsea. Powell, a midfielder pressed into emergency service as a striker, had played with a robustness which indicated that he might have been deputed to perform a similar role.

Once he departed, Liverpool still had as many white shirts through which to find a way, because Derby merely operated with one forward instead of two. But in the words of Smith's opposite number, "it gave us the advantage".

They certainly needed assistance. This was Liverpool Lite again; expensive, bland and lacking the traditional blend of sweetness and bite which characterises the genuine article. Stan Collymore scored in the closing stages with consummate precision ("I just swung at it basically," he said with inappropriate modesty), yet it was practically their only shot on target.

Prior to Powell's rush of blood, Derby had the edge. Dean Sturridge was the sharpest attacker on view; Aljosa Asanovic, while fortunate to escape punishment from an otherwise exemplary referee for habitual use of his elbows, seldom wasted a pass like Jamie Redknapp; and those carrying the banner proclaiming "Paul McGrath limps on water" witnessed another display to mock the medical evidence.

Indeed, when Steve McManaman was gliding past all-comers on the rutted surface early in the game, he suddenly lost his rhythm, his nerve and the ball as Ireland's finest barred his way. When faced with McGrath, opponents are confronting an aura as much as a defender.

For all their pockets of quality, Derby have not won in the League since rising to ninth place on 30 November. The sequence has revived the spectre of relegation - hardly the way to bow out of the Baseball Ground - though help is on the way. By the time they next play, a six-pointer at home to West Ham on 15 February, almost all the walking wounded should be available.

Those who prefer their football with a smile rather than a snarl will trust that they reverse Derby's fortunes. The Premiership would be a poorer place without Smith, whose defence of the indefensible simply highlighted why he has always been more comfortable on the front foot.

Goal: Collymore (74) 0-1.

Derby County (3-5-2): Hoult; Laursen (Carbon, 25; Flynn, 80), McGrath, Rowett; Carsley, Trollope, Van der Laan, Asanovic, C Powell (Simpson, 80); Sturridge, D Powell. Substitutes not used: Rahmberg, Taylor (gk).

Liverpool (3-4-1-2): James; Kvarme (Thomas, 59), Wright, Babb; McAteer, Redknapp, Barnes, Bjornebye; McManaman; Fowler, Collymore. Substitutes not used: R Jones, Berger, Kennedy, Warner (gk).

Referee: P Jones (Quorn, Leics).

Bookings: Derby: Van der Laan, Trollope. Liverpool: Bjornebye, McManaman.

Sending-off: Derby: D Powell.

Man of the match: McGrath.

Attendance: 18,102.