Football: Smith on the sly

Coventry City 1 Whelan 16 Derby County 1 Carsley 50 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 16,627
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The Independent Online
BACK IN the shadows of rele-gation, Coventry yesterday thought they had done enough in the first half at Highfield Road to lift a corner of the curtain, but Derby's wise and wickedly witty Jim Smith deployed his substitutes and for the second successive week changed the course of the match.

The endearing thing about Derby is that Smith keeps talking about the richest and supposedly best teams in the Premiership as if they live on a different planet. Everyone knows that having met all the top nine teams this season and not been overwhelmed by any of them, Derby now need only to play as well at home as they usually do away to have starry ambitions. In fact, yesterday's match against a Coventry team down on their luck had the makings of light relief.

That optimism was quickly put in abeyance when Coventry came at them with tenacious drive through the seemingly ageless ingenuity and foresight of Gary McAllister, plus the pace of Darren Huckerby. But, presumably, manager Gordon Strachan had been doing his research and found that Coventry had created 60 goal-scoring chances in their previous three matches and scored only twice.

So it was as much a surprise to Strachan as it was to Derby when, in the 17th minute, McAllister charged down Horacio Carbonari's attempted clearance which veered to Stephen Froggatt. His shot was only banged into the ground by Mart Poom and Noel Whelan swept the ball in.

Derby barely constructed an attack, let alone a shot, until half-time was pending. Paulo Wanchope and Dean Sturridge languished largely unserved, while Coventry's midfield dominated two-thirds of the pitch.

Coventry had left their new signing from Portsmouth, John Aloisi, on the bench and seemed in no urgent need of his goal-scoring reputation. Huckerby's pace kept Derby on their heels and Poom did well in an otherwise erratic display to block one of his drives and another from Paul Williams.

Smith's reaction to the situation was to take off Sturridge and Keith Harper and replace them with Steve Elliott in defence and Lee Carsley in mid-field. The effect was productive, bringing Derby back into the game within five minutes of the interval. Wanchope released the ball to Rory Delap, whose shot was deflected backwards for Carsley to push over the line.

But for a sporting instant decision not to fall over - or perhaps a lack of appraisal of his situation - Huckerby would surely have extracted a penalty when Elliott clipped his ankle as he again charged through the Derby area. With Derby so revived it was generosity Coventry were soon in real danger of seriously regretting, but Strachan said afterwards that "99.9 per cent of players would have gone down, but I'll not be teaching him how to dive".

Coventry's chances only added to Strachan's frustration and Derby earned their point through a significant increase in defensive composure, thanks largely to Smith's substitutions.