THE GALE not withstanding, this was a match veering off course and heading for the rocks. Apart from one deflected, wind-assisted shot that almost embarrassed Mart Poom in the Derby goal, Everton did not look remotely like scoring. But then they had failed to do so in six of their nine home matches before this one. Quite how they managed to attract an audience of more than 39,000 is a mystery.
Derby must have regretted not being more adventurous. Then again, there were extenuating circumstances behind Jim Smith's decision to give the wing-back Rory Delap the job of partnering Paulo Wanchope in attack. Francesco Baiano is injured, Dean Burton on loan to Barnsley and Dean Sturridge had announced he was in no state of mind to play a few hours before kick- off.
This followed reports in the morning papers suggesting he was about to join Sheffield Wednesday or Nottingham Forest, neither of which, Smith said, had any substance.
As a consequence, the 25-year-old striker was confined to the substitutes' bench. However, following an injury to Delap, who limped off before half-time with suspected ligament damage, Sturridge is almost certain to return against Middlesbrough today. "He'll have to," Smith said. "We haven't got anyone else."
In the longer term Sturridge's future looks less certain. Smith is clearly annoyed with his behaviour and appears willing to let him go, even though his value is falling. Had Sturridge's form not nosedived - he has only four goals this season - he might have been sold for serious money but Smith, it appears, will not stand in his way even at a reduced fee.
Asked if he wanted to keep his erstwhile leading scorer, Smith made his feelings plain. "If he feels like that [ready to leave], maybe we will have to do something about it," he said.
Even without Sturridge, Derby could - perhaps should - have left Goodison with three points. Twice during their best spell in the first half, better finishing from Wanchope would have brought a goal. First, the Costa Rican's control let him down when the busy Stefano Eranio sent him clear; then he blazed into the crowd after Thomas Myhre, failing to hold a fierce free-kick from Horatio Carbonari, had obligingly dropped the ball at his feet.
Even so, it was better than anything Everton achieved, which must worry their manager, Walter Smith. With the exception, perhaps, of the injured Joe Parkinson, this was his best available XI, and there is no money for reinforcements.
"We have been goalless in far too many home games this season," he said, stating the obvious. "I'm not sure what the answer is, but I will have to find it within my current squad."
Everton (3-4-1-2): Myhre; Bilic, Materazzi, Unsworth; Dunne, Dacourt, Collins (Branch, 85), Ball; Hutchison; Cadamarteri (Barmby, 70), Bakayoko. Substitutes not used: Short, Grant, Simonsen (gk).
Derby County (3-5-2): Poom; Prior, Carbonari, Elliott; Kozluk, Carsley, Eranio, Powell, Laursen (Hunt, 76); Delap (Harper, h-t), Wanchope. Substitutes not used: Sturridge, Bridge-Wilkinson, Hoult (gk).
Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley). Bookings: Everton: Unsworth, Myhre, Materazzi. Derby: Elliott, Carsley, Delap.
Man of the match: Carbonari.