In the 72nd minute of a match bereft of the excitement normally associated with knock-out competition, Robert Lee broke through a series of challenges inside the Derby area. Mart Poom's protectors were ball-watching and had not noticed Jon Dahl Tomasson stealing into a scoring position. When the ball broke to him, the Dane stroked it into the corner of the net.
Derby's retaliation belied their previous inertia. Dean Sturridge, cutting in from the right, was tripped from behind by Alessandro Pistone, only for referee Martin Bodenham to wave aside appeals for a penalty. Strictly speaking, justice may not have been done, but the decision probably spared the crowd of more than 27,000 and many more armchair spectators the purgatory of extra time and penalties.
Quite why the contest was so sterile until the closing stages was a mystery. Derby, after their chastening experience in losing a 3-0 lead at Leeds may have been more cautious than is Jim Smith's wont. For their part, Newcastle, have no fit strikers, yet dominated possession and, crucially, found a tireless foil for John Barnes in Tomasson.
Derby paid him the compliment of deputing his compatriot, Jacob Laursen, to trail him wherever he went. But one lapse in concentration allowed Tomasson, a summer signing from Dutch football, to collect his second goal in three matches after previously failing to find the target.
Sturridge had wasted the only genuine opportunity of the first half, flicking the ball over in the 41st minute after good work by the otherwise weary-looking Paulo Wanchope.
Newcastle, however, continued to look the more cohesive unit and Tomasson ought to have scored well before he did.
Their manager, Kenny Dalglish, considered it "a good game between two good teams who wanted to play"; which only goes to show what a first victory in seven games can do to a normally rational individual.
Smith had no such delusions but reserved his wrath for Mr Bodenham. In the wake of Manchester United's defeat at Arsenal 10 days ago, Alex Ferguson described the official as "the master of seeing nothing". The Derby manager, while treading carefully, was clearly of the same opinion.
Smith, who could not believe that Sturridge had not been awarded a penalty, argued that Francesco Baiano should also have had a spot-kick, insisting that Tomasson was offside when he scored. "The game hinged on two decisions," he said, "and they both went against us."
Derby County (3-4-1-2): Poom; Laursen, Rowett, Dailly; Eranio, Carsley, Hunt (Solis, 84), C Powell; Baiano; Sturridge, Wanchope. Substitutes not used: D Powell, Hoult (gk).
Newcastle United (4-5-1): Hislop; Barton (Peacock 60), Watson, Albert, Pistone; Gillespie, Lee, Batty, Tomasson, Beresford (Hamilton h-t); Barnes. Substitute not used: Ketsbaia.
Referee: M Bodenham (W Sussex).
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