Until the introduction of Vassell, who replaced the ineffectual Benito Carbone soon after half-time, Derby had looked capable of securing the points that would have lifted them out of the relegation zone. But the newcomer's pace caused havoc in their defence, creating goals for George Boateng and Ian Taylor which left Jim Smith's side with the wretched record of 10 defeats in 19 home League games during 1999.
Vassell, an England Under-21 international who has started one League match, has proved his worth as a substitute before. Last season, when Villa trailed the Norwegians of Stromsgodset 2-0 at home in the Uefa Cup, his two goals in the final minutes included a stoppage-time winner. On this occasion, the diminutive striker probably owed his involvement to Dion Dublin's absence through injury.
"After an hour I was crying out for Dion," John Gregory admitted."The ball was coming back at us far too quickly." Of Vassell's role in Villa's first away win since they won at Watford in August, the manager said: "Darius is still wet behind the ears, but he did OK today. We know he's got lots of ability. It's just a question of whether he can produce it consistently and sustain it for 90 minutes."
In the first half Derby played with greater urgency, yet without penetration. A mundane midfield, deprived of Georgi Kinkladze's wiles by influenza, struggled to provide an adequate service for Branko Strupar on the Belgian centre- forward's full debut.
Spencer Prior headed over Villa's bar after slack marking allowed him a free header at a corner, while Darryl Powell saw a shot deflected wide following a build-up of rare fluidity by Derby. Villa threatened only from set-pieces, Taylor and Ugo Ehiogu missing the target from corners by Paul Merson as the interval approached.
Mart Poom, the Derby goalkeeper, had to touch a shot by Julian Joachim on to a post in the 48th minute. Joachim promptly had another low drive tipped behind, and the sight of Derby's raggedness in the face of his speed seemed to encourage Gregory to gamble on Vassell, who is even quicker.
Within 13 minutes, the newcomer surged at the heart of the Derby defence. Vassell laid the ball off selflessly for the overlapping Boateng, whose angled shot brought his first Premiership goal since a pounds 4.5m summer switch from Coventry.
With 12 minutes remaining, and Derby in disarray, Vassell received a fine pass from Steve Stone on Villa's left. A clever shuffle of the feet made space for a precise cross which Taylor met with a stooping header for his third goal in as many matches.
Better still from Villa's viewpoint, the goal had "Made in Birmingham" stamped all over it, both provider and poacher having been born in the city. Perhaps the game has not changed as much as we thought over the past 100 years.
Goals: Boateng (69) 0-1; Taylor (78) 0-2.
Derby County (3-5-2): Poom; Prior, Laursen, Elliott; Burley, Bohinen (Christie, 66), Powell, Johnson, Dorigo (Schnoor, h-t); Burton (Robinson, 76), Strupar. Substitutes not used: Carbonari, Hoult (gk).
Aston Villa (3-5-2): James; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Watson, Merson (Stone, 76),Taylor, Boateng, Wright; Carbone (Vassell, 56), Joachim. Substitutes not used: Ghrayib, Calderwood, Cutler (gk).
Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).
Bookings: Derby: Strupar, Prior. Aston Villa: Stone.
Man of the match: Taylor.
Attendance: 33,222.Reuse content