Forest Green dream turns to nightmare

Forest Green Rovers 3 Derby County 4: Late red card and penalty shatter inspired non-League side after they twice lead Championship rivals in humdinger of a tie
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The Independent Football

One hundred and 18 years is a long time to wait for a climax as cruel as this, no matter how entertaining it had been. Poor Forest Green Rovers saw a dream beginning and then an apparent dream finale to their first ever FA Cup third round fixture transform itself into the grizzliest of nightmares. But for Derby this was such a sweet and timely turnaround.

Chris Hutchings, the Derby caretaker, arrived at the club three off the bottom of the Blue Square Premier with a patched-up team and a sense of foreboding surrounding his Championship full-timers. And when Derby trailed by a couple early on and then went down again with 18 minutes remaining, the joy of Forest Green and of the small Gloucestershire town of Nailsworth seemed complete. They were on the verge of making a mockery of the 76 places separating the sides in the league pyramid.

Yet, displaying a degree of character that was sadly absent in Paul Jewell's last weeks at Pride Park, Derby produced a stunning riposte. It was capped by Steve Davies's penalty in the 87th minute, following their second equaliser of the game 10 minutes before. A desperate ending for Forest Green, but at least they could content themselves with having staged a humdinger of a Cup tie.

Their compact stadium may be known as The New Lawn but in truth here was a classic old stomping ground for a shock. The overnight freeze had extenuated the bumps and turrets. With nearly 5,000 crammed in and many more getting a free view on a nearby bank, the Derby defence must have felt within five seconds as if they were all crawling inside their shirts.

It was a horrendous clearance straight from the kick-off by Martin Albrechtsen which set up Adriano Rigoglioso, but this Liverpool Youth team-mate of Michael Owen blasted into Roy Carroll. No matter. Within 20 minutes the visitors were behind. In fact, they were two behind, both coming from long balls. In the 14th minute, Jonathan Smith fired in from 25 yards and six minutes later Alex Lawless, the Wales Under-21 international, beat Carroll at his near post. The New Lawn was stunned and as the news spread through the town (population 6,600) the free bank filled.

Alas, the euphoria was short-lived. Derby, on the putrid side of awful in that opening half-hour, suddenly began to find their feet. In the 38th minutethre was little that Terry Burton, the former member of the Army in the Rovers goal, could do to stop Rob Hulse turning in the rebound off the bar he had himself hit with a header. The architect had been the match's best performer, Kris Commons, with a flighted free-kick, just as he was to perform on the brink of the break when Albrechtsen nodded in the equaliser.

The momentum had switched and Derby began the second half with most of the possession and all of the swagger. Hulse should have killed Rovers off when put through one-on-one with Burton and Commons should have converted the follow up. But Forest Green had one last surprise. In the 72nd minute Paul Stonehouse managed to squeeze his shot under Carroll's hands and, unbelievably, the shock was back on. But not for long.

It merely spurred Derby on and after Paul Green conjured a fine finish in the 76th minute, Davies, the substitute, slipped in the spot kick given away by Lawless when he challenged Commons from behind. Sighs of relief for Derby, a relief that showed in Hutchings' comment: "We were very lucky to go in at half-time 2-2 but we kept going at it right to the death." The sighs from the non-Leaguers were of anguish. Whatever, it had been a breathtaking afternoon all round.

Attendance: 4,836

Referee: Paul Taylor

Man of the match: Commons

Match rating: 8/10