The winner came seven minutes from time, but the moment that won the game came 45 minutes before that. Billy Davies, the Derby manager, blamed himself for getting his tactics wrong from the start, but he must also take great credit for recognising his mistake and putting it so decisively right.
For 38 minutes here Southampton were utterly dominant. With Gareth Bale and Rudi Skacel rampant down the left, the game was played almost exclusively in the Derby half, and amid a blizzard of chances Marek Saganowski and Jhon Viafara both hit the post.
"We were lively, we got to the ball and played our attacking game," said George Burley, the Southampton manager. "But when we do that, you've got to finish it off and when you don't that gives the other team a lift."
Burley spoke of bad luck and poor finishing, and given this was Southampton's first defeat in nine League games, he is right not to be over-concerned. His talk of momentum, though, seemed a touch disingenuous.
What galvanised Derby was the 38th-minute introduction of Gary Teale for Bob Malcolm and the switch from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2. "Gareth Bale was very dangerous for them, so we brought Gary Teale on to match those runs down the [Southampton] left," the defender Darren Moore explained. "Once we made that switch we got to grips with the game, and had a real go second half."
Davies was keen to stress that the change had been entirely tactical, and that he had not singled Malcolm out. "We're all in this together," he said. "I just got it wrong in the first 30 minutes, as soon as we kicked off I knew it wasn't right.I very rarely tamper with the back four."
First Southampton's impetus was checked, and then Derby began to threaten. By the time Steve Howard swept in his 13th of the season, pouncing after Kelvin Davis had blocked David Jones' initial shot, the victory had come to feel almost inevitable. This was Derby's eighth win in a row, and six of those have come by a 1-0 margin. "We know as a team there is a long way to go, but it feels great because we are winning games," Moore said.
"Winning breeds confidence and continuity, and the club is feeling that at the moment." Characteristically, Davies is not satisfied. "At the start of the season we had 16 or 17 players and just one recognised striker in Paul Peschisolido, who is 35 years of age. We've been having to bring many players in and all we've done is pulled ourselves up alongside the West Broms the Prestons, the Southamptons. They were all carrying far more numbers than us. Now we are competing and we need to develop together." That process, he said, could take two or three seasons; on this form, Derby will be firmly ensconced in the Premiership by then.
Goal: Howard (83) 0-1.
Southampton (4-4-2): Davis; Baird, Lundekvam, Pele, Bale; Wright, Idiakez, Viafara, Skacel (McGoldrick, 54); Rasiak (Dyer, 77), Saganowski (Wright-Phillips 53). Substitutes not used: Bialkowski (gk), Ostlund.
Derby (4-5-1): Bywater; Edworthy, Leacock, Moore, Camara; Oakley (Mears, 86), Jones, Malcolm (Teale, 35), Fagan (Barnes, 53), Pearson; Howard. Substitutes not used: Michael Johnson, Lupoli.
Booked: Southampton Idiakez, Baird; Derby Howard, Fagan, Barnes.
Referee: Jon Moss (West Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Pearson.
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