Derby's chances of remaining in the Premier League next season diminished to the point of invisibility yesterday as a side including four new signings – Laurent Robert, Hossam Ghaly, Emanuel Villa and the £1.5m arrival from Blackburn, Robbie Savage – lost further ground at the bottom of the pile.
Paul Jewell's team, facing the club he steered to Premier League safety last season, looked as if they might salvage a point despite having the centre-back Claude Davis sent off in the 58th minute, but a goal from Wigan's Antoine Sibierski with his first touch after coming on as an 80th-minute substitute did for that aspiration.
Jewell acknowledged that his side's prospect of avoiding an immediate return to the Championship were remote. "We have a chance, but it's a mighty small chance," Jewell said. "It was a small chance when I got here and it's even smaller now. But we need to still believe... we need to finish strongly for next season. We needed to win 10 games out of the last 17, so we might as well try. But it just didn't happen for us today.
"It's not a great time to be a Derby supporter, I know. But we are going to stick our shoulders back and next season come back unrecognisable." To the Pride Park faithful, the team was pretty unrecognisable yesterday, especially as it included another recent signing in Danny Mills.
As they sauntered towards the bright-rimmed stadium before the match, three home fans were jokingly discussing the prospects of Savage now being one of Derby's own. "I bet you he'll be wearing the armband," said one, stepping on a conveniently discarded cardboard box to emphasise his point. "He's the only one in the Premier League who gets stuck in." The fan's prediction proved correct, and his feelings seemed to be widely shared as Savage earned the biggest cheer when the home team was announced. His egregious performance for Leicester City seven years ago, when he celebrated extravagantly after earning a controversial late penalty, may now become erased from Derby folklore.
Savage strove in high-profile fashion to gee up Derby's hitherto moribund midfield, but with little real effect as Wigan – who were fielding their own debutant in the Honduran midfielder, Wilson Palacios – fashioned a series of chances, the best of which were missed by Marcus Bent and Antonio Valencia.
There were occasional flashes of illumination which must have given hope to their onlooking manager, but the general air of willingness tempered by unfamiliarity was characterised by a 37th-minute free-kick which saw the debutants, Savage and Robert, advance towards the ball together before stopping simultaneously. Jewell offered the forlorn statistic afterwards that if Derby's games this season had been played over 88 minutes rather than 90 they would have 16 points rather than seven.
Once again, however, they succumbed to a late goal, just as it seemed they might salvage something following Davis's dismissal for felling Bent with an arm. That rising hope was deflated when Sibierski, whom the Wigan manager, Steve Bruce, feared might have been out for two months after injuring himself in last week's FA Cup tie against Sunderland, produced his crucial intervention 30 seconds after coming on, driving home a low right-footed shot from the edge of the box after Bent had supplied him following a throw-in.
"An inspired tactical substitution," declared Bruce with a broad grin. He was joking – but there was a measure of truth in his estimation. Derby, meanwhile, trudge on seeking inspiration of any kind. Savage has his work cut out.Reuse content