For 10 blissful minutes yesterday, Derby might just have thought they were on to something. Matt Oakley's goal only their 10th in the Premier League this season had put them in front, an experience they had not enjoyed at home since Bolton on 29 September. This time they were against a team beaten four times in their last five matches.
It was, however, a fleeting pleasure. Normality returned with brutal speed in a nightmare five minutes. Steve Howard squandered a chance to put Derby two up from the spot and then Blackburn scored twice.
The goals ended there and, in the view of one major bookmaker, so did Derby's season. In an unprecedented step, Ladbrokes declared last night that Paul Jewell's team are already down: it will pay out on Derby being relegated with 18 matches left.
If that seems disrespectful, the facts are plain enough. With only one win against Newcastle 14 matches ago Derby have seven points, eight fewer than the record low set by Sunderland two seasons ago. It is not a particularly bold move by Ladbrokes.
Nor are the bookies telling Jewell something he has not accepted. "The table doesn't lie and if we are in the Premiership next season it will be a miracle," he said. "What happened today sums us up. When we missed the penalty you could see we were going to concede quickly. It is a mental thing. The lads are trying their best but if things do not go our way you can see the heads drop. We need to get some leaders on the field."
It cannot have made Jewell feel much better to know that Blackburn, with their season wobbling after one win in nine, feared the worst after Oakley, set up cleverly by Giles Barnes, found another hole in their recently shaky defence to give Derby their 27th-minute advantage.
When the referee, Peter Walton, then adjudged Ryan Nelsen's 39th-minute challenge on Kenny Miller to be worthy of a penalty their trepidation deepened. But Howard's kick was saved comfortably by Brad Friedel and within two minutes a tap-in from Roque Santa Cruz had put Blackburn level after Lewis Price blocked a close-range shot from Benni McCarthy.
It was the Paraguayan striker's eighth goal in five matches, yet it was David Bentley for whom Mark Hughes had highest praise, the winger supplying the cross for the equaliser before scoring a superb goal of his own three minutes later, cutting in from the left to whip a crisp, low drive inside the right-hand post.
Hughes believes Bentley's name should already be in Fabio Capello's notebook as the Italian ponders his first England line-up, to face Switzerland on 6 February. "He was excellent today, not just in his technical ability but his work rate, too," Hughes said. "We think he is good enough to be in not just the England squad but the team."
Goals: Oakley (27) 1-0; Santa Cruz (39) 1-1; Bentley (42) 1-2.
Derby County (4-4-2): Price; Mears, Davis, Johnson (Fagan, 59), McEveley; Oakley, Leacock (Feilhaber, h-t), Barnes, Lewis; Howard, Miller (Macken, 78). Substitutes not used: Hinchliffe (gk), Teale.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-1-1): Friedel; Emerton, Khizanishvili, Nelsen, Warnock; Bentley, Mokoena, Tugay (Dunn, 90), Pedersen (Olsson, 83); McCarthy (Derbyshire, 87); Santa Cruz. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Berner.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Booked: Derby Lewis; Blackburn Nelsen, Mokoena, Warnock.
Man of the match: Bentley.
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