All week, Youri Djorkaeff had been wandering around the Bolton corridors trying to find out what a "relegation six-pointer" meant. Indeed, the French World Cup and European Championship winner is accustomed neither to English idioms or indeed battles for survival. Until now, that is.
Yesterday's match between two of the League's strugglers was Bolton's big chance to pull out of the danger zone and Derby's last realistic opportunity to hang on to the coat-tails of survival. On this performance, John Gregory's men are unlikely candidates for the drop.
"As a manager," Gregory said after the game, "you sometimes look for results ahead of performances. On this occasion, I got both. This was a massive win for us and it hasn't really sunk in yet."
Sam Allardyce was equally dumb-founded, although he was mainly lost for the words to adequately explain his side's display. "What can I say," he mused, "that was a nightmare – our lowest point of the season."
Derby played throughout as if they were the home team, stringing neat passes together and taking the game to their hosts. As early as the 12th minute, Warren Barton launched a cross-cum-shot into the Bolton area, which a startled Jussi Jaaskelainen did well to tip over the bar. Paul Boertien's ensuing corner was met by a powerful Chris Riggott header at the far post, but the alert Gudni Bergsson cleared off his line. Two minutes later, Luciano Zavagno found space on the left touchline before delivering the perfect cross around the back of Bolton's defence. Fabrizio Ravanelli was lurking and managed to get his white head to the ball, but the looping effort clipped the bar and rebounded to safety.
Just as Derby were beginning to despair, Bolton's two most experienced defenders decided to give John Gregory's team a helping hand. Faced with a straightforward clearance just inside his own penalty box, Paul Warhurst inexplicably decided to nod the ball back to his keeper. The header was weak and, worse still, fell the wrong side of the only covering player, Bergsson. The ageing Icelander was promptly brushed aside by Malcolm Christie, and could only watch as the young Derby striker buried the easiest of chances.
Bolton were clearly nervous, and it was not until the stroke of half-time that they finally created their first opening. Bruno N'Gotty found himself in acres of space on the edge of the Derby box and fired in a low cross which the advancing Michael Ricketts needed only tap in for the equaliser. Instead, the England hopeful tried to flick the ball through his legs and missed the target by several feet.
Gregory's half-time instructions were still ringing in the Derby players' ears, when Bolton's Ricardo Gardner latched on to a loose ball in midfield and then unleashed the most wonderful left-foot half-volley past the retreating Andy Oakes. The home fans very nearly had further cause to celebrate two minutes later when a goalmouth scramble almost resulted in a second Bolton goal. Bergsson could not convert the chance, however, and was still picking himself off the floor when Derby scored perhaps the most important goal of their season. Boertien provided the deep cross and Ravanelli applied the finish with a powerful header. The White Feather's lengthy celebrations told you just how much this goal meant to him and the Derby faithful.
Most affected, though, were Bolton. "I would say that that short sequence of events was the most crucial turning point of our season so far," Allardyce said. "I just hope we get more luck in important moments from now on."
They might, but on this occasion Bolton's day just kept going from bad to worse, as Bergsson, Mike Whitlow and Stig Tofting all had to be substituted following nasty clashes. Then, five minutes from time, any hope of salvaging a point was extinguished when Jaaskelainen brought Lee Morris down inside the area, and was promptly sent off. Bolton had used all their substitutes, so Nicky Southall had to deputise in goal. Not surprisingly, he was unable to stop Danny Higginbotham from scoring his first Derby goal with a perfectly placed penalty kick. Bolton were down and out – of the Premiership?Reuse content