Wigan's leap clear of the bottom three prompted manager Steve Bruce to wish the season could end now. Paul Jewell will go to work this morning with similar thoughts, although for different reasons. Inevitably there is sympathy for the Derby manager's plight yet it is hard not to wonder if he has been party to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
With Derby there seems never to have been any belief. Indeed, you suspect there was a corporate resignation to being relegated even before they went up.
It can be traced back to Jewell's predecessor, Billy Davies, who seldom discussed even the prospect of promotion last season. When it did happen it was no surprise that his players, deep down, did not think they were good enough.
By the end of September, tonked already by Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal and with only five points won, a negative mentality seemed to have taken hold. When Jewell replaced Davies, in November, any mention of survival tended to have the word "miracle" in close proximity.
Little wonder then that it has come to this, a trip to Wigan, a match presented as one Derby could win but which provokes a response that is little more than going through the motions.
Wigan frustrated themselves at first, but Derby – for whom at least goalkeeper Roy Carroll, against his former club, looked motivated – kept inviting them to try again and inevitably the goals came, from Paul Scharner, on 60 minutes, after Carroll's double save from Emile Heskey, and from Antonio Valencia six minutes from the end.
"You can only pull the wool over people's eyes so far, you have to be straight with them," Jewell said, in the club's defence. "You could say that we could still stay up if we win the next eight or nine games. But it isn't going to happen, is it?"
He is right, of course. Yet this is a realism with an emptiness attached. Cynically we may laugh when managers speak of "not giving up until survival is mathematically impossible" – but at least the words came with a measure of hope, however forlorn. Without it, what is the point?
Goals: Scharner (60) 1-0; Valencia (84) 2-0.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Kirkland; Melchiot, Boyce, Scharner, Edman (Koumas, 90); Valencia, Brown, Palacios, Kilbane; King (Sibierski, 85), Heskey (Bent, 90). Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Bramble.
Derby County (4-1-4-1): Carroll; Leacock (Todd, 46), Moore, Stubbs, McEveley; Savage; Fagan, Barnes, Ghaly (Sterjovski, 62), Pearson (Villa, 57); Miller. Substitutes not used: Price (gk), Lewis.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Derby Fagan.
Man of the match: Carroll.
Attendance: 20,176.Reuse content