Derby County 3 Stoke City 1
Lou Macari perused the First Division table, hot off the photocopier, and declared himself surprised and pleased by what he saw. Which was more than he could say about a game of two halves and two Sturridges.
After a five-match slump from which Stoke have scraped a paltry two points, Macari could not believe his team were still in the play-off frame. His opposite number, Jim Smith, saw no need to study the standings. With Derby clinging to the second automatic promotion place in spite of a similarly miserable March, their manager had already computed all the results.
A division in which clubs as low as 16th still have a chance of going up - or indeed down - is clearly a very even one. Exciting as that may make the run-in, that Derby and Stoke have maintained their respective positions despite such sorry sequences suggests the Premiership is unlikely to be enhanced by whoever joins it next August.
Derby hope to be in a new stadium by the start of 1997-98. Assuming they go up this time (which is dangerous with Crystal Palace on a charge and visiting the Baseball Ground on 28 April), Smith will have to spend more heavily than any manager in their history if it is not to open as one of the Endsleigh League's swishest venues. That is a problem for the summer. For the moment, promotion is everything.
To that end, Dean Sturridge's return to form against Stoke was of potentially major import. Before Saturday, only one of the quicksilver striker's 16 goals had come in the previous 11 matches. For the second week running he was merely a substitute. But this time, inspired by sibling rivalry, he emerged to score twice and transform a game the visitors looked set to win.
Stoke's Simon Sturridge, his older brother, made a marvellous early goal for Mike Sheron. Soon after the interval, with Dean on for the influenza- stricken Igor Stimac for their first meeting at competitive level, Simon helped set up Graham Potter. The already subdued Derby fans feared the worst, only for the midfielder to head tamely into Russell Hoult's hands.
The ball was worked upfield and within 40 seconds Sturridge minor equalised. His sheer pace unsettled a Stoke defence which had leaked a mere six goals in the previous 11 games. He also held up the ball up better than either Marco Gabbiadini or Ashley Ward (another flu sufferer; so much for Derby's three days of fresh air and fun in Blackpool).
The second goal, by Darryl Powell, put Derby on top before Dean Sturridge's second confirmed that, for the 13th time this season, they avoided defeat after falling behind. Both were headers following crosses by Gabbiadini, who was a revelation in midfield as Smith switched to 4-4-2 to accommodate his leading scorer.
Stoke, who now have two home games, find their slender resources further depleted by the sale of Paul Peschisolido. A banner demanding the head of the chairman, Peter Coates, hung prominently in the away end. Should Macari steer them into the play-offs, having been unable to buy all season, it would be an extraordinary feat.
Smith, by comparison, has had money to burn (although a passing team may argue that it would have been prudent to invest some in improving their lunar landscape of a pitch). Consequently, and in view of the big lead they once enjoyed, Derby would be disappointed indeed if they were forced to settle for the stuff of Stoke's dreams.
Goals: Sheron (22) 0-1; D Sturridge (51) 1-1; D Powell (57) 2- 1; D Sturridge (78) 3-1.
Derby County (3-4-1-2): Hoult; Yates, Stimac (D Sturridge, h-t), Wassall; Carsley, Flynn, D Powell, C Powell; Willems; Ward (Simpson, 87), Gabbiadini. Substitute not used: Van der Laan.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Prudhoe; Wallace, Sigurdsson, Cranson, Sandford; Keen, Beeston, Gleghorn, Potter (Carruthers, 74); S Sturridge, Sheron. Substitutes not used: Dreyer, Whittle.
Referee: S Mathieson (Stockport).
Bookings: Derby: Flynn. Stoke: Beeston.
Man of the match: Gabbiadini.
Attendance: 17,245.Reuse content