From the Premiership, Portugal and even Peru they came, the newcomers to whom George Burley was looking to kick-start a Derby revival. It may be early doors, to use the vernacular, yet there was something ominous about the way Stoke left them looking like mutton dressed as Rams.
Stoke escaped relegation only on the final day of last season. After a summer of defections, they fielded only three players from that game, alongside six debutants. With hapless assistance from a youthful, naïve Derby, however, Tony Pulis' team departed with three of the easiest points they will ever collect.
Pulis, who landed the Stoke manager's job last November because Burley turned it down, was still shoring up his squad 24 hours before the match when he signed Keith Andrews and Darel Russell. Each integrated seamlessly as a side hardly long in the tooth themselves were made to resemble men against boys.
Much has changed - at both clubs - since Stoke escaped the Second Division within weeks of Derby's top-flight demise 15 months ago. Managers have come and gone, money has become ever tighter and the turnover in personnel has turned having a player's name printed on a replica shirt into a high-risk strategy.
Burley has shed Derby's big earners, Georgi Kinkladze, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Rob Lee and Craig Burley. But the incoming Ian Taylor, from Aston Villa, could not carry the midfield battle against Andrews and John Eustace, while Candido Costa, from Porto, and the South American, Gianfranco Tome, sparked only fitfully.
An astonishing 25 players have joined or left Stoke since Pulis took over. More will arrive presently, provided today's tribunal makes West Bromwich Albion pay a decent sum for the midfielder James O'Connor. On Saturday's evidence, though, they may just be better equipped than he feared.
Stoke implemented Pulis' game plan commendably. Having seen Derby defeat Real Mallorca in their final friendly (Stoke, as if to underline the irrelevance of pre-season results, lost theirs to Rhyl), he boldly went for three up front and apparently advised a service of long, early balls. Gifton Noel-Williams and Chris Greenacre struck inside the first quarter, when Derby's overnight loan recruit, Newcastle's Gary Caldwell, was cruelly exposed. Even a groin injury to Ed de Goey did not faze Stoke. His replacement, Neil Cutler, did not make their first save until moments before Lewis Neal made it 3-0 in the last minute.
"This is a good club with terrific support, but it's difficult to manage here because of the financial constraints," Pulis said. "Last season was desperate because we were fighting for our lives. We've since lost 14 players and had to put a side together from scratch. But it was a fantastic team performance."
Burley praised the powerfully-built Tom Huddlestone, 16, the pick of Derby's midfield, and candidly anticipated a "difficult" season. "I wasn't raving at them afterwards because we're a young team and it's important to keep up morale," he said. "But we need to strengthen." One down, or up as Stoke will see it, 45 to go.
Goals: Noel-Williams (15) 0-1; Greenacre (20) 0-2; Neal (90) 0-3.
Derby County (3-5-2): Oakes; Caldwell, Mills, Elliott; Hunt (Tome, 33), Huddlestone, Taylor, Candido Costa, Jackson; McLeod (Boertien, 52), Morris (Bolder, 63). Substitutes not used: Valakari, Grant (gk).
Stoke City (3-4-3): De Goey (Cutler, 54); Marteinsson, Thomas, Hall; Russell, Andrews, Eustace, Clarke; Asaba, Greenacre (Neal, 80), Noel-Williams (Iwelumo, 81). Substitutes not used: Goodfellow, Commons.
Referee: H Webb (Rotherham).
Bookings: Derby: McLeod, Taylor. Stoke: Thomas, Hall.
Man of the match: Andrews.
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