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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 17/09/03, 7.45pm
Derby County
Russian Roulette
By Matt Rowson

This was not a major shock.

We'd been warned previously by an engineer that ours was the sort of boiler that one bought when needing to sell a house and not wanting to spend an excessive amount on window dressing. Cantankerous spells have been tolerated nervously and fingers have been crossed but Lady Luck appears to have finally drifted off to more pressing engagements elsewhere. The hot water's been a bit half-hearted for a while. Last night a couple of the radiators went cold also. And then our friend started vibrating and thundering ominously to the point of threatening to swallowdive onto the kitchen floor. The plug was, proverbially, pulled, and I had a cold shower this morning. Nice.

So now I'm playing Russian Roulette with the Yellow Pages. Needed, one new boiler. That's kinda the easy bit. And someone to install it. Ah.

How do you make that decision? Corgi-registered? Well, that'll be all of them then. Does this look like the name of someone who knows what they're doing? Would someone who was out to bleed you dry call their company that? So many risks... and you just know that you could make the best decision on the evidence available and still come a cropper.

Just ask Derby County. Less than two years ago the insipid three-month reign of Colin Todd came to an end at Pride Park. Ten days later John Gregory walked out on Aston Villa, relatively undamaged goods having escaped Ellis' wrath for four years and left Villa in seventh. A former Derby stalwart and England international, the identity of Todd's replacement seemed a no-brainer. Gregory was installed within a week of leaving Villa Park. And his aggressive (if, as ever, slightly disturbing) bullishness seemed to inspire a welcome bit of fight in the side and support.

After a brief flurry, however, Derby lost seven on the bounce and were relegated. In fact, they didn't move from nineteenth place (above a hapless Leicester) from Gregory's arrival until the end of the season. The side was a flabby mess last term - a slightly flattering 3-0 win over us in this fixture notwithstanding - and Gregory was acrimoniously and controversially ousted, probably the most disastrous appointment in Derby's recent history. (Anyone who'd seen him interviewed could have warned them, mind. If I meet a plumber with a squint like that, he'll be right out the door, trust me....)

He left a side overburdened with heavy, indolent contracts (it's always the rubbish, overpaid ones that don't get picked off for some reason) peppered with willing but unprepared kids... and with a support that appears to slightly overestimate their own stature in this division, in apparent obliviousness to the other ex-Prem shipwrecks dotting the landscape, not to mention nouveau-riches in much ruder health. At any rate, opponents boasting one draw from their last nine competitive games (a run that began with our win at the Vic in April) is not the stuff that a Cup Final, even our Cup Final is made of.

There's a duel for the goalkeeping position for the Rams at the moment, although neither Andy Oakes or Lee Grant appear to be inspiring confidence. Oakes has a reputation for being nervy with crosses whilst Watford-born Grant has also appeared "flappy", leading to his being dropped again after the recent defeat in Cardiff.

At the back, Michael Johnson and Pablo Mills should form a solid-looking central partnership. Johnson was in the Birmingham side that we beat in the play-offs in 1999 and was the source of the header that led to Alec making that impossible save at St.Andrews. He played for Jamaica against Australia during the international break. Nineteen year old Mills was one of few Derby players to impress at Vicarage Road at the end of last season.

Of the other central defenders Youl Mawene is injured, as is new arrival from Crewe Dave Walton, who injured his knee pre-season and has yet to feature although he's back in training this Monday. The blunt Steve Elliott would be another option, as would Scottish U21 international Gary Caldwell, on-loan from Newcastle having spent a similar season at Coventry last year.

Richard Jackson at right-back seems to be the grounds of some disquiet, distribution being a perceived weakness, but when the alternative is Warren Barton ("the last of the dead wood" according to one report) you're onto a good thing. Left back Paul Boertien has recovered from a thigh strain and should be fit, although there are dissenters wondering why Argentinian Luciano Zavagno, whose move to Spartak Moscow collapsed following a curious failed medical in the summer, hasn't featured.

The centre of Derby's midfield should feature two players at either end of their career... Ian Taylor is proving a popular signing from Aston Villa and, at thirty-five, should be able to pass on a few tricks to Tom Huddlestone, who is built (and named) like a heavyweight boxer despite being only sixteen.

The tidy but lightweight Finn Simo Valakari seems likely to play on the left, but Portuguese U21 winger Candido Costa, who has been playing on the right, was dismissed at Cardiff and serves the second of a three-game ban. This could see a start for young Peruvian Gianfranco Labarthe Tome.

Other midfield options include the competitive Adam Bolder and youngsters Lewis Hunt, Lee Holmes and Nathan Doyle, the latter of whom has recovered from an injury picked up in the recent reserve game at the Vic, but Adam Murray is on loan at Kidderminster.

Up front, the left-sided Lee Morris still struggles to live down the considerable transfer fee which the Rams paid Sheffield United four years ago... he's developing an annoying habit of scoring against us though, most recently in the reserve game two weeks ago. Also available will be Matthias Svensson, a vicious lump of a striker on loan from Charlton, and Junior, ultra-leftfooted but scorer of sixteen goals for Walsall last term. Youngster Izale McLeod is likely to be an erratic option on the bench.

The Rams' latest plumber, George Burley, is in a difficult situation this season if one web report is to be believed... the play-offs are out of reach, but merely avoiding relegation isn't sufficient for the expectant locals. Insert your own pun along the lines of springing a leak in their defence, pumping the crosses in or floods of attacks here...