By Jon Marks
Saturday was not a normal away day for me. Well, away days have become a rarity in the last few years for a variety of reasons, but on Saturday I travelled towards Pride Park with a ticket to an Executive Box. Long story as to with whom, why and how and certainly not interesting enough to readers of this website.
I was very much looking forward to my visit as this was my first trip to Derby's new home, after several to the old Baseball Ground, and, with apologies to all those that were at Gresty Road two weeks back, optimism given our new found impressive away form.
Given our 'executive' status for the day we arrived at the ground at lunchtime and were welcomed through the main entrance by a couple of old boys in military uniform, presumably guarding against those that may get too close to the impressive trophy cabinet on view that reminds all visitors of Derby's previous stature. Up some stairs and through the open plan conference-hall-match-day-restaurant and a view of the pitch outside. Again, one could not help but be impressed by the look of the perfect playing surface and an all enclosed bowl of a stadium. Upon arriving at our destination, Box 11, the eatanddrinkasmuchasyoulike routine began. Which for all but three of us in the box was all that really mattered as they had no interest in the outcome of the afternoon's proceedings. They made sure they enjoyed the hospitality on offer and kept in touch with what was happening around the country via Jeff Stelling and crew on the TV.
However, for the Watford contingent our minds were already looking forward to the game, even though we enjoyed each helping of the four-course lunch we were served. Necks were strained from the table towards the playing area from time to time and we were able to watch a great warm-up routine from Rammy The Ram, the home mascot! The only thing he didn't do was any ball work but otherwise he made damn sure he wasn't going to strain anything as he left no stone unturned in his exercise routine on the far side of the pitch!
Sat outside in the stand, a row behind Simon Oxley and Neil Price of BBC Three Counties Radio, we had a superb view of the action. We were far enough towards the end we attacked in the first half, therefore had an excellent view of our best spell of the match. For me, other than seeing it twice in pre-season, it was the first chance to see us in the new blue kit and I settled down with my critical eye to view the much-heralded, new-found resolve away from home. Skipper Sean Dyche was fit again and able to resume at centre-half in place of the ever willing and unlucky Lloyd Doyley and Jermaine Darlington got a chance to impress at left-back at the expense of groin strain victim Paul Mayo.
I had never imagined having to test my powers of self-restraint and apparent neutrality (given that we were sat amongst the home support) so early and so often! But after a frenetic opening few minutes we put a nice move together, spreading the play across the pitch before Neal Ardley upped the ante by sending over an exquisite cross which arrowed in towards the far post and Heidar Helguson raced in like a child hurtling downstairs on Christmas morning to meet it with his head and plant it into the corner of the net. Make no mistake, this was a quality goal and Helguson made up a lot of ground to reach the ball, although his finish was made all the easier thanks to the quality of the ball in from Ardley.
The middle aged (quite posh) lady on my right commented how hard it must be having to withhold the desire to jump up and punch the air in delight - I think I managed a clenched fist and a 'yes' under my breath but obviously not quite as quietly as I had thought! I managed a conciliatory 'there's a long way to go yet' in response.
Which seemed very apt as Derby stormed towards our goal as the very lively Marco Reich, who had been clattered inside the first two minutes by James Chambers who earnt the first booking of the afternoon, crossed and Marcus Tudgay clipped the outside of the near post from close range.
The end-to-end nature of the opening exchanges continued and just a few minutes later we doubled our lead. Jermaine Darlington made excellent progress down the left flank and fed Neal Ardley. With the home defenders expecting another arrow-like cross he fooled everyone - well, everyone apart from Helguson - by picking out the Icelander with a superb pass to the far side of the penalty area. Helguson controlled the ball, stepped inside the full back and thumped a low shot into the far corner of Lee Camp's net. More invisible fist clenching from our contingent as the players tumbled onto 'H' right in front of us to celebrate.
The home fans were restless and some became almost apoplectic after just twenty minutes when possibly the game turned, if a game can turn on a missed opportunity just twenty minutes in. Ashley Young's quick free kick found that man Ardley again, in the inside right channel this time, who galloped to the by-line and clipped another hugely inviting ball to the far post. We just needed Helguson to be the one to meet it to sew the game up with the third goal and to complete the first hat-trick by a Watford player since a long time ago. But the header went just over the angle of bar and post and the chance to humiliate Derby had gone. If only it had been 'H' who was there…unbelievably, it was 'H' and unbelievably it really didn't go in.
To give the Derby fans credit, they slaughtered their team for a few seconds after this and then there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief that they were still in the game and they began to urge their side on. A powerful Neil Cox drive from a free-kick aside we began to be pushed back as Derby began to assert themselves, although without really causing Richard Lee any alarms. The pressure of constant crosses into our box took its toll eventually and six minutes before the break Kenna swept the ball in from the right and in the ensuing scramble former Hornet Tommy Smith (still ridiculously booed by the majority of the visiting support) stabbed the ball home. Game on.
The second-half began with the expected onslaught from the home side. Despite a number of crosses into our box we defended stoutly and bravely at times with Cox and Dyche battling with the aggressive Rasiak. Richard Lee was commanding, especially given that the fair conditions had given way to torrential rain for the opening quarter of the half. One player who we could not get close too was Smith. He, along with Reich, had been Derby's best player in the first half but after the interval he ran us ragged. One run following a quickly cleared corner was scintillating as he turned us inside out before firing a shot towards the bottom corner of the net, only for Lee to make a superb one-handed stop to his right.
We nearly made the game safe midway through the half when an Ardley corner was half-volleyed goalwards by Helguson but Camp made a fine save low down at his near post to concede another corner. However, the pattern of the game was one of constant Derby pressure being repelled by some excellent defending which was then undone by us not retaining possession.
With the time on the radio man's watch in front of me running out, I thought we had done enough and that Derby had run out of steam. Even though we had been reduced to ten men after Dyche had been forced off for treatment to a head wound, caused by a stray elbow according to a number of his colleagues, we seemed to have seen Derby off. Dyche returned to the fray with head bandaged and with a clean but name and numberless shirt and clearly fired up to keep the points in tact. Cox presumably exacted revenge on Rasiak with a hefty challenge from behind which led to an inevitable booking.
Five minutes from time, we failed to clear our lines properly and the ball came back into the box from Reich. This time though there was no clearing header or interception from a blue-shirted Hornet and Rasiak dived to head past Lee at the far post for a deserved equaliser.
The posh lady on my right was ecstatic, so much so that she apologised for getting so excited. She needn't have done as it was that type of match - it was great stuff and with the fervent home support right behind their team, there was a fear that they may go on and win the game. We wouldn't have deserved that as despite our poor passing in the second half, we never gave in and were so committed. Brynjar Gunnarsson was outstanding in the midfield and Helguson never stopped running up front.
As I hung about watching the post-match interviews in the empty stadium whilst waiting for the rest of my party to decide it was time to depart, the disappointment of losing a two-goal lead rescinded as we appreciated the point gained that we would have gratefully settled for before we arrived. Ray Lewington gave his usual, brutally honest appraisal of the game to Simon Oxley just in front of us and BBC Radio Derby were dissecting the home side's display bit by bit, as the in-house TV channel replayed the best bits of the game to those who hadn't returned to Jeff Stelling and chums on Sky.
As we finally drifted away from the comfort of our 'executive' surroundings, we caught a glimpse of the ridiculously booed by the majority of the visiting support Tommy Smith, on his way to collect his man-of-the-match award from the sponsors a few doors down from us, sporting a satisfied smile on his face.
So, is this the way to watch football? Not sure, it's very nice to be entertained and to be warm at half-time, but it is quite lonely sat amongst 23,500 home fans not being able to urge your own team on and being able to look no more than inwardly pleased when your team score. However, the Pride Park experience was a much more pleasurable one than say, a visit to a Priestfield or Selhurst Park...and no, we didn't have prawn sandwiches!