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FA Carling Premiership, 3/1/00
Derby County
We're gonna win the league!
By Matt Rowson

There was a bloke in front of me on the way out of the Rookery on Tuesday who summed up the mood entirely.

"And now you've gotta believe us...we're gonna win the league!"

Oh, bollocks that it was "only" Southampton. Bollocks if we still have a goal difference of minus eighty-seven thousand. Bollocks if we're still several wins away from escaping the relegation zone. Bollocks if we managed to blow a two-goal lead and bollocks if we still have three hundred strikers injured and a defence as solid as custard. We won a game, and now anything seems possible.

Particularly since the fixtures have fallen nicely for us this time. None of us need reminding that no fixture in the Premiership is "easy"; however there are considerably more formidable places to visit than Pride Park at the moment, where Derby have already managed to run up ten defeats in twelve home games this season. If this is to be the start of a turnaround, here is probably the away trip we'd have chosen.

In any case, something has to give on Monday. Forget the irresistible force versus the immovable object; the confrontation between their attack (ten games at home, seven goals) and our defence (ten games away, twenty-four goals) has all the makings of a Police Academy sequel - lots of people run into each other and someone wins by accident.

Goings-on at Derby have been pretty calamitous by any stretch. The Rams appear the most willing and able of the sides at the bottom to attempt to resolve their plight by means of squad strengthening, however these attempts seem to be thwarted at every turn. One reason for this appears to be the prudent insistence on contractual clauses reducing player salaries in the event of relegation. This appears to have been a restricting factor on the proposed move for Colin Hendry, and may still prohibit the permanent signing of Israeli loan star Avi Nimni.

One notable arrival was Lee Morris, who had a good game against the Hornets at Bramall Lane in March. However, a broken foot keeps him out for the foreseeable future. Georgi Kinkladze arrived, a gamble as conceded by Jim Smith, and then went to bed with flu for several weeks.

Then there was the Esteban Fuertes saga, a story so ludicrous that even the scriptwriters of Sunset Beach would reject it. The original signing was much delayed during the summer and early season, apparently because Fuertes' playing registration was shared by three clubs in Argentina, each of which needed to be negotiated with for their "share". Fuertes arrived, eventually, only to be sent off in a home defeat against Bradford at the end of September. Then, on the way back from a training camp in Portugal in November, he was refused re-entry into England at Heathrow, apparently due to his possessing a forged passport.

He returned to Argentina, and stories on his future range from imminent return to never again. Such are the legal complications that Derby themselves seem to be in the dark. The best story I've heard concerns the possibility that the man who played eight games for Derby earlier in the season wasn't even the "real" Fuertes - apparently ludicrous, but nothing would particularly surprise at the moment.

The most peculiar thing about this story is perhaps that Jim Smith is the manager concerned. If this happened to Bryan Robson nobody would be terribly surprised, but whatever Smith's failings, being taken for a berk isn't one of them. This is the man, remember, who responded to Bobby Robson's assertion at a managers' conference that Brazil are the best team in the world because they learn to play on the beach with "why aren't Torquay top of the bloody league then?".

Undeterred, he has continued strengthening his squad, with dentally challenged midfielder Craig Burley arriving from Celtic and the superbly named Branko Struper joining from Genk. Rumours suggest that another signing maybe imminent, that of Danish striker Peter Møller from Oviedo. Such is the profligacy of Scandinavians in the top two divisions, one has to wonder whether there are many left in Copenhagen or Trondheim who can kick straight. We're unlikely to find out in this case however, as Møller's signing won't be completed in time for him to play on Monday.

In goal will be Estonian Mart Poom, who had a blinding game at Upton Park on Tuesday and is keeping former Leicester stopper Russell Hoult on the sidelines.

With Vas Borbokis returning to Greece with Salonika, the right wing-back position looks likely to go either to Dane Jacob Laursen or versatile Irishman Rory Delap, although the latter missed the Upton Park game with flu. On the left, Tony Dorigo, former Hamburg man Stefan Schnoor and Paul Boertien, a former Carlisle team-mate of Allan Smart and Nick Wright, were all also down with the flu on Tuesday leaving midfielder Seth Johnson to fill in. However, Johnson misses this game with suspension, so Smith will hope that one of the trio has recovered sufficiently by Monday.

In the centre, youngster Steve Elliott has been one of the season's few success stories. Horacio Carbonari, possessor of a famously ferocious shot, has had a patchy season but impressed on his recall on Tuesday, whilst Spencer Prior is a solid enough defender, although unsettled at Pride Park. Laursen and Schnoor can both also play in central positions, with youngster Richard Jackson another option.

In midfield, captain Daryl Powell will, along with Deon Burton, be lost to the Rams in February as he joins up with the Jamaican squad for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. At first sight this doesn't appear to help us much, although one sardonic Rams fan's observation that their loss "may be no bad thing" sheds a different light. Lars Bohinen, who allegedly runs his own candid Derby website (which must go down well), has returned from injury and features alongside Burley. Nimni is another option, but Kinkladze has been suffering badly with flu and Eranio has a broken leg.

Derby struggled to score last season and the departures of Wanchope and Baiano has hardly helped matters. Dean Sturridge is occasionally brilliant, often rubbish and continually linked with moves, most recently to Forest. Mickel Beck is even more frequently rubbish, and has been on loan at the City Ground. Reggae-boy Deon Burton has never really made a huge impact in domestic football so much will depend on the speed with which target-man Strupar settles in. Youngster Marvin Robinson is another option; he appears to have a good future, but was bullied out of the game at West Ham.

For the first time in ages it's possible to feel positive about a game. Of course, Derby won recently as well, at Leicester (albeit fortunately), and went on to lose to Villa, collapsing all hopes of an immediate turnaround. But their situation, crucially, was different.

They were only Derby.

We are Watford.

Bring 'em on.