Derby County could have thought they were back in the Premier League.
They had the late-afternoon TV audience to themselves; Howard Webb, the World Cup final referee, was in charge; and they were visiting a City side bank-rolled from Thailand and managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson. The result hardly disabused them of the fantasy. A 4-0 defeat by Leicester was in line with Derby's last top-tier experience, a one-off season four ago under Billy Davies, then Paul Jewell, in which they broke record lows with one win and 11 points.
It was out of line with Derby's exciting Championship season so far. They kicked off with four straight wins. Pre-match notes said they were "chasing a seventh win in 10 matches, their best start in 42 years". In the event they were chasing their tails. Post-match notes had Nigel Clough saying: "We have to make sure we've got all our mistakes out of the way in one go." Derby still lie third. "We've had a brilliant season," the manager added, "and we mustn't let this result overshadow it."
The last round of midweek matches emphasised the tightness of the division. Only Cardiff of the top nine sides won. Only six points cover the top 10 now, Leicester being one of them after seven games unbeaten. Eriksson, celebrating a year in the job on Monday and a fourth clean sheet in a row, said: "Clean sheet again. Very good." Money, which always seems to be at his disposal, says more than he does. So did Matt Mills, his new captain and centre-back from Reading in a £13m summer spree. "We felt this sort of thing coming. Unfortunately for Derby they took a bit of a thumping," he said.
At £5m Mills cost £2m more than Clough has spent in two and a half seasons. Clough did not feel it coming. "We've looked really solid," he had said after five games. "It's something we identified in the summer, that we must be more resilient and difficult to beat. I think we've shown that." Leicester, recognising the same fault lines in their set-up with greater means to repair them, showed it more forcefully as well as their brightness in attack. Shaun Barker, yet to play this season because of a knee injury, cannot return too soon for Derby.
David Nugent, long of body and short of leg, scuttled beyond Mark O'Brien for the first goal – a fast-buck predator who would have had another if his slide-in for an open goal had not flipped on to his hand – and Darius Vassell converted the rebound when Neil Danns hit a post before half-time. City's midfield, still crisp despite the loss of Walkers to King Power, was thinking too quickly for Derby.
Clough called those goals "poor", the next two "daft". They came in short order at the end after Eriksson showed the variety of his hand with three attacking substitutes. Jeff Schlupp stabbed in after Mills's head was first to a corner before Steve Howard rose to Kasper Schmeichel's punt to put in Lloyd Dyer, who shot through the England "prospect" Frank Fielding.
"Shot through" summed up Derby. For all their alleged solidity their goalkeepers have made the most saves in the division. Schmeichel made none for 51 minutes. Where Howard was up for storming barns, Derby's striker Theo Robinson looked unlikely to say boo to a wheat sheaf. Where Leicester are fast-tracking for the Premier League, their quiet neighbours are taking time since General Sports and Entertainment bought the club in January 2008 and started knocking off £30m of debt.
If fans are content – and crowds, at 26,833, are second only to West Ham's in the Championship averages – this suits Clough, who spent 10 years taking Burton Albion to the threshold of the league. Last season, when Derby slipped from fourth going into December to 19th, it was suggested he might go back there. Last month, as Nottingham Forest still failed to get going, he was touted for the City Ground. Clough has spent 45 years trying not to be his father. "We'll clear the rubbish out of our minds and start again against the league leaders [Southampton] in two weeks' time," he said. Though the game may be going prematurely at 80mph, he is in no hurry. Leicester may have stolen their show but not their focus.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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