MATCH VERDICT: Wanderers 2 Derby County 2
IT might not have been the result Dougie Freedman was looking for to silence a growing number of nay-sayers around the Reebok – but there were elements of the performance that suggest the need for urgent action is sinking in.
After a grandstand first half in which goals and chances were traded with head-spinning regularity, the second 45 minutes was something of a damp squib.
Alex Baptiste’s sublime opener after only four minutes was quickly cancelled out, then bettered by a double from Johnny Russell, before Chris Eagles got a goal his endeavour deserved on the night to level the scores at the break.
Unfortunately, that was it. As inventive and fluent as Wanderers looked going forward in the first half, they rather reverted to type when the game looked to be there for winning.
Unlike previous defeats against Leeds and Blackburn, however, there was a vein of steel running through this display that will provide a little bit of solace for the Whites boss, who currently needs every good omen he can find.
Freedman made three changes to the side beaten by Leeds at the weekend, the most eye-catching of which was dropping Zat Knight to the bench.
It was the first time that the big centre half had ever been dropped from the Scot’s starting line-up, having played the last 44 games in league and cup since his arrival last October.
David Ngog and Darren Pratley also made way with David Wheater, Rob Hall and Jermaine Beckford restored to the team.
Fans had been calling for such wide-reaching changes, now they had them.
And for six glorious minutes, everything seemed right with the Reebok.
Eagles started off like a man possessed and was only denied a run-in on goal in the opening seconds by an excellent challenge by Lewis Buxton.
Playing in a more central role, Eagles then produced a smart chest pass to set Alex Baptiste on a surging run down the right channel four minutes in.
The full-back could hardly have imagined how well it would end, as one brilliant jink past Buxton later he drilled a left-footed shot low into the bottom corner to leave the stadium collectively rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
Could that miraculous strike signal a change in fortune for the Whites? Well, sadly not. Just two minutes later and a lovely back-heel from Will Hughes sent Craig Bryson down the left past goalscorer Baptiste and his low cross was turned in at the near post by Russell.
It quickly got worse. Wanderers were still playing some neat football going forward but that brittle back-four continues to be a concern.
When Hughes’s shot cannoned off Wheater it was Bryson who sprang into action, delivering a low cross into the six yard box that was again pounced upon by Russell.
The Wanderers fans responded with a roar of their own and while Derby did have half chances to extend their lead, getting back into the game never looked beyond question.
Grant made up for a spill from Eagles’ shot with a smart stop at the feet of Beckford, and then pushed away Eagles’ second attempt from an acute angle.
The former Manchester United man was doing everything he could to get things going again and went close with a deflected free-kick from the edge of the box.
It was no surprise, then, that he supplied the goal that got Wanderers level pegging again.
Tim Ream – who was again neat and tidy in front of the back four – played a ball into Eagles’ feet around 35 yards out and aided by the wet turf, he turned to drill a bouncing shot inside Grant’s left-hand post.
For the neutral the first half certainly made for good viewing but however improved the performance, a point was never likely to fully appease the Wanderers fans.
The players knew just that and assisted by the soaking turf, the challenges flew in fast as the home side tried to maintain a high tempo.
It was the kind of night built for a bulldog like Jay Spearing – and one tackle he made on John Eustace a few yards outside the Derby box drew a huge ovation.
Derby’s attacking intent had all-but dried up in the second half but in one brief we saw the best and the worst of Wanderers’ defending. Sub Paul Coutts was given far too much space to play Chris Martin into the penalty box and his low cross looked to have been tucked home by Adam Smith until a fine block on the line by Mills cleared the danger.
Wanderers broke instantly and it looked as if the moment had finally come for Jermaine Beckford when he twisted and turned past Buxton, only to fluff his shot at the bitter end.
David Ngog was put on with 20 minutes to go and made an instant nuisance of himself – heading just wide from Spearing’s cross.
The dying embers of the game proved completely fruitless for either side and while the final whistle was greeted by familiar grumbles by the sparse home support, the performance will, on reflection, be viewed as a considerable step forward, if not quite as much as a victory.