Saturday 1 March ~
It's been a hellish season for Derby County. Promoted a year early, in the second season of ex-manager Billy Davies's three-year plan, they have looked certainties for 20th place since the 5-0 home thrashing by West Ham in early November that was instrumental in Davies losing his job. Given that the team has taken just three points in the 13 league games since Paul Jewell took over, there is still a possibility that they will end up with the worst ever record in the top flight. The target to beat is 15 points, set by Sunderland in 2005-06. Which should add an extra frisson to Sunderland's trip to Pride Park.
Not that Sunderland will be exactly looking forward to their visit. Roy Keane's side have yet to win away from the Stadium of Light. Indeed, they have taken fewer away points this season than Derby (two compared to three). Sunderland supporters are unsurprisingly nervy knowing that a win at Derby coupled with Newcastle failing to beat Blackburn would send Sunderland above their rivals into 13th place and, potentially, seven points clear of the bottom three. Losing to Derby would leave them deep in yet another relegation battle. The fate of Liam Miller is still unclear, after he was put on the transfer list by Keane earlier in the week for poor time keeping. Miller might not play for Sunderland again but it could be that Keane's action was intended simply as a public dressing down. However it's doubtful that he will feature today. This is bound to please Derby – it was a little over a year ago, on February 24, 2007, that Miller sent Sunderland towards the Championship title and almost fatally derailed Derby's promotion hopes with a last-minute winner.
Paul Jewell brought in eight new players during the January transfer window – including Robbie Savage who claimed to opt for Derby in preference to Sunderland – but to almost no effect. However, Jewell's own signings are presumably not among the Derby players he castigated as “nowhere near good enough” and “not worthy of being here” after the team's latest defeat, to his old club Wigan. Derby's new American owner is expected to fund the construction of a new team in the summer but such a calamitous season might continue to have a morale-sapping effect into 2008-09. Sunderland lost the first five games of last season under Niall Quinn's ill-fated managerial experiment and only began an impressive recovery after Keane's arrival. Either way one manager is going to be almost speechlessly angry in post match interviews on Saturday evening. Possibly both of them if their respective winless runs continue after a dogged but dire draw.