PRIDE PARK: Promotion Party Poopers

Despite the two clubs being a sizeable distance apart, a rivalry has steadily built up between Derby and Cardiff over recent weeks. It stemmed from the decision to call off the original fixture between the pair last month because of snow. Derby said that their pitch was playable but the areas surrounding their stadium were a health and safety hazard. Cardiff, meanwhile, argued the Rams had deliberately tried to postpone the game for a later date because of a mounting injury crisis.

It’s led to several words – and videos – being exchanged between the two clubs. Both managers have had a dig at each other while the respective players have apparently sent footage of themselves calling out their peers. Only one video has emerged to the public, featuring Cardiff captain Sean Morrison, but others have been sent from the Derby side too, according to City boss Neil Warnock.

The whole situation increased the hype on the rearranged fixture. Both teams needed three points for their own promotion hopes; Derby would re-enter the play-offs with a victory, while Cardiff would be on the verge of re-entering the Premier League if they’d won. I travelled to the East Midlands early to meet my friend Tim before heading over to Pride Park.

The Highs

Seeing Tim

Once again, travelling for the blog meant I could meet up with friends who live across the country. Tim wouldn’t be coming to the game even if he could grab a ticket, having only ever attended one match in his life and with his lasting memory of it being ‘cold’. But we did get to look at suits, have a meal and even try a virtual reality headset. I also finally got to use the Mr. Pretzel loyalty card that had been in my wallet for about three years after Tim had originally gave me some from his former employers. Nothing like a bit of cinnamon and sugar to give you a pre-match buzz.

Sold out away end

Despite my excessive sugar intake, the walk to the stadium felt flat. I followed a crowd of people who were heading in the direction of Pride Park assuming they were fans but with some tinge of doubt as there was no indication that they were attending a big end-of-season clash.

Being outside the ground also failed to gear me up. Perhaps walking through a retail park to get there diminished the tension. Coincidentally, I thought the same thing when walking through Cardiff City Stadium’s shopping centre dwelling earlier in the season.

However, I was soon to be awakened when I got to the sold out away end. Just walking to the entrance stirred me into life as the Bluebirds fans were in full voice and a rapturous mood. Cardiff had won their last two games and their supporters clearly believed this match would push them to the brink of promotion. They also came armed with some top-level artillery about the weather. Some had snowmen on their heads. Some had brought inflatable Olafs. ‘Where’s the snow, where’s the snow, Derby County?’ rang out from the entrance, to the concourse, to pitchside. The singing continued during the game and only intensified once Cardiff took the lead, Callum Paterson hitting a sweet near-post volley from Joe Bennett’s cross.

For the length of the pre-match and first half, it was the best atmosphere I’d experienced on the blog so far. We stood up for the entire match and sang a variety of chants. One guy near me had a Warnock mask on. Someone further down had a flashing, blue Trilby. It felt like a real party. I can only compare it to when Wrexham won at Kidderminster in the National League play-off semi-final five years ago. The singing didn’t relent then and it was a constant presence at Derby. Everything was set up for the fairytale away day.

The Lows

Derby spoil the party

But somehow, Cardiff managed to capitulate in the last 20 minutes. The home side were in control of possession for much of the game, to be fair, and managed to cause more trouble than the away side did to them. But City were resolute in defence, blocking numerous efforts in and outside the box, while Neil Etheridge in the Cardiff goal was constantly alert to danger and also made a great save from Tom Lawrence in the first half.

A second goal would have killed Derby off and it should have come from Gary Madine. The £6m January signing has yet to score for the Bluebirds, prompting their fans to sing ‘if Gary scores, we’re on the pitch’. No such celebrations were had though, as his miss from the six-yard box resulted in his substitution and Derby equalised before his replacement could get into the game.

The rain fell heavily as former Bluebird, Cameron Jerome, silenced the boos he’d been receiving from the away section. He tucked a shot past Etheridge after the ‘keeper had earlier thrown the ball back into play when it would have gone out for a goal-kick. However, the equaliser did come a few phases after that and should have been dealt with better by the Cardiff defence – particularly Sol Bamba, who had an error-filled game and played Jerome onside.

Worse was to come though. Yanic Wildschut, who had been brought on to try and rescue Cardiff, ended up dawdling on the ball in the penalty area. Andre Wisdom dispossessed him and passed to their 19-goal top scorer Matej Vydra. He did the rest. Then Morrison – the man at the centre of all the pre-match sledging – made his own mistake in the dying minutes. The centre-half had enough time to clear the ball from danger but allowed Jerome to nip in and grab a brace.

It was an unusually shaky evening for a Cardiff team who had the joint-best defensive record in the Championship before the match (equal with champions Wolves) and a surprise turnaround for Derby, who ended a run of three straight defeats.

I felt despondent for my uncle, who was listening at home and managed to get me in to the game with his season ticket privileges. It would have been so memorable to win and call him up amidst the celebrations. But fair play to Derby, they gatecrashed the party and maybe even the play-offs for themselves.

The Verdict

Pride Park is one of the biggest stadiums in the country and looks very impressive on the inside. I felt lucky to be amongst the sold out travelling fans, especially with the ticket costing me a remarkable price of £10. Being in a 30,000 crowd – around 3k off capacity – also added to the occasion.

Credit to the Derby fans, although they were mostly quiet during the encounter, when their goals went in they celebrated feverishly and every Bluebird felt the pain hard. There was a vast sense of isolation in our section as the home fans dished out chants in response to some, honestly speaking, quite over-the-top goading from Cardiff. But to the Bluebirds’ credit as well, they took these on the chin.

Their concern focussed more on the Championship table. It leaves Cardiff a point above Fulham with both teams on the same amount of games played. Realistically, City have to win both their remaining fixtures to finish in second place as Fulham don’t look like losing anytime soon.

The good news for the Bluebirds is things are still in their hands. If they win their last two games, they get automatic promotion. Anything less, though, and they could be playing Derby again in the play-offs. Not quite the after party they were dreaming of.

Derby County 3 – 1 Cardiff City
EFL Championship

Ground rating: 7.5/10

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