A bright start from the (unchanged) Albion. Brighter indeed, than the two recent thumping home wins. Beram Kayal went close – a sweetly struck 20 yard drive, deflected inches wide. Tom Ince replied – firing into the side netting after being teed up by Bryson’s inch perfect chip.
Anthony Knockaert ran at the Derby defence, tried a one-two with Sam Baldock – but was baulked off the ball. A free kick to the Albion, from the exact same spot that the Frenchman had fired Albion ahead last time here. Knockaert shooed the eager Jiri Skalak out of the way, focused, took two steps – and curled the ball over the wall – beyond the reach of Scott Carson. 28,000 celebratory cries turned to anguish in an instant – as Knockaert took the first of those two steps, Jason Shackell had dropped out of the wall, and back-pedalled towards his goal – arching his back to nod the ball over the bar. In truth a fabulous, if massively annoying, bit of defending.
From the resulting corner a scare for the Seagulls – Connor Goldson left prone on the floor, and requiring attention for a back problem. Play was delayed for three minutes or so, before fortunately the young centre back was deemed fit to continue.
Derby’s ambition seemed limited in the first half. Their numerical advantage in midfield allowed them to enjoy a healthy share of possession, but they attempted precious little with it. All attacking threat came from the home side. When the Rams did push forward they were almost caught on the break. Brilliance from Knockaert, in front of the team benches, saw him wriggle through three challenges, before driving diagonally into the Derby half. He fed Skalak out left – the Czech winger set himself, and delivered a swinging cross – met with a glancing header from Tomer Hemed – a couple of yards wide.
The sides traded yellow cards – Dunk felling the always impressive Will Hughes after gifting him the ball – George Thorne clipping Baldock, as he sped past him. One last chance in the half – another Skalak set piece, Dunk header, deflected to safety.
Mixed emotions at the interval. The Albion ahead on points, if lacking recent fluidity, but Derby’s midfield three of Hughes-Thorne-Bryson growing increasingly influential towards the end of the half.
Into the second period, and Derby came to the party. The Albion very much on the back foot – David Stockdale suddenly busy – saving (comfortably) in turn from Ince, Hughes and Russell. When the Albion tried to respond, the Rams were prepared to put a foot in. Full back Cyrus Christie began a 45 minute, ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to get himself sent off by upending Skalak on the touchline. Referee Bobby Maddely’s decision not to show a card, hugely generous.
Minutes later, a huge moment in the game – and again cause for Derby to be grateful to Mr Maddely. Baldock fed Knockaert in the box, who got himself goal-side of Thorne, to be felled by a last ditch challenge. The linesman immediately flagged ferociously for the spot kick, then pointed for a corner, under earpiece orders. Watching replays later it could have easily gone either way – Thorne did get a toe to the ball – but then lifted his foot to bring Knockaert down. Seen them given, for sure.
Handbags on the East touchline. Bruno caught by Ince’s leading arm, and down clutching his face. Ince rightly into the book – perma-irritant Chris Martin very fortunate not to join him, for his angry attempt to haul Bruno to his feet. The game on the whole, growing rather fractious.
Attacking changes from Chris Hughton, with a quarter of the game left – James Wilson and Kazenga Lualua, for Baldock and Skalak. Derby reciprocated – Andreas Weimann for Tom Ince – and it was to be the former Villa man who would have the immediate impact. Fed cleverly by Hughes, the substitute’s very first touch was a low drive, smartly parried by Stockdale – his second, a scuffed finish into the far corner.
A collective intake of breath, then a thunderous response from the Amex crowd – urging a response from the home side. Strain evident on faces though – no win here means having to win at Boro – a big ask, make no mistake.
Bigger still, without your best defender. Oh Lewis, what were you thinking? Lunging in on Bryson – Dunk gave himself no chance of winning the ball cleanly – and Mr Maddely no option but to show a second yellow. The Argus called ‘naïve’. Generous in the extreme. I call brainless. People around me clapped him off. What the hell? Why are you CLAPPING?
The Albion pressed, but created little. The big game began to drift toward a big anti-climax. The board went up to announce four added minutes. A flurry of corners. Nothing doing. Another corner. Four minutes nearly up – a tactical substitution – Derby man of the match Hughes, taking an age to slow-jog off, clapping the away fans as he went. Effective ‘game management’ – except when the extra 30 seconds added for the time you’ve wasted, allow the opposition just long enough to equalise with the last kick of the contest…
Stockdale trundled up for the last-ditch corner, and launched himself like a bowling ball into the waiting Derby skittles. The ball looped up – a dreadful attempt at a clearing header from Olsen – straight to James Wilson, whose right foot volley deflected over Carson, and dropped gently into the net. Scenes. Mathematically insignificant scenes, but scenes nonetheless. The Amex erupted.
This was the moment to celebrate an unlikely last second 10-man equaliser – not to sit spitefully denying yourself the moment, because it ‘meant nothing’. At that second it meant plenty. Intangibles perhaps – team spirit – momentum – faith - all that stuff – but plenty.
The team left the field to an ovation – to return a short while later with their children, for the end of season ‘lap of appreciation’. Heartening to see such large numbers wait behind – this season’s Albion team so very worthy of that appreciation. With the exceptions of Jake Forster-Caskey and Rohan Ince – away on loan – all those who have contributed were out there – from top scorer Hemed, with his young daughter – to Player of the Year Kayal, carrying the wonderfully named Pirlo – to club legend Inigo Calderon with babe in arms. Great too, to see Solly March walking comfortably in the group – such cruel luck, his injury, in the form of his life.
Whatever happens on Saturday at the Riverside – whatever happens if we need a second bite via the play-offs – the Albion fans must surely all be enormously proud of this team.