Old boys, new boys

“IT will be strange managing against Wigan this afternoon,” wrote Derby manager Paul Jewell in his programme notes. “But unfortunately there is no place for sentiment in this game, and all of my energy and focus now is on doing well for Derby County.”

It was an afternoon of reunions at Pride Park. Jewell isn’t the only former Wigan man now on Derby’s pay roll. Winger Gary Teale spent six years at the club. Derby’s head of communications Matt McCann used to do the same job at the JJB Stadium.

There were other reunions, too. Robbie Savage was reunited with the Derby fans. Now there lies a story.

Before his move from Blackburn this week, Savage was not popular with Derby’s supporters. (Then again, the chances of a Robbie Savage statue going up anywhere are pretty slim.) It all stems from his time at Leicester, when he won a particularly dubious penalty in a particularly fractious East Midlands Premiership derby at Pride Park six seasons ago, then celebrated it as if he’d just scored the winning goal.

“I know Robbie has had a ‘history’ with Derby County and has been cast as a pantomime villain in the past,” Jewell wrote in the match programme. “That’s Robbie; he drives opposition fans mad but he is an exceptional footballer and we are delighted to have him in our ranks.”

Sure enough, as Savage’s name was read out over the public address system before kick off, a huge cheer went up from the home fans. He may be a pest, but he’s their pest now.

Savage, though, generally came off second best in his midfield battle against Wigan’s own terrier, Michael Brown. A clash between a former Manchester United trainee and a former Manchester City youngster was always going to be a little tasty; Brown was the one who ended up getting booked.

But for all Jewell’s talk about Savage’s talent, and the fact that several other Premier League clubs wanted the midfielder, it’s hard not to think that he has been bought with next season’s Championship promotion campaign in mind. At 33, he’s no longer quite the midfield force he once was, and it showed today as Wigan had most of the territory.

Jewell has been busy in the transfer market this week, signing Argentinian striker Emanuel Villa from Mexican club UAG Tecos, former Newcastle left-winger Laurent Robert, recently of Spanish club Levante, and Egyptian midfielder Hossam Ghaly, on loan from Tottenham.

For Ghaly, today represented a reunion too. It was the first time he had run into Steve Bruce since the Wigan manager tried to sign him for his former club Birmingham in the summer – only for the deal to fall through when the Egyptian started saying all sorts of unpleasant things about Brum’s training methods and their players.

Robert and Ghaly will stay with Derby until the end of the season, and those deals seem to be inspired as much by the need to salvage the club’s pride as much as anything else. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment at which the club were considered doomed to relegation, but it now seems to be accepted as fact by just about every impartial observer of the Premier League.

Five months into the season, Derby have seven points. They are on course to beat Sunderland’s record low Premier League points total of 15, set two seasons ago. They may yet beat the all-time English league record of eight points, shared by the Loughborough Town side of 1900 and the Doncaster Rovers team of 1905.

It’s not hard to see why Derby are struggling. Promoted via the Championship play-offs last season, they weren’t ready for the step-up to the top level, and they still don’t look ready now. Months of football without a win has left the players short on confidence, and the fans somewhat resigned to relegation.

Even with a win today, Derby would still have been seven points adrift of safety. They never looked like getting the win. Their only significant shot on target in 90 minutes was a Robert free-kick, driven straight at Wigan keeper Chris Kirkland with little of the power that used to typify his Newcastle howitzers.

Wigan had the better chances, prompted partly by a player enjoying a reunion of his own. Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios spent the first season on loan at Birmingham working for Bruce. When Bruce pitched up at Wigan early last month, he didn’t expect that he would get the chance to take him to the JJB Stadium, as Birmingham already had an option to sign the player full-time from his Honduran club Deportivo Olimpia.

When Birmingham declined to take up the option, Bruce nipped in to sign the 22-year-old on a three-and-a-half year contract.

“I heard the two goalkeepers behind me when we finished training yesterday say: ‘Cor, he’s a good player,'” Bruce said. “It’s an unbelievable story. When I was at Birmingham, I got a phone call from Arsene Wenger, because I was on the lookout for a midfielder when Hossam Ghaly decided to go on the rampage.

“Arsene rang me up and told me that he’d had a kid on trial from Honduras, and asked if I’d be interested. We got him up on trial, and that was that.

“I couldn’t believe my luck when Birmingham decided not to extend the loan.”

That Palacios has been able to concentrate on his football at all is remarkable, given that his younger brother Edwin was kidnapped from the family home in Honduras in October, and there has been no news of his whereabouts since a report in November mistakenly claimed he had been released.

“The problem is still ongoing,” Bruce said. “His brother was kidnapped two-and-a-half months ago. The kid’s dealt with it. He was delighted to come to us, and he’s a really good footballer.”

With Palacios prompting in midfield and Brown generally taking care of Savage, Wigan should have been a coupld of goals up at half-time, with Marcus Bent missing a couple of good chances and Antonio Valencia somehow blasting wide from six yards.

The sending off of Derby defender Claude Davis in the 58th minute (he picked up a second booking for leading with his elbow on Bent) actually jolted Wigan’s momentum for a while.

But losing has become a bad habit for Derby, and even when they look like getting a point, they usually manage to blow it.

Wigan’s winner came nine minutes from the end, drilled in by Antoine Sibierski less then 30 seconds after he had come on as a substitute. It secured Wigan’s first away league win since the final day of last season, when Jewell was their manager.

It was hard not to feel sorry for Derby’s fans. They would have been so looking forward to this season, and it’s turning into the slowest, most painful relegation imaginable. Jewell may have kept Wigan up against the odds last season, but the odds clearly don’t fancy being upset a second time – Savage or no Savage.

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