There’s an eeriness to the once hallowed turf of Pride Park, the home of Derby County Football Club.
A dramatically perfect name for the way the club have carried themselves on the pitch this season. Financially the club may be in ruin, but the football has been pure poetry at times. For many a football fan, the thought of one’s club entering into financial administration is a cruel injustice that they would not wish on anyone.
Over the last 12 months, we’ve had different narratives form in this tale. Point deductions, players leaving the club, more point deductions and managers having to make up numbers in training – but yet, there is no absence of hope.
Indeed, ‘the Rams’ faithful have become an embodiment of what football at its fundamental core truly represents.
In the twenty-first century, the common scenario that exists from club to club among fan bases is one of indifference – the constant changing of faces be it on the pitch or off it, leave a sour taste in mouths of football purists.
Indeed there is a gravitas in seeing a new £50million superstar strutting his stuff and scoring goals, but there’s something infinitely more romantic about what is occurring at Pride Park.
Amongst the eeriness and amongst every possible reason for accepting defeat and submitting to relegation, Derby have stood tall.
Prior to the game, thousands of Derby fans line the streets and march up the Royal Way with banners and memorabilia capturing how the fan base feel about the last couple of months.
The crowd pilgrimage their way up the street until, eventually, the skyline is taken up by the iconic Pride Park and the statue of record goal scorer Steve Bloomer can be seen in the distance.
This is it, match-day.
90 whole minutes of Derby fans singing their hearts out without a single mention of words such as administration or bankruptcy. Pure ecstasy is the only thing to be accounted for, for this hour and a half of magic.
The opponents today? 17th place Birmingham City – six places above Derby.
Any optimism surrounding the ground is quickly hushed after just seven minutes when Blues debutant Lyle Taylor scores into the South-stand, silencing the home crowd.
The remainder of the half looked quite ominous, Lee Bowyer’s men bore siege to the net of Derby ‘keeper’ Ryan Allsop but the Birmingham-born goalkeeper was able to keep his city of birth at bay for the remainder of the opening exchange.
As both sides descended in for their half time cups of tea – Derby looked to be a side with little, if anything, to fight for.
However, the chorus began once more – echoing throughout the Wayne Rooney-led dressing room, was the out of pitch ballad of around 30,000 supporters praying for signs of life in a side devoid of expectations.
That has been the true marvel of the job that Manchester United folk hero Rooney has done with this Derby side.
It would be easy to wave a white flag (not only due to it being the clubs famous colours) and surrender to the pitfalls of relegation, yet this side are potentially pulling off one of the greatest ‘great escapes’ the football league has seen.
When John Brooks blew the whistle to resume the game, there was a similar tenseness in the air. Derby had been in good form prior to this early kick-off with four wins from seven and the Rams faithful were desperate to maintain confidence.
Disaster struck for Derby when the half was just 12 minutes old, Republic of Ireland international Scott Hogan flicks on the cross of maestro Ryan Woods to usher in a two-nil lead for the Birmingham boys.
If there is any sole thing we have learned about the people of Derby since the burden of administration was placed on their shoulders in September of last year – the Rams know not when to yield.
And yield they did not, the side regrouped and with just three minutes remaining of ‘normal time’ (if such a thing exists in Derbyshire these days) – Derby were given an on-field lifeline when captain Tom Lawrence’s free-kick was dropped into the penalty box, with the resulting scramble seeing 19 year-old Luke Plange tuck home a controlled finish.
“Surely not? Three minutes left of normal time? This isn’t Roy of the Rovers.”
Yet when Derby received another free-kick, this one on the opposite flank, in the 95th minute – you could tell something may just be conjured up yet.
Derby midfielder Krystian Bielik has been out since the beginning of last season through injury, never mind the fact that he has only scored two goals for Derby in the four years prior to this game.
When Richard Stearman’s resulting flick back across goal was hovering between ascending goalkeeper Allsop and Bielik, many a Derby fan would consider it game-over.
What happened next was truly biblical – Bielik catches one of the sweetest struck overhead kicks that Pride Park has even seen in its 25 years to steal a point from the jaws of defeat.
The crowd erupts in both relief and passion – this isn’t just football, this is a city uniting the English footballing world with phrases of “I hope they stay up” being spoken by all who don’t call themselves Forest fans.
This is Derby County, and as the fans themselves will tell you thorough song – “they’ll fight to the end”.