For most of this match Cardiff looked set to tighten their grip on the Championship’s second automatic promotion spot but by the end Derby fans were crooning merrily about dreaming of a white Christmas.
That was a cheeky reference to the fact this game, originally scheduled for last month, had been postponed due to snow at an unseasonal but very convenient time for Derby, who were suffering from several injuries. Neil Warnock had vented his anger at that postponement, which came as his team hoped to go 10 points clear in second place. Now they are only one point ahead of third-place Fulham, with Aston Villa are also lurking dangerously.
“Well, I can’t blame the weather for the goals we conceded,” said the Cardiff manager sardonically after seeing his team defend with uncharacteristic sloppiness to allow Derby to score three times in the second half.
While casting doubt on Cardiff’s promotion hopes the result breathed new life into Derby’s, as two goals from Cameron Jerome either side of one by Matej Vydra lifted Gary Rowett’s side into the play-off places. At one point this season Derby looked a good bet to go up automatically but the way their challenge had dwindled in recent months led to Rowett suggesting the club is cursed.
“I was just trying to get myself out of the firing line by saying it was a curse,” admitted Rowett after this win. “It’s difficult to put your finger on why it’s happened five seasons in a row but until we can change it and get promoted that’s always going to be levelled at Derby.”
Promotion, relegation in England: how they stand
Manchester City have won their fifth English league title. Manchester United (74), Liverpool (71) and Tottenham (68) look set to join United in the top four with Chelsea five points behind Spurs in fifth. Arsenal are four points above Burnley in sixth, but could still reach the Champions League if they win the Europa League. The Clarets look bound for Europe.
West Brom (25pts) are still eight points from safety, after their draw with Liverpool. Stoke (29) and Southampton (29) are losing touch with Swansea (33), Crystal Palace (35), West Ham (35), Huddersfield (35) and Brighton (36) in the fight to avoid relegation.
Wolves (pictured) have won the title and with it promotion to the Premier League. Cardiff’s defeat to Derby leaves them in a race with Fulham (85pts) one point behind them and Aston Villa (82) with an outside chance of finishing second. There is a fierce battle for the final two play-off spots, with Middlesbrough (72) and Derby (71) leading the way. Millwall, Brentford, Preston, Bristol City and Sheffield United are separated by three points.
Sunderland (34pts) have been relegated after their defeat to Burton (38), who face a relegation shootout with Bolton (40) on Saturday. Barnsley (38pts) will look to take advantage whatever the result there as they host Brentford. Birmingham (43) and Reading (43) are closing on safety.
Wigan (94pts) and Blackburn (93pts) have sealed automatic promotion and will now battle for the title. Shrewsbury and Rotherham have sealed play-off places, and will be joined by two from Charlton (68), Scunthorpe (67), Plymouth (65) and Portsmouth (63).
Bury have been relegated to League Two while MK Dons have only a mathematical chance of survival. Northampton (46) and Oldham (48) are in the bottom two with Walsall, Rochdale (both 48) and Wimbledon (50) still in trouble.
Accrington Stanley and Luton have sealed promotion. Wycombe (78pts), Exeter City (77) and Notts County (76) are battling for third place. Lincoln (74) are set for the play-offs and could still sneak into third after beating Coventry, who have a three-point cushion over Mansfield in the fight for the final play-off place.
Chesterfield have been relegated to the National League after 97 years, while Barnet are five points from safety with two to play. Grimsby and Morecambe are the only teams the Bees can still catch.
Macclesfield Town have secured the only automatic promotion spot from the National League, with one other team set to come up via the play-offs. Tranmere, Sutton and Aldershot have all sealed their places.
It did not look like changing here when Callum Patterson gave Cardiff the lead in the 28th minute with a crisp volley after a cross from the left by Joe Bennett. Scott Carson, Derby’s goalkeeper, had barely had a meaningful touch up to that point but Cardiff nearly beat him again two minutes later when Junior Hoilett went close. The visitors might have also gone further ahead before half-time if the referee had blown for a penalty after the ball struck Bradley Johnson’s hand in the box. Cardiff were looking sturdy even if Derby’s pace on the break was a concern. By the hour Rowett had decided it was time for a new approach so cast on Vydra to forage behind Jerome.
Still the home team struggled to produce enough precision to unhinge the well-organised visitors. Gary Madine was guilty of inaccuracy, too, in the 65th minute, as he skewed a shot wide from nine yards after a Cardiff break.
The cost of that miss soon increased. Derby’s equaliser was surprisingly straightforward. After messy defending by the visitors, Richard Keogh sent a header into the box and Jerome held off Sean Morrison before diverting the ball past Etheridge from six yards.
Vydra completed the turnaround by lashing into the net from 12 yards after a cut-back by Wisdom. Jerome made sure of the result in the last minute, pestering Morrison into another mistake before shooting past Etheridge. They now face a trip to Aston Villa on Saturday and their final game is at home to Barnsley.
“That [defending] is not like us,” said Warnock, whose last two games are at Hull and home to Reading. “It’s a match we should have won but, as I said to the players, every team in the league apart from Wolves would love to be where we are. And at least we know what we have to do now: win the last two games.”
No one is more experienced than Warnock at navigating through nervy run-ins. He is aiming for his eighth promotion in a managerial career spanning more than three decades. When he achieved his first by leading Scarborough out of the Conference in 1987, Rowett was still coming to grips with secondary school.
After this result there is still a chance of them being classed together in next season’s Premier League. “The run we were on has been incredibly deflating but we’ve retained belief and this win is a massive boost for us,” said Rowett.