As the coffin carrying Steve Bruce's reign at the club approached the cemetry gates, there was a reprieve for the under-fire manager. It wasn't a complete answer to his critics and it wasn't enough to suddenly suggest he's the right man for the job again, but it was a win, and given the way that Blues had been going lately, you had to be happy with that.
Bruce opted to make plenty of changes from the team that surrendered so miserably to Norwich City on Tuesday night. That game has been completely erased from my memory, so I can't confirm exactly who went out of the team, but Stephen Kelly, Martin Taylor, Mehdi Nafti, Stephen Clemence, Damien Johnson and Nicklas Bendtner all came in. Surprisingly DJ Campbell was dropped. Upon first inspection of the team sheet (or scoreboard with the team flashed on it) it appeared that Clemence, Nafti and Johnson may have made up a tight midfield three with David Dunn and Gary McSheffrey both wide and supporting Bendtner in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 style formation. It wasn't, though. Johnson played wide right and Dunn moreorless partnered Bendtner up front.
Blues put in a pretty decent first half performance. It was far from vintage football, but there was a resolution and a determination not to get beat about the team that had been lacking of late. Dunn had to go off injured (don't pretend to be surprised) about midway through the first half and surprisingly Cameron Jerome was preferred to Campbell as his replacment, meaning that Blues were no employing a straight 4-4-2.
Dunn (prior to injury), Bendtner and Jerome all went close for Blues during the first half. Jerome's effort was a shocker and showed how much he's lacking in confidence at the moment, as he rolled a backpass-esque effort at Lee Grant in the Derby goal. He's either lacking in confidence or he's just absolutely dreadful and Blues have been stung in the transfer market - again. I'm still giving him the benefit of the doubt with the former at the moment though (but for how much longer, I can't promise, Cameron). He certainly had better service today, but still didn't look up to the task.
Derby had their first half chances too, with Jon Stead going close and former Luton front man Steve Howard causing Blues one or two problems at the back with his robust approach to the game and his intimidating presence. There wasn't much in the first half, to be honest, but Blues probably did shade it.
Derby improved in the second half, but were still not quite able to really dominate proceedings. Billy Davies is renowned for working on all sorts of set piece routines from free-kicks and corners, and Derby were certainly a threat in such circumstances, but Morten Bisgaard aside, the general approach work in open-play was a little lacklustre. Bisgaard hit the post following a fine run as Derby began to take more control of the game. At the other end, Jerome's afternoon went from bad to much badder when he completely failed to control the ball after being slipped in by McSheffrey.
As the game neared it's conclusion you got the sense that Blues had burned themselves out, were no longer looking threatening (Bendtner who had been both a threat and a greedy so'n'so all afternoon - as had McSheffrey, actually - visibly tired) and it appeared that there'd only be one winner if there was to be one, and that'd be the home team.
However, shortly after Seb Larsson had replaced Nafti late on, the young Swede did some fine work down the right flank. Blues did well to keep the ball alive, and eventually the ball fell to Clemence 20 yards out at that sort of height that just screams 'DIG!', and Clemence obliged. His shot was well struck, but took an enormous deflection from an onrushing Derby defender. It was one of those that at first looked like it was sailing over, before it dipped considerably and you thought 'hang on a second, this might trouble the keeper', and trouble Grant in the Derby goal it certainly did. If you'd had scientists working for years on the exact trajectory to cause the most discomfort to a goalkeeper from a deflected shot (surely the government could finance such a report? They do so with far less meaningful things...) then they'd have come up with this trajectory. The ball looped over Grant and as he backtracked a combination of him and the post conspired to leave the ball trickling over the line. Cue delirious celebrations from the Blues players in front of similarly delirious celebrations from the travelling fans.
Blues held on well enough - with the biggest threat coming from Grant (Derby's aforementioned goalkeeper) who won a late header from a corner - and secured the three points that have kept Steve Bruce in a job for now. By no means was this a stunning performance by Blues, but it was ok, and they got the three points.
Bruce clearly decided to revert to 'people over players' for this game. He brought in the likes of Clemence, Johnson, Martin Taylor and Nafti as they're obviously individuals that he feels he can trust on a personal level, as well as on the pitch. In fairness, it reaped dividends today, as they all played a part. Johnson and Martin Taylor deserve special mentions for excellent displays, whilst I personally thought Stephen Kelly was absolutely superb at right-back. He looked (for the first time in a Blues shirt) every inch a proper full-back. He defended superbly and got forward on plenty of occasions too. There's no doubt that the start of his Blues career has hardly been glistening, but on today's display, you can see that all the attributes are there, and hopefully he can kick on now.
So, what to make of it all? Well, there's various chains of thought, really. There's evidently those people who feel that all it is going to do is prolong an overall misery, and so maybe aren't even that thrilled with the result. I'm afraid I can't subscribe to such a theory. I was delighted to get the three points. Whether it's Steve Bruce, Alan Curbishley, Barry Fry or Kim Jong Il stood on the touchline presiding over an away victory, I couldn't really care less if Blues do get that away victory. Live for the moment, and all that.
On the other hand, by no means does this result now mean that Bruce is let off the hook, as it were. There were still plenty of signs that things aren't exactly right, and on another day Derby could have won it late on rather than Blues. One heavily deflected winner does not change that much, to be honest. Whilst Bruce has taken it upon himself in recent days to pick out three things ('promotion', 'staying in the Premiership in the first season' and 'finishing tenth in the Premiership in the second season') and remind people that he achieved all of these, he also neglected to mention that he was also in charge for 'relegation', 'losing 0-7 at home in an FA Cup Quarter Final', 'two years of appalling football' and 'picking up only 2 points out of a possible 15 in a division where anyone with half a brain knows that you have a far superior squad to anyone else'. This one result doesn't change any of that.
At the end of the day though, when it comes to a one-off game of football, all you can do is hope to win it, and Blues won this one. It wasn't spectacular, but there's that ancient Chinese proverb that says "if you win a match when you don't play well, then it's a good sign". Another thing worth noting is that Derby had recently gone above Blues in the league, had been on a fine run of form, have one of the best young managers in the game starting to look like he's turning the club around, and are pretty good at home. Putting all the Bruce stuff to one side, this was actually a pretty decent result for Blues - by the end of the season a win away at Derby could reflect a very good afternoon's work.
Anyway, the last point I'd like to make is that forget all this Bruce stuff, leave it to take it's natural course, whatever that may be, and just savour the fact that Blues won again. Regardless of everything else, it was just nice to get a win.