FRUSTRATION can lurk round the corner in the Championship, as Derby County discovered on Saturday.
Derby were on a high, with seven points from the previous nine tucked away, and up against a Birmingham City side in need of points but short on goals – and suffering a severe bout of travel sickness brought on by five successive defeats on the road.
The ingredients highlighted the contrast between the teams. The ingredients also screamed caution.
Head coach Steve McClaren spoke pre-match of Birmingham being a dangerous and determined opponent, one stung and smarting from a four-goal defeat last time out. And so it proved.
After the highs against Leeds and Watford, and the second-half recovery to take a point from Ipswich Town, came the frustration.
Pride Park’s biggest crowd since the home clash with Nottingham Forest in January hoped to see the Rams record a third successive win.
There were chances, some excellent ones, but Derby were unable to build on Jamie Ward’s opener six minutes before the break.
Instead, battling Birmingham improved second half and substitute Lee Novak arrowed a sweet volley high past Lee Grant only seconds after coming on to give the visitors a point in a 1-1 draw.
Derby felt they should have won, and they should, but Birmingham believed they deserved a share of the spoils for their resilience. Both had a point.
The Rams had clear-cut chances in the first minute and the final minute, and fashioned the best chances throughout, but Birmingham provided a constant threat from set-plays, often in the form of the tall Nikola Zigic.
Hitting a high tempo is key to this Derby team. They never really found top gear although the game itself did not flow fully. It was interrupted by too many free kicks.
Craig Bryson was typically energetic on his 100th appearance, Andre Wisdom strong and confident on his debut at right back, and Ward and Simon Dawkins lively in spells.
But Chris Martin was not at his best and Will Hughes found his territory occupied by Birmingham’s central midfield pairing of Callum Reilly and Wade Elliott.
Martin, as the focal point of the attack, is an important cog and we were later informed that he had been hindered by a back problem.
Jake Buxton started in place of the injured Zak Whitbread and the centre half struck the best three passes of the first half.
His first split Birmingham’s backline and sent Ward clear, but his effort from an angle was saved by Darren Randolph with his legs.
Randolph also saved from Dawkins and Derby wanted a penalty when Ward appeared to be pushed over by Paul Robinson.
Hughes’ brilliant chip then opened up the visitors and Bryson nudged the ball past Randolph, only for Dan Burn to clear off the line.
Zigic had already met two corners to send a header just over and another smacking against the bar, before Birmingham were dealt a blow. Chris Burke had been their top performer before he limped off.
McClaren, having watched from the stand, appeared in the technical area just in time to see Derby take the lead.
Dawkins’ persistence allowed Bryson to fire the ball into the near post where Martin got a touch. Randolph made a fine reaction save only for Ward to swivel on the loose ball and finish from close range – his third goal in two matches.
The first goal was expected to be crucial, especially given Birmingham’s away record and the fact they had lost seven of the eight matches in which they had conceded the opener.
Credit where credit is due, they dug in and relied heavily on their corners –they had nine – to trouble Derby.
The Rams survived one just after half time and Zigic headed wide from another.
A first clean sheet since August would have been most welcome but a lapse of concentration allowed Birmingham to level after 66 minutes.
Full-back Paul Caddis lofted what appeared to be a harmless ball into the penalty area and Derby defenders hesitated, expecting a flag against Zigic who was walking back from an offside position but not interfering.
The flag stayed down and Novak watched the ball drop and struck it expertly beyond Grant.
Derby rallied in the closing stages. Conor Sammon, the match-winner at Watford, had chances to be the hero again.
Robinson cleared from close to his line after Mason Bennett, found by a Hughes pass, squeezed the ball towards goal from a tight angle, before Sammon’s opportunities arrived.
The striker pressured Burn into an error only to hit his volley on the turn wide from 10 yards.
Striking a ball that drops over your shoulder is not an easy skill but Sammon could have won the game in that moment.
As he could in the fourth minute of added time when, unchallenged, he headed over from close range.
The previous Saturday had been Sammon’s day. This was not his day.
Such is football, such is the Championship.