Derby look to top of the table

HOSTS Derby County will go top of the Championship, at least for a few hours, if they can inflict more on-the-road woe for Colchester United tonight.It seems a very long time ago that the Rams were beaten 4-3 at Layer Road, to hand Geraint Williams' men their first-ever points in the Championship.

By Carl Marston

HOSTS Derby County will go top of the Championship, at least for a few hours, if they can inflict more on-the-road woe for Colchester United tonight.

It seems a very long time ago that the Rams were beaten 4-3 at Layer Road, to hand Geraint Williams' men their first-ever points in the Championship.

After four defeats on the bounce, the U's kick-started their league campaign at the expense of Derby, and they have not really looked back since.


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Derby were struggling themselves during the first few weeks of the season. In fact, having slipped to 18th following the defeat at Layer Road on August 26, they also lost their next game 2-1 at home to Sunderland to nosedive to second-from bottom.

It was not the sort of start that new manager Billy Davies would have wanted, following his summer move from Preston - he had guided the Lilywhites into the play-offs in the previous two years.

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Only Hull were keeping the Rams off the basement after six games - but now promotion looks well within their grasp.

“There are 12 matches remaining, and seven or eight wins could possibly be enough for automatic promotion,” insisted Davies.

“A possible four or five wins will be needed for the play-offs. Friday will be a good three points if we can get them. I would certainly take a 1-0.”

Derby were top of the tree until a recent lean run has seen them slip to third spot. In fact, they have not won in their last four matches, suffering league defeats at the hands of Sunderland (2-1 away) and Stoke (2-0 at home), as well as being held to a 2-2 draw by struggling Hull. They also bowed out of the FA Cup 2-0 at Plymouth.

One of Colchester's old boys, Craig Fagan, is looking to shoot down his former team-mates this evening. It will be the second time this season that Fagan has played against his old team, but for different clubs!

Naturally, Fagan would love to celebrate his first goal for new club Derby by beating the U's, not least because he suffered a humiliating return to Layer Road earlier this season.

The talented front-runner initially left Layer Road to join Hull City for an undisclosed six-figure fee two years ago. But he hardly got a kick against the U's on November 28, as the Tigers were thrashed 5-1.

Fagan was originally snapped up by United from Birmingham City on a free transfer during the summer of 2003, and went on to score 24 league and cup goals in 82 senior appearances.

He linked up with the likes of Scott McGleish, Wayne Andrews and Rowan Vine in an exciting, attacking team. The 24-year-old's move to Hull did not yield too many goals - just 15 in all - although he was part of the Tigers squad that won promotion from League One in 2004-05.

Derby boss Davies splashed out £750,000 to sign Fagan from the KC Stadium during the January transfer window. He has yet to hit the target in seven outings, but has been forming a dangerous strike-force with leading scorer Steve Howard.

Target man Howard has always proved a handful for Colchester defences, whether it be in the colours of Hartlepool, Northampton or Luton. He gave terrific service to all three of those clubs, scoring more than 100 goals for Luton at an average of a goal nearly every two games.

Howard was Davies' first signing. He moved from Kenilworth Road for £1m, which was Derby's most expensive incoming transfer since the purchase of Francois Grenet in November, 2001.

There are plenty of other attacking options. Jonathan Macken, who once commanded a fee of £5m in the transfer market (signed by Manchester City five years ago), spent four months on loan at Ipswich earlier this season.

Macken netted three goals in 13 appearances for Town and was denied a fourth at Layer Road, when he had a goal disallowed in the U's historic 1-0 victory. He should be on the bench tonight.

The experienced Paul Peschisolido, who dumped the U's out of the fifth round of the FA Cup in 2004 by scoring for Sheffield United (1-0 win) against Phil Parkinson's men, is another danger-man in the squad, as is Arsenal loanee Arturo Lupoli. Italian front-runner Lupoli scored twice in Derby's 4-3 defeat at Layer Road.

The Rams will have a few absentees tonight, but the squad at Pride Park is one of the strongest and biggest in the division.

Centre-half Dean Leacock is doubtful with a knee problem, Stephen Pearson has an ankle injury while Paul Boertien and Richard Jackson are both sidelined at the moment due to medial knee ligament damage.

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