FOR THE neutral, the FA Cup nearly, so nearly, delivered a little bit of romance on this Third Round weekend in Derbyshire.
The longer the game went on at the iPro Stadium, it seemed that Southport, of the Vanarama Conference Premier League, had battled hard enough for a replay back on Merseyside.
Every block, tackle, save and clearance was greeted with a roar from their loud travelling contingent. Their only miss-timed lunge cost them the game.
Luke Foster dived in on Johnny Russell, missed the ball, took the man and the spot kick was given and Derby were offered a reprieve as Chris Martin struck in his 17th goal of the season that left the iPro Stadium breathing a heavy sigh of relief.
Both Russell and Martin was named on the bench at the beginning of the contest as Steve McClaren opted to make nine changes to the side that beat Leeds United on Tuesday evening.
After a relatively quiet opening start to the game, in which Southport were happy to sit back and soak up Derby’s pressure, a stray pass from Ryan Shotton was seized upon midway into the home side’s half.
Richard Brodie collected the ball from 20-yards, turned and hit a tame right foot that was easily collected by Kelle Roos.
At the other end, Craig Bryson sent a long-range drive over the top of the bar and Paul Coutts had the ball nicked off his toes as he lined up an effort, before the Sandgrounders were saved by the post on 20 minutes.
Neat work on the edge of the area, sent the returning Bryson through on the right and the midfielder’s angled shot cannoned off David Raya Martin’s far post before Leon Best fired the follow up over the top of the bar.
Simon Dawkins had an effort deflected for a corner as the half wore on and Best, again, had an effort go wide of goal after he connected with Omar Mascarell’s corner.
With 89 league placing and three divisions separating the two sides, Derby continued to dominate – boasting large spells of possession whilst Southport, backed by 2,652 fans from Merseyside put their bodies on the line to ensure that tie stayed level.
Omar Mascarell hit a fierce effort over the bar, again from range after 34 minutes. Coutts tried the same trick only a minute later, but this time, Raya Martin had to be alert to tip his effort over for a corner.
With three minutes remaining, Ryan Shotton headed well wide after connecting with Lee Naylor’s precise corner from the left and Bryson came within inches of opening the scoring after collecting a cute cut back from Dawkins, but his driven effort flew wide of the Southport’s far post.
The second 45 minutes continued in the same vein. Patience build up play led to the ball being dropped back to Naylor, but the full back, making his competitive debut for the Rams, fired over.
On 55 minutes, Jake Buxton nearly grabbed his second goal of the week, but his header, from Coutts’ corner, took a deflection over the bar.
In a rare venture forward, after compact midfield play, Brodie headed a low effort towards Kelle Roos’ goal, but the ‘keeper got down to claim the effort.
Moments later and Derby had to scramble the ball away two yards from their goal, before Derby unleashed a swift counter attack that was ended by Raya Martin as he turned behind Bryson’s first time low effort for a corner.
Three minutes after the hour mark, Steve McClaren made a triple attacking change and introduced Chris Martin, Johnny Russell and Jordon Ibe in a bid to break the deadlock.
The non-league side carved out another opening as Dom Collins headed a corner just wide of Roos’ goal as the contest entered the final 20 minutes.
With the visitors sitting back, Derby were forced to try their luck from range as Mascarell sent a whistling shot into the arms of Raya Martin.
The on-loan Blackburn Rovers ‘keeper was having an afternoon to remember as he turned over Buxton’s header with 13 minutes remaining, before Southport scrambled to keep the Rams at bay.
Mascarell fizzed another goal bound effort straight at the ‘keeper with only six minutes remaining and Bryson smashed an effort well over the top of the bar after a weak punch from Raya Martin landed at his feet.
It looked like the tie was set for a replay at Haig Avenue, but Derby were offered a reprieve deep into three minutes of injury time after Johnny Russell was hauled down in the penalty area.
Referee, Graham Scott, without hesitation, pointed to the spot and Martin stepped up to thump the spot kick beyond Raya Martin as Derby snatched victory in the dying seconds to secure their place in the Fourth Round draw next Monday.
It was a cruel way for the visitors, but their efforts were appreciated by not just their large travelling contingent, but the Derby fans as well. McClaren’s side were well and truly given a game.
Derby County: Roos; Shotton (Russell, 63), Keogh, Buxton, L Naylor; Mascarell, Coutts, Bryson; Ward (Ibe, 63), Dawkins, Best (Martin, 63)
Substitutes not used: Mitchell, Forsyth, Hughes, Calero
Southport: Raya Martin (GK), Fitzpatrick, Kay, Collins, Foster, George, Brodie (Hattersley, 70), Joyce, Rutherford, Smith, Austin (Bakayoko, 82)
Substitutes not used: Marsden, Mitchell, Roberts
Attendance: 20,201 (2,652 away fans)