Jamie Ward scored in his first start since September to secure a 1-1 draw and a deserved point for the Rams in a fiercely contested East Midland’s derby at Pride Park.
Midfielder Chris Cohen remained unmoved - despite pressure from Richard Keogh - as his composed finish from Billy Sharp’s right-wing cross after 31 minutes gave the Reds the upper-hand going into half-time.
However, Ward was on hand to net his second goal in three games just seven minutes after the restart, when he raced onto Conor Sammon’s neatly threaded pass and nestled the ball into the bottom corner.
In the poignant build up minutes prior to kick-off at Pride Park, both sets of supporters created a deafening atmosphere that rang round the stadium.
And for those home fans it was almost the perfect start when the returning Craig Bryson sent a fierce drive skidding off the turf from 20-yards, that rippled the outside of the side netting after just four minutes.
The Scot was then involved in the Rams’ next opportunity just four minutes later, when referee Mark Clattenburg awarded Derby a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area following a foul on Bryson. Ward stepped up and fired the ball into the wall where it took a big deflection before falling narrowly wide of goal.
Alex McLeish had his side set-up in regimental fashion, but with the freedom to pour forward on the counter attack, and it proved effective in the 14th minute when Richard Keogh’s mistimed jump gave Billy Sharp a head start in a race towards goal. The Southampton loanee instead decided to bide his time and tee up strike partner Simon Cox who rattled the crossbar with a stinging strike.
Chilean international Gonzalo Jara Reyes then swept an effort over the crossbar from the right, as the Reds began to edge themselves on top following a nervous opening.
Forest’s flurry of opportunities seemed to lift McLeish’s side, and just after the half-an-hour mark, the visitors found an elusive breakthrough. Sharp’s cross from the right was picked up by Cohen, who raced onto his own heavy touch before calmly stroking the ball beyond Adam Legzdins from eight-yards out.
Derby battled back and came close to an equaliser when Ward and Sammon showed a glimpse of the understanding and knowhow they displayed at the beginning of the season. Ward’s one-two with Sammon culminated in the Northern Irish international finding a pocket of space where he sent a precise 25-yard curler inches wide of Karl Darlow’s far post.
However in the second-half, the next opportunity the duo had to link-up proved lethal. Sammon took advantage of a dallying Simon Gillett by stealing the ball off the toes of the midfielder before striding towards the Reds’ back-line. The former Kilmarnock striker then threaded the ball through to Ward who from just inside the area coolly side-footed it into the bottom corner.
Ward’s sixth goal in his eleventh appearance of the season blew a wave of confidence through the Rams’ players, and with a rejuvenated crowd behind them, Hendrick broke forward and forced Darlow into a smart stop, prior to Mark O’Brien heading over from the following corner.
The final quarter proved a nervy affair with both sides desperate to seek a winning goal, whilst remaining wary that conceding would almost certainly prove pivotal in such a tightly contested match.
The Reds’ best opportunity to seal a winner fell to Sharp in the 84th minute. The former Sheffield United forward made the chance himself when he turned neatly on the edge of the area before firing narrowly wide of goal.
Prior to the final whistle, Will Hughes sent a long-range effort over the crossbar whilst substitute Theo Robinson did his best to provide a spark with an energetic cameo appearance from bench, but ultimately it was difficult to separate the two sides in tightly fought 90 minutes.
Derby County: Legzdins; Brayford, Keogh, O'Brien, Roberts; Coutts, Hughes, Hendrick, Bryson (Jacobs 75); Ward (Robinson 66), Sammon.
Subs Not Used: Fielding, O'Connor, Freeman, Bennett, Davies.
Nottingham Forest: Darlow, Jara, E. Ward, Collins, Halford; Lansbury, Gillett (Moussi 63), Cohen, Majewski (Blackstock 62); Sharp, Cox.
Subs Not Used: Etimov, Maloney, Greening, McGugan, Harding.
Attendance: 33,010 (4,228 visiting supporters).