Steve McClaren’s reign as Derby County Head Coach got off to the perfect start at Pride Park Stadium, as the Rams recorded their first home league victory of the season with a 3-1 win over rivals Leeds United.
Two goals in the space of three first-half minutes from Chris Martin and Johnny Russell saw the Rams race into a two-goal lead, although Jason Pearce pulled one back for the visitors on the stroke of half-time.
Despite some nervy moments throughout the second-half, Derby remained composed, and any modicum of anxiety was eventually alleviated when Will Hughes weaved his way past three Leeds players before curling the ball beyond goalkeeper Paddy Kenny, to secure Derby’s tenth consecutive win over their rivals.
Like the second half of Tuesday’s pulsating 4-4 draw with Ipswich Town, new Head Coach McClaren implemented an interchangeable 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation, with Russell, Martin and Jamie Ward in attack, whilst experienced midfielder John Eustace offered the protection in front of the back-four.
However, unlike the lacklustre and lethargic first 45 minutes against Ipswich, Derby displayed energy and fluidity in the opening period against the Whites, and almost went ahead when Hughes’ delicate chip landed on the roof of the net following a rush of blood to the head from goalkeeper Kenny.
Leicester City loanee Zak Whitbread then flashed a header over in the fifth minute from Ward’s corner, as the Rams looked to fervent their disappointing start to the new season in the league at Pride Park.
But the Whites also had their fair share of opportunities in the opening exchanges, as Rudolph Austin dragged a 25-yard drive narrowly past Lee Grant’s far post, before the midfielder thrashed an effort into the side netting after the Rams’ goalkeeper had failed to collect Stephen Warnock’s left-wing cross.
Former Reading forward Noel Hunt then glanced a header wide from Ross McCormack’s corner to cap a lively first 15 minutes.
The action continued throughout the first-half, although the majority of the opportunities came Derby’s way as they began to get into rhythm. Firstly, Hughes’ deliciously weighted pass freed Craig Forsyth down the left, but the full-back’s subsequent measured cross towards Ward was headed clear by Tom Lees.
Forsyth and Ward combined once again moments later. Another cross from Forsyth created another chance for Ward as an indecisive Kenny fumbled, but the shot-stopper claimed the ball at the second attempt.
But Derby’s high pressing and endeavour going forward finally paid off in the 20th minute. Craig Bryson’s presence in the penalty area drew three Leeds defenders towards him. The Scottish midfielder was able to thread a pass through the melee of players, square to Martin, who was unmarked and had plenty of time to pick his spot and coolly fire the ball beyond Kenny.
Two minutes later, Derby steamrolled into a two-goal advantage. Neat interplay between Hughes and Martin ended in the former Norwich City forward cleverly back-heeling the ball into the path of an onrushing Russell, who sent a terrific curling effort into the corner.
Brian McDermott’s side fought back as right-back Lee Peltier’s cross found Alex Mowatt, but the Academy graduate could not get enough purchase on his shot, as it trickled comfortably into the arms of ‘keeper Grant.
Mowatt began to have a greater impact on proceedings as the first-half went on, and the former Under-18s’ captain came close to creating a way back into the game for the visitors, as his intricate clipped through ball was beaten away by Grant, with McCormack looking to sneak in.
However, just as the Rams looked as though they were heading into the dressing room at half-time with a clean sheet to their name, Leeds capitalised on an error from Grant.
Peltier’s deep cross towards the back post was not claimed by the Derby shot-stopper, who raced off of his goal-line. Lees then headed the ball across goal, leaving fellow central defender Pearce with the simplest of tasks to nod into an unguarded net.
The disappointing end to the first-half did not seem to affect the Rams as they started the following period on top, with Hughes bringing down Ward’s cross at the far post, but electing to pass instead of shoot as he tried in vain to pick out Russell.
Bryson then fired over from 25-yards before a neat one-two with Russell culminated in the latter flashing a drive narrowly wide of Kenny’s near post.
The Rams’ attacking ascendency came to an end shortly after Hughes’ penalty claims were waved away by Geoff Eltringham, as Leeds stepped up their attempt at a comeback.
The direct running of substitute Dominic Poleon had the Derby defenders backtracking, and when the winger was eventually picked out by McCormack in the 70th minute, Grant had to be alert as he rushed out to thwart the midfielder at his feet.
Grant was called into action once again seconds later to deny McCormack as he raced through on goal, and despite some nervy spells in the penalty area, Derby defended astutely to retain their narrow advantage.
But any concerns over Derby’s lead were blown away in emphatic fashion in the 78th minute. Bryson fed Hughes, who casually waltzed his way past half of the Leeds’ defence, prior to sending a sumptuous curling effort into Kenny’s far corner to put the game beyond doubt.
Derby County: Grant (GK), Smith, Keogh, Whitbread, Forsyth, Eustace, Bryson (Buxton 89’), Hughes, Russell, Martin (Sammon 82'), Ward (Bennett 68’).
Subs Not Used: Deeney (GK), Jacobs, Davies, Freeman.
Leeds United: Kenny (GK), Peltier, Pearce, Lees, Warnock, Green (Poleon 62’), Austin, Mowatt, Tonge (Diouf 76’), McCormack, Hunt (Smith 62’).
Subs Not Used: Cairns (GK), Murphy, Varney, Byram.