Derby County made it two wins from two under new Head Coach Steve McClaren, as a double from Jamie Ward and a last-gasp strike from Conor Sammon helped the Rams to a 3-2 victory over Watford.
Ward got the Rams off to the perfect start when he connected with Craig Bryson’s deep cross to nod in at the far post inside eight minutes.
Fernando Forestieri levelled the game just three minutes later with a sublime chipped finish, before Ward grabbed his second of the match in first-half stoppage time – tapping in another Bryson delivery.
The Hornets pushed hard for an equaliser in the second period, and eventually got their breakthrough when Lewis McGugan’s measured 25-yard curler found the top corner of Lee Grant’s goal.
But with the game finely balanced and entering the last few minutes, Will Hughes strode forward before sending a defence splitting pass towards Sammon. The Irishman latched onto the England Under-21 midfielder’s clever pass and prodded the ball past Manuel Almunia to ensure all three points went the Rams’ way.
Prior to kick-off at Vicarage Road, Watford boasted the record of being the Sky Bet Championship's top scorers with 22 goals from 11 games. So it came as little surprise to see the Hornets initiate proceedings with an attacking impetus.
With five minutes gone, former Nottingham Forest midfielder McGugan whipped in a devilish corner, only for the unmarked and unchallenged defender Essaid Belkalem to nod narrowly wide of goal.
However, three minutes later, in what was the Rams’ first attack of the game, Ward taught Belkalem how to execute the perfect header, as the diminutive forward guided Bryson’s cross into the top right hand corner after eight minutes.
The former Sheffield United forward then turned provider moments later, as central defenders Richard Keogh and Zak Whitbread charged towards Ward’s delivery like bulls to a red rag, but neither could quite get a telling final touch on the ball to send it towards goal.
The Hornets, who were targeting a fifth win in six league outings, retained possession under heavy pressure seamlessly and remained patient in the final third of the pitch, and that air of serenity was depicted by Forestieri in the eleventh minute.
The Argentinian ignored the Derby defenders’ appeal for offside following McGugan’s inch perfect pass, before dinking the ball over the advancing Grant.
A spell of Watford pressure ensued with Italian full-back Marco Cassetti sending a pinpoint cross to the far post where Daniel Pudil headed over, prior to neat footwork from Diego Fabbrini on the edge of the penalty area, resulting in the forward driving the ball over the crossbar.
The Rams were guilty of relinquishing possession too easily at points in the first-half, but it was Watford who made a guilt edge error in stoppage time that gifted Ward one of the simplest of goals of his playing career.
The goal arrived following high pressure from Bryson, who picked the ball off of the toes of Brazilian midfielder Iriney. The 26-year-old played a neat one two with former Norwich City forward Chris Martin, prior to squaring the ball to Ward at the far post, leaving the Northern Ireland international with a tap in.
At half-time, Head Coach McClaren introduced Simon Dawkins in place of 17-year-old Mason Bennett, and the Tottenham Hotspur loanee almost had an immediate impact when he drove towards goal and squared the ball to Bryson, who sent a fizzing 20-yard drive past Manuel Almunia’s near post.
The Scottish international’s strike at goal marked a spell of the game becoming stretched, with both sides having a flurry opportunities in quick succession.
Firstly, left-back Craig Forysth, who was making his 150th club career start was forced to perform a superb last ditch tackle on former teammate Forestieri, as the forward scampered through on goal, before a clever free-kick from Ward found the feet of Dawkins, who swivelled well prior to curling the ball over the crossbar.
The lively McGugan dragged a shot wide from the edge of the penalty area, sandwiched between two free-kicks that curled harmlessly over Grant’s goal, as the Hornets had the Rams penned in their own half on the hour mark.
Substitute Sean Murray had a stinging drive beaten away by Grant, as Watford sent wave after wave of attack the Rams’ way. The pressure did finally culminate in a goal for the hosts, although it took a spectacular effort to find a way past the Derby shot-stopper.
McGugan, who had had two free-kicks from a similar position sail over in the second-half, collected the ball from 25-yards out and made it third time lucky, as he curled a sumptuous effort into the top corner.
A change of shape from the Rams and the high work rate of substitute Sammon helped stem the flow of Watford attacks, and their resilience and perseverance even lead to a late opportunity for Derby with just two minutes remaining.
Hughes edged closer and closer to the Hornets’ penalty area, before threading a measured through ball into the path of Sammon. The Republic of Ireland international took one touch and poked the ball past Almunia to send the travelling Rams supporters euphoric.
Derby County: Grant (GK), Smith, Keogh, Whitbread (Buxton 33’), Forsyth, Eustace, Bryson, Hughes, Bennett (Dawkins 46’), Martin, Ward (Sammon 76’).
Subs Not Used: Morch (GK), Lowe, Freeman, Jacobs.
Watford: Almunia (GK); Belkalem, Angella, Ekstrand; Cassetti, McEachran, Iriney (Murray 55’), McGugan, Pudil; Fabbrini (Acuña 76'), Forestieri.
Subs Not Used: Bond (GK), Brown, Battocchio, Doyley, Smith.
Attendance: 16,180 (1,550 visiting supporters).