Chris Martin’s fourteenth and fifteenth goals of the campaign helped Derby County secure their eighth victory in nine Sky Bet Championship fixtures, as the Rams battled hard for their 2-1 victory over Barnsley.
The former Crystal Palace loanee put Derby ahead inside eight minutes when he collected Simon Dawkins’ cut-back, before seeing his subsequent strike deflect past the unfortunate Luke Steele from 12-yards out.
Martin went on to secure his second of the afternoon, and what proved to be the winning goal three minutes into the second half, as he towered at the far post to nod in Andre Wisdom’s searching cross.
However, Barnsley gave the Rams plenty to think about in the final half-an-hour, as substitute Tomasz Cywka glided forward and arrowed a shot into the bottom corner to halve the deficit.
Despite a anxious ending the game, Derby showed a range of qualities, including grit and resolve, as they held their nerve to ensure they would end 2013 on a high note, ahead of the New Year’s Day showdown with Wigan Athletic at the iPro Stadium.
Barnsley went into the game having not won any of their previous five Championship matches at home. However, Danny Wilson’s side started with a high intensity, so much so that Michael Keane was forced to hack the ball away to safety, with Jim O’Brien for company in the opening 60 seconds.
But with seven wins out of their last eight games, Derby soon settled into the game and began to punch holes in the Barnsley defence, with Craig Forsyth careering down the left and cutting the ball back to Dawkins, who failed to connect with the full-back’s delivery.
The Rams continued to play at a high tempo in the Barnsley half, which the hosts simply struggled to contend with, as Russell, Dawkins and Craig Bryson dragged the Tykes’ back-four out of position with their movement off of the ball.
Russell and Dawkins fluently dovetailed in the opening exchanges, and after eight minutes, the Scotsman sent a measured cross-field ball into the path of his team-mate, who raced into the penalty area. The Tottenham Hotspur loanee looked to have dallied too long on the ball, but eventually picked out top-scorer Martin, who took one touch before seeing his effort at goal deflect past Steele.
The three pronged forward line of Martin, Dawkins and Russell was effervescent, with the latter cutting in from the right and fizzing a low drive narrowly wide of Steele’s near post, as Steve McClaren’s men searched for a second.
But just as the Rams seemed to be in complete control, Barnsley’s Jim O’Brien and Paddy McCourt began to have more of an impact on the game. Irish winger O’Brien linked up well with Tom Kennedy down the left, prior to crossing for Stephen Dawson. The midfielder showed quick feet in the penalty area but was denied by the experienced John Eustace, who blocked the Barnsley player’s subsequent effort at goal.
The pendulum looked to have swung in Barnley's direction as Chris O’Grady had a snap shot from the edge of the box deflect onto the roof of the net, before captain Martin Cranie glanced a header wide from Kennedy’s cross.
However, after soaking up the inevitable pressure from the hosts, Derby ended the half on top with Russell again proving the catalyst. The former Dundee United forward burst in from the right and rounded Steele, but just as he tried to get a shot away, the ball was plucked off of his toes by Scott Wiseman.
With half-time looming, the Rams almost netted a wonderfully worked second goal as Russell escaped past Kennedy and delivered a pinpoint cross to Bryson. The Scotsman connected with the pull-back, only to see his strike kept out by the legs of Steele.
After such a dominant ending to the first 45 minutes, Derby retained their high tempo and fluid passing in the opening stages of the second period, which ultimately proved fruitful. Wisdom powered past Kennedy down the right and sent in a cross to the far post, where a grateful Martin was waiting to head into the turf and past Steele unopposed, just three minutes after the restart.
A flurry of opportunities then went the Rams’ way as Dawkins fired across goal with no one on hand to tap in, whist an unbalanced Russell escaped the offside trap but could only clip the ball over and wide of an onrushing Steele.
Martin then flicked a cleverly directed header over from Bryson’s left-wing cross, with Barnsley looking helpless as Derby hounded their back-line.
However, to relieve the pressure, Wilson made a double substitution, introducing Marcus Pederson and former Ram, Cywka, in the 56th minute, and the Polish international took just six minutes to haul the Tykes back into the game.
Cywka, who immediately began to find pockets of space between the Rams’ midfield and defence, raced towards goal, producing a number of step-overs prior to sending a low drive past Lee Grant into the bottom corner.
A tirade of Barnsley pressure ensued, although Grant was rarely called into action, with Jake Buxton and Michael Keane proving a difficult proposition for the home side to penetrate.
To counter the momentum the home side were beginning to build, McClaren implemented three changes, with Mason Bennett, Jamie Ward and Conor Sammon all called into duty.
And with the pace of Sammon and Bennett, the visitors started to pose a threat on the counter attack. In one sweeping move, Hughes played in Ward, who moved the ball onto his right foot but lashed his shot wide.
With time running out, Barnsley had one final clear cut opportunity to claim a point. Wiseman rolled the ball across the penalty area into O’Grady, who side-footed harmlessly over the crossbar from 10-yards out, as the Rams held on to make it 26 points on the road this season - more than any other team in the division.
Derby County: Grant (GK), Wisdom, Keane, Buxton, Forsyth, Eustace, Hughes, Bryson (Bennett 82'), Russell, Martin (Sammon 76'), Dawkins (Ward 73').
Subs not used: Legzdins (GK), Freeman, Whitbread, Cisse.
Barnsley: Steele (GK), Wiseman, McCourt (Pedersen 57'), Dawson, O'Brien (Scotland 90'), Etuhu (Cywka 56'), Kennedy, O'Grady, Mellis, Cranie.
Subs not used: Dibble (GK), Hassell, Nyatanga, Perkins.