Nathaniel Chalobah’s 69th minute strike secured the slenderest of victories for Middlesbrough in what proved to be an unhappy return to the Riverside Stadium for Derby County Head Coach Steve McClaren.
McClaren spent five years as Boro manager, guiding them to their only major trophy by winning the 2004 League Cup and on loan Chelsea midfielder Chalobah, who calmly guided his shot into the bottom corner, ensured it would be an afternoon to forget for the former England boss.
Despite the defeat, the Rams’ play-off ambitions remain intact, with Nottingham Forest, Ipswich Town and Brighton & Hove Albion all failing to win, ensuring the gap from Derby in fourth, to the Reds in seventh remains at eleven points.
It was a quiet and timid opening at the Riverside, with Middlesbrough boss Aitor Karanka implementing a 4-4-1-1 formation, allowing Lee Tomlin to play in between the midfield and lone striker Danny Graham.
Out of possession, Tomlin dropped into midfield, which outnumbered the Rams’ trio of George Thorne, Jeff Hendrick and Craig Bryson and starved Derby of goalmouth action in the opening exchanges.
The first real chance of the half fell to the hosts, with Tomlin’s clever through ball picking out the run of Danny Graham. The striker, who had beaten the offside trap, took one touch prior to flashing a left-footed shot over the crossbar.
Opportunities were limited in the opening 45 minutes, as Boro remained well organised and compact, with Chalobah sitting in front of the home side’s back four, although when Patrick Bamford did find a pocket of space, he released Chris Martin, but the forward’s snap shot was blocked and landed comfortably into the arms of Dimi Konstantopoulos.
The game was lacking pace and invention, with Middlesbrough’s next notable opportunity at goal falling to Kenneth Omeruo from a corner, but Richard Keogh produced a fine last ditch block to deny the Nigerian.
The closest either side came to breaking the deadlock in the first half arrived in the 35th minute, as Tomlin dropped his shoulder and ghosted past Jake Buxton before dribbling into the penalty area, but the former Peterborough United forward’s subsequent effort at goal was tame and like a stream with a timid current, the ball trickled into the arms of Lee Grant.
The second half started in the same manner of the first, with both teams distinctly lacking a cutting edge in the final third of the field.
Bryson had a low shot two minutes after the restart that was well held by Konstantopoulos, prior to Bamford sending a looping header onto the top of the net, but that was as close as the Rams came to testing the Greek shot-stopper.
However, Karanka’s first substitution of the game proved pivotal, as Emmanuel Ledesma was introduced in place of Tomlin, which allowed the Spaniard to move Adomah into a more central position.
The former Bristol City winger began to cause the Rams’ back-line more problems and after seeing his first time volley fizz inches past the post, the wideman pulled Derby’s defence out of position in the following attack. But it was substitute Ledesma who played the decisive pass, picking out Chalaboh in the penalty area. The Chelsea loanee took it past his man and casually stroked the ball into the bottom corner in the 69th minute.
Derby’s riposte saw Jake Buxton divert Bryson’s free-kick narrowly wide of Konstantopoulos’ far post, before Hendrick curled a left-footed effort over the angle of the post and crossbar, as Middlesbrough held on to secure their seventh win in eight games at the Riverside Stadium.
Middlesbrough: Konstantopoulos (GK), Friend, Chalobah, Varga, Adomah (Main 90'), Tomlin (Ledesma 59'), Omeruo, L. Williams (Butterfield 79'), Graham, Gibson, Leadbitter.
Substitutes not used: Steele (GK), Kamara, Atkinson, Kitching.
Derby County: Grant (GK); Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Thorne (Naylor 86'), Hendrick, Bryson; Bamford (Hughes 68’), Russell (Sammon 61’), Martin.
Substitutes not used: Legzdins (GK), Whitbread, O’Brien, Bailey.
Attendance: 15,234 (1,108 visiting supporters).