Derby County took a major stride forward in securing their place in the Sky Bet Championship Play-Off places, as goals from Johnny Russell and Chris Martin, either side of an Alex Smithies own goal, helped the Rams to a 3-1 victory over nine-man Huddersfield Town.
The result leaves the Rams 11 points ahead of seventh placed Ipswich Town, with 12 points left to play for, while Burnley’s home defeat to Middlesbrough sees Steve McClaren’s side close the gap on second place to eight points.
The Rams’ afternoon was made a trifle easier when the Terriers were reduced to nine men, after Joel Lynch received his second booking in the first-half following a late challenge on Patrick Bamford, while Peter Clarke was also brandished a second yellow after the restart, after felling Will Hughes in the penalty area.
Ahead of this afternoon’s 3:07pm kick-off at the iPro Stadium, fans paid their respect to commemorate 25-years since the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool fans tragically lost their lives.
There is nothing more poignant or evocative than a football stadium full of tens of thousands of supporters remaining silent for 60 seconds.It was immaculately observed by both sets of fans, before the referee’s whistle signalled the start of the game, which was met by a ferocious roar and applause - and the Rams started off in a similar manner.
In the opening two minutes, Russell’s initial volley took a couple of ricochets prior to being palmed away by goalkeeper Smithies. As quick as a flash, the ball dropped to Richard Keogh in the six-yard box, who instinctively stuck his leg out, but his effort flew over the crossbar.
After a quick-fire start, Huddersfield responded and were left exasperated when Jake Buxton misjudged the bounce of the ball and went shoulder to shoulder with Danny Ward who scampered towards goal. The former Bolton Wanderers forward dropped to the floor in the penalty area, but referee Darren Deadman waved away Ward’s appeal.
Ward’s actions moments later were to prove much more incisive, as the forward wriggled away down the right and crossed for Nahki Wells in the penalty area. The Bermudan striker was well positioned in the six-yard box and had the simplest of tap-ins to hand the hosts the lead inside 14 minutes.
The Rams’ misery was almost compounded by the former Bradford City forward seven minutes later, as Keogh’s back pass to goalkeeper Lee Grant lacked conviction. Wells raced onto the loose ball and dinked it goalwards, but the former Burnley shot-stopper produced a stunning one-handed save to deny the striker from doubling both his and the visitors’ advantage.
Huddersfield boss Mark Robins had described the Terriers’ defeat to Ipswich Town on Tuesday night as “horrendous,” but the visitors began proceedings at the iPro Stadium compact and well organised.
However, that image was shattered in the 28th minute by one of the most aesthetically pleasing goals you will see this season. Thorne’s pinpoint pass was defence splitting, like a hot knife through butter - insert whatever cliché you like - it will never do the midfielder’s through ball justice. Russell was the grateful recipient of the pass and with a masterful dink, lifted the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper and into the net, a fitting end to the move.
Derby’s task to complete the comeback was made more of a small hill rather than a mountain in the 31st minute, as Lynch was handed his second booking of the afternoon following a late challenge on Bamford, a tackle and clattering of legs that drew a collective ‘ooh’ from the supporters.
The on loan Chelsea forward then spurned a terrific opportunity to hand the Rams the lead. The 20-year-old’s initial touch to roll past a Town defender was exquisite, but the shot that followed from the edge of the penalty area flew harmlessly over the crossbar.
However, the Rams only had to wait five minutes into the second-half before they were handed their second goal of the afternoon on a golden platter. Craig Forsyth’s left-wing cross floated into the six-yard box, where goalkeeper Smithies inexplicably palmed the ball into the net.
Seven minutes later, two actions ensured the game was won for Derby. Firstly, Hughes broke into the penalty area where captain Clarke scythed the England Under-21 international down, leaving referee Deadman with little alternative than to award a penalty and show the defender his second yellow card of the afternoon.
Top-scorer Martin took responsibility from the spot and coolly drove the ball into the bottom corner to seal his 21st of the campaign, as ‘keeper Smithies flung himself in the opposite direction.
With the Rams in complete control, Jamie Ward, Jeff Hendrick and Lee Naylor were all introduced from the substitutes’ bench by Head Coach McClaren, as the Rams looked to see the game out.
Keogh almost added some extra panache when his Johan Cruyff-esque flick rolled agonisingly wide of goal, while the visitors did offer a flicker of opposition, when Adam Clayton strode forward and sent a low drive narrowly wide in the 84th minute.
But that was that. Derby's two goal lead was unassailable considering the visitors played for 35 minutes with nine men, while the full time result leaves McClaren's side just one win away from cementing their place in the play-off positions.
Derby County: Grant (GK); Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth (Naylor 70'), Thorne (Hendrick 70'), Hughes, Bryson, Bamford (Ward 67'), Russell, Martin.
Substitutes not used: Legzdins (GK), Whitbread, Eustace, Sammon.
Huddersfield Town: Smithies (GK), Woods, Norwood (Wallace 59'), Clarke, Hogg, Clayton, Ward, Hammill (Smith 45'), Wells (Scannell 74'), Lynch, Gerrard.
Substitutes not used: Bennett (GK), Gobern, Holmes, Bunn.
Attendance: 25,809 (785 visiting supporters).