Derby County’s incredible winning sequence against Leeds United came to an end at Elland Road this afternoon, as the Whites battled back to secure a 1-1 draw on the final day of the 2013/14 Sky Bet Championship season.
The Rams had won their previous ten fixtures against Leeds and it looked like it was going to be eleven when Simon Dawkins turned the ball into the net from close range inside the opening six minutes.
However, a second half revival from the hosts saw them draw level when Matt Smith collected strike partner Ross McCormack’s pass, before cleverly dinking the ball over the onrushing Lee Grant.
Derby, who had already secured third spot in the Championship, will face Brighton and Hove Albion in the play-offs, after Leonardo Ulloa netted a stoppage time winner against Nottingham Forest, which saw the Seagulls leapfrog Reading in sixth position.
Although Head Coach Steve McClaren had implemented six changes to the side that overcame Watford 4-2 last weekend, the Rams began proceedings at Elland Road like a team that had been playing together all season.
In the opening 120 seconds, Conor Sammon, who was making only his second league start of the campaign, displayed an almost telepathic understanding with Craig Forsyth. The duo exchanged a neat one-two on the edge of the penalty area, which led to Scotsman, Forsyth, forcing goalkeeper Jack Butland into a stunning reflex save.
And just four minutes later, Patrick Bamford’s beautifully weighted, lofted pass into the penalty area picked out the run of Jeff Hendrick. The Republic of Ireland international’s initial effort was brilliantly kept out by Butland, but Dawkins was hand in the six-yard box the bundle the ball into the net, as the Leeds United defenders watched on as though they were moulded in cement.
After such a flowing opening from the visitors, Leeds responded with what was a predominantly more direct approach, with Smith proving particularly dominant in the air, rising above the challenges of Richard Keogh and Zak Whitbread.
In the 13th minute the powerful target man met Tom Lees’ floated cross from the right, but was denied by goalkeeper Lee Grant, who raced out to form a Peter Schmeichel-esque starfish shape and block the header. The former Burnley shot stopper was soon on hand again to deny the forward, this time tipping the striker’s header over from close range.
The Rams dealt with Leeds’ spell of pressure well, remaining organised out of possession, looking to spring the counter-attack whenever possible. Although it was more of a patient move that almost brought a second goal, as Will Hughes’ mesmerising run on the edge of the penalty area provided space for Dawkins, who was again thwarted by another fine save from Butland.
Leeds ended the opening 45 minutes on top as top-scorer McCormack sent a deft lob narrowly over the crossbar, while Michael Brown’s swerving shot from 25-yards was clawed away and subsequently claimed at the second attempt by Grant.
The Whites started the second half on the front foot with former Derby loanee Michael Tonge volleying wide from the edge of the box. However, the midfielder’s effort proved a warning sign, as Brian McDermott’s men drew level within five minutes of the restart.
Danny Pugh’s pass down the left channel bounced cruelly over the outsretched leg of Andre Wisdom, before McCormack took control of the loose ball. The Scotsman hurdled the challenge from Keogh, prior to sliding strike partner Smith through on goal. The frontman took his time and coolly dinked the ball over the onrushing Grant.
Smith’s goal lifted the home supporters and breathed a wave of confidence into the Whites, who began to build momentum. The partnership of Smith and McCormack was beginning to appear more potent as the game went on, with the latter continually peeling off the former, latching on to his flick-ons.
Both sides had opportunities to win the game, although it was the hosts who seemed more likely to snatch the three points. Pugh's diving header rippled the side netting, while McCormack headed straight into the arms of Grant from close range late on.
Sandwiched in between the Whites' chances, Bamford escaped down the left but his snap shot was kept out by Butland at his near post, as the Rams rounded off the 2013/14 campaign with a point, ahead of Thursday night's play-off semi-final first leg encounter against the Seagulls at the American Express Community Stadium.
Leeds United: Butland (GK), Lees, Pearce, Wootton, Pugh, Tonge, Brown, Austin, Murphy (White 45'), McCormack, Smith.
Substitutes not used: Cairns (GK), Poleon, Walters, Dawson, Thompson, Hunt.
Derby County: Grant (GK); Wisdom, Keogh, Whitbread, Forsyth; Eustace, Hendrick (Bryson 90'), Hughes; Bamford (Russell 90'), Dawkins (Bennett 78'), Sammon.
Substitutes not used: Legzdins (GK), Naylor, Buxton, Thorne.