Derby County extended their winning run to four matches, as a goal in each half from Chris Martin and substitute Conor Sammon sealed a hard fought 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough.
The Rams had scored 19 first-half goals this term prior to kick-off - more than any other side in the Championship - and Steve McClaren’s men made that 20 in the 45th minute at Pride Park Stadium, as Martin poked home Craig Bryson’s telling cross.
Former Norwich City forward Martin’s strike came after Curtis Main had been harshly sent off for the Boro for fouls on Lee Grant and Jake Buxton, however, Aitor Karanka’s side were far from despondent as they displayed real character to force an equaliser in the 74th minute through the talismanic Dean Whitehead.
Despite their initial disappointment, the Rams remained positive as McClaren introduced Johnny Russell and Sammon in the final 15 minutes, and it proved decisive, as the former Kilmarnock forward latched onto Will Hughes’ flick on in the 90th minute, before seeing his shot deflect off of Jonathan Woodgate and over the onrushing Shay Given.
Since former Real Madrid Assistant Manager Karanka’s appointment as Head Coach at Middlesbrough, the Teesiders have won one and lost one, with both games ending in a narrow 1-0 scoreline.
And like those initial results under Karanka indicated, Boro began proceedings with a well drilled defensive unit and a hardworking midfield, with Whitehead and Richard Smallwood providing an abundance of protection in front of Woodgate and Ben Gibson.
Therefore, the Rams, who went into the fixture full of confidence following a run of three straight victories, found it challenging to penetrate the Boro back-line, with a deflected Craig Forsyth cross that was diverted over by Given, the closest either side came to an opening goal inside the first 15 minutes.
It was a tentative start from both teams, although opportunities in front of goal became more frequent as the match went on, as Jake Buxton nodded over from a Jamie Ward corner, prior to Kei Kamara snatching at an effort and seeing his speculative scissor kick fly narrowly wide of goal.
However, a controversial flashpoint occurred in the 34th minute, as Curtis Main, who scored the winning goal between the two sides in the 2011/12 campaign, was harshly sent off for a second yellow card.
The former Darlington striker’s initial booking was the most contentious, as he was brandished a yellow card by referee Andrew Madley following a collision with Rams’ shot-stopper Grant. But although his first booking may have been construed as debatable, the forward’s second was warranted, as he clattered into Buxton on the half-way line.
Immediately after Main’s dismissal, the Rams increased the tempo of their passing, moving the ball around Middlesbrough’s 10 men, and subsequently created openings as Bryson fired a low shot from the edge of the box that was well held by Given, before the Scotsman was once again denied by the Aston Villa loanee, as his superbly controlled volley from Ward’s short corner was palmed clear.
However, on the stroke of half-time, the Rams made their man advantage count. Forsyth and Bryson linked up down the left-hand side prior to the latter sending in a sublime cross that Martin poked past Given at the goalkeeper’s near post, despite being under immense pressure from Gibson.
Derby began the second half on the front foot with bouts of possession, as they searched for a crucial second goal that would effectively secure all three points, in what as a disjointed match at Pride Park Stadium.
Half chances fell the Rams’ way with Forsyth flashing a shot wide from the edge of the penalty area, before Buxton’s powerful header from Ward’s corner deflected agonisingly wide of goal.
As the second 45 minutes went on, Derby began to dictate proceedings, predominantly in the visitors’ half. The patient build up play eventually led to Dawkins producing a fine piece of trickery on the edge of the box, prior to picking out Ward, whose volley at goal was blocked by Given at his near post.
However, as long as the Rams’ lead remained at one goal, they were vulnerable to a sucker-punch, which unfortunately reared its ugly head in the 74th minute. In a rare counter attack from Karanka’s side, Smallwood burst into the penalty area, latching onto Mustapha Carayol’s cut-back, before midfield partner Whitehead eventually slammed the loose ball into the net from eight yards out.
Urged on by the home support, Derby remained patient and continued to pick their way through the Middlesbrough back-four, with substitute Russell crashing an effort into the side netting from the right and Ward driving wide from 30-yards.
With the game entering the dying minutes and a frustrating draw looming, Derby sprung one final attack. England Under-21 international Hughes flicked on a loose ball into the path of Sammon, whose subsequent effort at goal took a deflection off of Woodgate and sailed over the stranded Given to seal the three points, and move Derby up to fourth in the Championship.
Derby County: Grant (GK), Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth, Eustace (Hendrick 45’), Hughes, Bryson (Sammon 79’), Dawkins (Russell 76’), Ward, Martin.
Subs not used: Legzdins (GK), Bennett, Cisse, Keane.
Middlesbrough: Given (GK), Friend (Ayala 90’), Williams, Butterfield (Carayol 45’), Whitehead, Gibson, Main, Adomah (Varga 82’), Kamara, Smallwood, Woodgate.
Subs used: Konstantopolous (GK), Richardson, Emnes, Ledsema.
Attendance: 24,641 (546 visiting supporters).