Patrick Bamford’s stunning long-range strike handed Derby County all three points in a tightly contested encounter with Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
The on loan Chelsea forward cut in from the right hand side and rifled a 25-yard shot in off the underside of the crossbar in the 78th minute, to seal the Rams’ fourth win in six Sky Bet Championship matches.
Nobody has scored more first half goals than Derby (25) in the Championship this season, but the Rams had to show grit and steel in the first 45 minutes in Sheffield, before Bamford conjured a contender for goal of the season in the final quarter.
It was a game of fine margins, embodied by Bamford's strike finding the net off of the underside of the crossbar. Michail Antoinio was constant menace down the left for the Owls, winning the hosts a plethora of early corners with his direct running, one of which culminated in Glenn Loovens having his goalbound header cleared off the by Craig Forsyth.
Saturday’s FA Cup encounter between Wednesday and Charlton Athletic was postponed owing to a waterlogged pitch, and although there was no sign of the remaining rainwater, the ground was uneven with lashings of sand distributed on top, which led to both teams struggling to retain possession.
With that in mind, the Owls were more direct in their play, bypassing the midfield when possible, while the Rams also changed tact, as Jamie Ward, reviled by home supporters for being an ex-Sheffield United player, delivered an unorthodox drilled free-kick that flew through the legs of Bamford prior to being hacked away.
Craig Bryson then dragged shot wide at the far post following a Will Hughes free-kick, before the England Under-21 international displayed real poise and elegance to glide past three Wednesday players, but his subsequent strike at goal was tame.
Tempers flared shortly after half-an-hour when the Rams’ players took offence to a challenge by Miguel Llera on goalkeeper Lee Grant, which earned the defender a yellow card. Seconds later, Chris Martin was booked for leading with an arm on the Spaniard in an aerial duel, before Bryson was brandished a yellow for kicking the ball away.
Opportunities on goal remained at a premium in the first-half, although Derby did unlock the Wednesday defence with a fine passing move. Craig Forsyth released Ward down the left and the Northern Ireland international crossed for Bamford, but the Chelsea loanee could not quite get enough of a connection on the ball to send it towards goal.
Ward, who was withdrawn against Queens Park Rangers last week with a hamstring complaint, was taken off at half-time and replaced by Scottish forward Johnny Russell, and it did not take long for the former Dundee United player to impose himself on the game with some mazy runs at the Owls’ back-line.
However, it was Wednesday’s wide player, Antonio, who was having the biggest influence on the game, seeing his snap shot beaten away by Grant, prior to Gary Gardner’s corner flashing across the face of goal, where a well-placed Bryson was forced to clear the ball off of the line.
With the game finally balanced, McClaren was once again bold with his final substitution, introducing Conor Sammon in place of the defensive shield, John Eustace.
The Head Coach’s bravery was duly rewarded, as Bamford drifted in from the right hand side and crashed his left-footed strike in off the underside of the crossbar, moving the Rams to within two points of second placed Burnley.
Sheffield Wednesday: Kirkland (GK), Palmer, Mattock, Coke, Llera, Loovens, Antonio, Lee (Helan 47'), Best (Afobe 70'), Maguire, Gardner (Hutchinson 61').
Substitutes not used: Martinez (GK), Maghoma, Lavery, Nuhiu.
Derby County: Grant (GK), Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth, Eustace (Sammon 75’), Bryson (Hendrick 55’), Hughes, Ward (Russell 45’), Martin, Bamford.
Substitutes not used: Legzdins (GK), Whitbread, Bailey, Thorne.