DERBY COUNTY recovered from a goal down twice to edge a thrilling contest with Sheffield Wednesday 3-2 at the iPro Stadium.
In a tight, but flat, first half, Lewis McGugan lit the contest up with a sublime free kick, before Jake Buxton equalised two minutes after the interval after heading in George Thorne’s corner.
Their early work in the second half was undone, though, as Will Keane lashed in a low effort, but Derby clawed themselves level once again as Buxton headed in Craig Bryson’s corner.
With the momentum well behind the home side, they laid siege on Kieren Westwood’s goal and were rewarded when the ‘keeper hauled down Tom Ince the area – a tackle that drew a red card from Darren Bond.
Darren Bent assumed responsibility to finish his spot kick past Chris Kirkland as the Rams climbed back up to the Sky Bet Championship’s summit.
Despite the thrilling end, the first 19 minutes of the contest was far from a classic. Flat and lacking intensity, the game was played at a dawdling pace with both looking compact and solid in the back.
Boasting one of the meanest defences in the division, it was easy to see why Sheffield Wednesday had kept so many clean sheets this season.
The Owls got bodies back, defended in numbers and snuffed out any loose balls whilst always keeping a close eye on the in form duo of Tom Ince and Darren Bent in attack.
With no chances of note for either team, the contest needed a moment of magic to spark it to life and it got it in the 20th minute through Lewis McGugan.
Will Hughes brought down his man on the edge of the area and up stepped the attacking midfielder to sweep the set piece beyond Lee Grant to open the scoring.
Just as they did against Rotherham United in midweek, the Rams searched for an immediate response and should have equalised six minutes later when the ball fell to the feet of Ince.
A neat exchanged of passes saw the ball deflected to the feet of the wideman, who has notched five goals in three appearances, with the goal at his mercy, but after controlling, the 23-year-old’s right foot shot cannoned off the post and out for a goal kick.
George Thorne, in his first appearance since suffering a serious knee injury, whistled a shot narrowly wide from range and Ince had a magnificent free kick draw out an equally good save from Kieren Westwood as the half wore down.
After a neat flick from Cyrus Christie, Hughes drifted inside and drilled a low shot into the arms of Westwood, but the visitors held on to go into the interval a goal to the good.
That would last only a matter of two minutes into the second half, though, as Derby, with the words of Steve McClaren ringing in their ears, hit back immediately.
Dawkins won the corner on the left and Thorne delivered a dangerous centre ser piece on to the head of Jake Buxton to head into the far corner of the net.
Hendrick flashed an effort wide on the half volley from the edge of the area as the Rams continued to take the game to the visitors.
A mistake in the middle of the park, though, undid all their good work as the Owls restored their lead.
Hendrick’s loose touch gifted Wednesday possession and the ball was played into the feet of Will Keane on the right hand side and the on loan Manchester United forward composed himself and powered a low strike into the back of the net at Grant’s near post.
As he did on Tuesday, McClaren introduced Jesse Lingard and Craig Bryson from the bench in a bid to swing the game in the Rams’ favour once again.
The former had an instant impact as he weaved his inside from the left and saw a shot blocked and after a series of corners, the home side equalled the game once again.
Bryson played his part this time as he swung a ball into the area and Buxton rose highest to meet and head into the back of the net.
The noise levels went up another decibel and Lingard was proving to be a huge influence as he picked the ball up in the middle and fed the ball out to Ince, who curled a shot narrowly wide.
Derby’s pressure told and a moment of magic from Hughes freed Ince through the middle and bearing down on goal, but as he turned past Westwood, the ‘keeper left out a stray leg to send the wideman down.
Darren Bond, the referee, pointed straight to the spot and sent Westwood off moments later – leaving Bent with the chance to complete the comeback from the spot.
Chris Kirkland came on, but his first act was to pick the ball out of the net as Bent converted to send Derby 3-2 in front to score his seventh goal in eight games.
With their man advantage, McClaren’s held control of the contest. Lingard cut inside and fired an effort straight at Kirkland and Ince fired another one over from the edge of the area as the clock ticked down.
Derby County: Grant; Christie, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Thorne (Lingard, 61), Hendrick, Hughes; Ince, Dawkins (Bryson, 61), Bent
Substitutes not used: Roos, Ward, Thomas, Shotton, Mascarell
Sheffield Wednesday: Westwood, Hutchinson (Kirkland, 76), Palmer, Nuhiu, Lees (C), Helan, Zayatte, Maghoma (Maguire, 62), Lee, McGugan, Keane (Mattock, 72)
Substitutes not used: May, Melo, Dielna, Vermijl