SECOND HALF strikes from Chris Martin and Darren Bent ensured Derby County returned to winning ways away at struggling Wigan Athletic.
After a dogged, determined and hard fought first half, Martin stepped off the bench and added another dimension to Derby’s play and fired in his 20th goal in all competitions.
For all their huff and puff, Wigan rarely threatened Lee Grant’s goal and Bent wrapped the points up by pouncing some poor defending in the Wigan backline and tapped into an empty net.
It brought an end to the Rams longest sequence of games – seven – without a win under Steve McClaren as they kept their promotion hopes alive at the DW Stadium.
From the Derby camp, the same words and phrases dictated the build-up to the encounter at the DW Stadium.
On countless occasions the talk was of desire, attitude, fight with the overriding feeling being impressed on the players from the coaching staff was to stand up and be counted.
All the above statements proved to be true throughout the duration of the first 45 minutes where passages of controlled and composed football came at a premium.
The same can be said for clear-cut opportunities for either side. Tom Ince had the visitors’ clearest opening as the Rams broke quickly from a Wigan corner and after the wideman waltzed on the outside of Gaetan Bong, he should have done better than shooting straight down the midriff of Ali Al Habsi.
From then on, Wigan dominated the proceedings whilst causing Lee Grant in significant issues in the Derby goal.
Kim Bo-Kyung was proving to be the home side’s most creative and imaginative outlet and he used his quick feet to great effect to deceive Raul Albentosa, but his weak right foot attempt rolled into the arms of Grant.
Paul Simpson, the Derby First Team Coach, said Derby had sent out a side that could cope with the long balls and crosses the home side would throw in their direction.
Whilst not entirely convincing, the Rams did their job with Grant being equal to most of the high diagonals angled into his area, but with six minutes remaining he came to his side’s rescue and ensure they would go into the break on level terms.
Bo-Kyung, after delightfully flicking the ball over the head of Stephen Warnock, making his first league start for Derby, delivered a cross into the six-yard that was met by James McClean, who had crept inside from the left.
The wideman’s header connected almost too well – sending the ball right down the middle of the goal – but Grant, acrobatically, got up to beat the effort away for a corner.
How key the save proved to be for Derby.
Steve McClaren, the Rams’ Head Coach, introduced Chris Martin at the interval in a bid to add more impetus to his attacking artillery and the returning forward had the desired effect just six minutes after his emergence.
Starting the move himself, Martin played the ball into the path of Johnny Russell who, composed, cut the ball into the feet of the forward just inside the Wigan area to strike, first time, beyond the outstretched Al Habsi.
The forward, as he has done over the last 18 months, brought a different dimension to the Derby attack, linking and bringing others into play and from their slickest move of the afternoon, the visitors nearly doubled their lead.
Starting with Martin, possession was played to Ince and after exchange of passes with Bent flicked the ball over the head of Al Habsi, but narrowly over the crossbar.
As they did on Friday, though, Derby needed the comfort of the second goal as Wigan searched for an equaliser.
Grant got his body in the way of a McClean header to preserve the lead, whilst Craig Forsyth, operating at centre half, blocked William Kvist’s shot from outside the area.
Just as they did in the first half, Derby held out and scored the crucial second goal from a cutting move with 10 minutes remaining.
Martin and Will Hughes exchanged passes before the latter sprayed possession out to the feet of Russell. The Scot took to create space and deliver a low cross that, after not being dealt with by the Wigan defence, was knocked into the net by the lurking Bent.
Malky Mackay’s side huffed and puffed from then on with their best chance, from Bo-Kyung, forcing Grant into a smart save, but nothing bore fruit as Derby returned to winning ways and recorded their first clean sheet since February.
It was clear what it meant for everyone connected with Derby County – both on and off the pitch.
Wigan Athletic: Al Habsi (GK), Maguire, McClean, Bo-Kyung, Boyce (McCann, 63), Bong, Clarke (Waghorn, 75), Perch (C), Pearce, Antoine-Fortune (Murphy, 65), Kvist
Substitutes not used: Carson (GK), Pennant, Ojo, Barnett
Derby County: Grant, Albentosa, Keogh (C), Forsyth, Warnock (Christie, 88); Hendrick, Hughes; Russell, Ince (Dawkins, 90), Ward (Martin, 46), Bent
Substitutes not used: Roos (GK), Lingard, Whitbread, Hanson
Attendance: 14, 697 (4,141 travelling supporters)