DARREN BENT stepped off the substitutes bench to score two second half goals as Derby County beat Blackburn Rovers 2-0 to move back into the Sky Bet Championship’s automatic promotion places.
The Rams were left hugely frustrated after a first half in which they held total control without testing Jason Steele in the Blackburn goal, before Bent stepped off the bench to flick in a long throw at the far.
The striker finished the game off deep into injury-time to seal the three points as Steve McClaren’s side recorded their fifth clean sheet in six games.
The message before the encounter was simple. Make the most of this opportunity.
With that, Derby started with the bit between their teeth but only had Will Hughes’ fizzing a shot that flew wide to show for their early dominance as they controlled large periods of possession and penned their visitors inside their 18-yard box.
With Joshua King playing as the lone frontman, Blackburn were hitting long balls looking to utilise his holding up power and pace and found themselves being limited to long range efforts.
Their early efforts, though, were being met by a stubborn Derby defence, who were throwing their bodies in line with their shots as King and Conway were both left frustrated.
Patiently, Derby continued to knock on the Rovers door but to no avail as the home side looked to utilise the width of the pitch and, in particular, the pace of Ward.
With every cross, final pass and darting run, Blackburn matched it with a stray leg, diving header and block to ensure that Steele, the Blackburn ‘keeper, was troubled very little during the first 45 minutes.
The Rams’ best efforts were smashed well over the top of their opponent’s crossbar when they was well placed.
The first was from Ward who stepped inside from the right hand side after Simon Dawkins dispossessed a Rovers man on the edge of the area and after finding Jeff Hendrick, the Irish midfielder played the ball to Ward who blazed over the top of the crossbar.
The same story was played out for Simon Dawkins, returning to the starting line-up for his first start since the 2-0 defeat to Middlesbrough last month, as he smashed over following a neat passage of play between Hughes and Hendrick.
Gary Bowyer’s side grew into the game as the half grew older and walked off the pitch for the interval having recorded the best chance of the first half.
It came from Craig Conway who forced Lee Grant into a sprawling save, before King, after collecting a precise right wing cross, was flagged offside after finding himself well placed to give Rovers a late lead.
Derby tried to turn the screw on their opponents in the early stages of the second 45 minutes, but found themselves being thwarted by a number of last ditch blocks as they were in the first half.
Hendrick had a shot from the edge of the area turned away by a Rovers defender, before Craig Forsyth’s deflected cross was also headed away from danger.
Two minutes after the hour mark, Derby had their best chance to open the scoring as Hughes’ inswinging free kick caused in the Blackburn penalty area and Shotton fired a low shot goalwards that was well saved by Steele.
The Rams introduced Darren Bent soon after and the change had the desired effect after 68 minutes.
Utilising the long throw of Shotton, Derby packed the penalty area and the full back launched the ball on to the head of Martin who flicked across the area for Bent to knock past the sprawling Steele.
Grant, celebrating his 32nd birthday, made a sublime save to preserve Derby’s lead after Chris Brown flicked the ball and volleyed inside the area, and the save nearly turned into a goal for the home side as the Rams broke at pace down the other end.
Hughes did the leg work as he first evaded one challenge before making headway down the right, before pulling the ball back to Martin who brought a fine save from Steele.
Martin went close again soon after as he nicked in front of Alex Baptiste, but was thwarted by Steele once again.
Just as Grant’s save earlier quickly led to a Derby chance, the roles reversed with just 10 minutes remaining.
Laid off on the edge of the area, Mascarell’s first time effort was blocked and broke into the middle of the park for Conway to rush on to.
Derby found themselves in a three on three situation and rapidly back pedalling, but Conway decided to go alone and saw an effort blocked by Buxton.
With six minutes of added time shown, it appeared that the Rams would have to weather a heavy storm from the visitors, but the storm was soon quenched as Bent scored his third goal in three games to kill the contest.
Mason Bennett, the substitute, did the good work on the left as he escaped from Alex Baptiste on the left and delivered a left cross that the outstretched Martin could not quite turn in before Bent smashed the loose ball into the back of the net.
It proved a significant victory for Derby as they jumped three places back into the automatic promotion places alongside AFC Bournemouth ahead of Saturday’s trip to Cardiff City.
Derby County: Grant, Shotton, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Mascarell, Hendrick, Hughes; Dawkins (Bent, 63), Ward (Bennett, 86), Martin
Substitutes not used: Roos, Christie, Bryson, Albentosa, Warnock
Blackburn Rovers: Steele, Baptiste, Hanley (c) (Rhodes, 77), Kilgallon, Olsson, Cairney (Gestede, 43, Brown, 63), Lowe, Evans, Conway, Marshall, King
Substitutes not used: Eastwood, Duffy, Williamson, Taylor
Attendance: 26,373 (412 Blackburn supporters)