A former Canaries man, Bradley Johnson came back to haunt his former club as his second half strike sealed a 1-0 victory for Derby County over Norwich City.
The 29 -year-old midfielder spent four years at Carrow Road, but in his first game against his former employer’s since joining Derby, his sweet shot from the edge of the box shortly after the hour mark was enough to seal all three points from a cagey meeting at Pride Park Stadium.
It may have represented his first goal of the season and it will be special for its own reasons, but for Derby, it secured their fourth successive Sky Bet Championship win, whilst Alex Neil’s Norwich have lost five league games in a row now.
At their defensive best in the first half, the Rams were justly rewarded with their fifth straight home clean sheet – meaning Steve McClaren is still yet to see his side concede a goal on home soil since his return as manager last month.
As mentioned above, Derby had to work hard for their win, especially over the first 45 minutes as the visitors attempted to reverse their own recent fortunes.
Norwich City began this contest with a degree of control and were content to play the patient game when it came to crafting opportunities.
There was only one attempt registered on goal from either side in the first 15 minutes too as Wes Hoolahan, restored to the starting XI, let fly from the edge of the box and narrowly cleared Scott Carson’s crossbar.
Derby had been forced to play more direct during this stage of the game as Norwich’s backline mopped up their early attempt to play through them, but Tom Ince, the in-form wideman with four goals in his past two games, forced a fine save from John Ruddy on the first occasion the Rams carved open the Canaries.
It came after Johnny Russell played an incisive pass to the feet of Darren Bent, who in turn slipped a pass to the feet of Ince, bit his firm strike from 25-yards was claimed at the second attempt by the visitors’ ‘keeper.
The remainder of the half required the Rams to be at their resilient best as Norwich pushed and probed to little avail over the 45 minutes as they failed to seriously threaten Carson’s goal before the half time whistle.
Norwich were also guilty of overplaying in key areas, which aided the hosts in getting through to the break goalless – laying the foundations for a second half in which they were far more imposing.
Bent, making his 400th club start, put the first marker down with an early effort that was blocked by Sebastien Bassong, but Carson had to play his part by keeping Derby in the game by turning behind Steven Naismith’s effort after he escaped the backline.
From there, Derby were on top as they took a grip of the contest.
Bent forced Ruddy into his first save with a low left foot shot, whilst Ince thundered an effort over after bamboozling a Norwich defender and then Jacob Butterfield saw a low drive turned behind too.
A minute later and Derby made the all-important breakthrough and it all came from Will Hughes’ strong run down to the middle of the park. The 21-year-old got himself to the edge of the area before being crowded out, but a tame clearance fell into the path of Johnson, who lashed a low effort beyond Ruddy and into the bottom corner.
Playing more on the counter attack, Derby were more than happy to soak up Norwich’s desperate attempts to try and find a way back into the game.
It made for a nerve-wracking end to the meeting, with Alex Pritchard’s free kick proving to be the closest the visitors came to finding a way back into the game.
It wasn’t to be, however, and Derby’s goal remained unbreached on home soil under McClaren’s second-coming as the hosts also clinched their fourth successive win in the Championship.
Derby County: Carson, Baird, Keogh (C), Pearce, Lowe; Johnson, Butterfield, Hughes (Bryson, 79(; Ince, Russell (Weimann, 85), Bent (Vydra, 88)
Substitutes not used: Mitchell, Shackell, Anya, Olsson
Norwich City: Ruddy, Martin (C), Bassong, Naismith, Jerome (Lafferty, 46), Brady, Hoolahan (Pritchard, 67), Mulumbu, Jacob Murphy, Bennett, Tettey (Whittaker, 72)
Substitutes not used: McGovern, Oliveira, Klose, Josh Murphy
Attendance: 29,311 (2,008 away supporters)