NIGEL Clough’s 100th away game in charge of Derby County gave him some cause to celebrate as the Rams held on for a valuable point on the road against in-form Sheffield Wednesday.
The Owls have now only lost one of their last 10 matches, but the Rams were left to ponder what might have been after throwing away a two-goal lead.
That was given to them by a well-worked goal from Jeff Hendrick and Jamie Ward’s penalty, but minutes after going 2-0 up, Derby were pegged back as Michail Antonio scrambled one in from a corner and then Miguel Llera, who had fouled Ward for the penalty, redeemed himself with an equalising header.
Both goals were preventable, but the result was probably fair, as despite Derby’s dominance, they failed to meaningfully test Chris Kirkland, aside from the goals.
Wednesday were poor before the break, but the early introduction of Connor Wickham made them more of a threat up front, and the Rams had to hang on for a point in the final half an hour.
The result means that Derby have lost just one of their last six Championship games, and remain just five points off the play-offs.
Clough had intended to name the same starting XI for the fourth game in a row, despite nine of his players being called up for international duty during the week.
However he was dealt a late blow when Mark O’Brien, the only member of the nine who did not play at all for his country in the days prior to the match, felt the back of his knee during the pre-match warm-up.
He was replaced in the heart of the Rams defence by former Burton Albion stopper Jake Buxton, making his first start in over two months out after suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury against Leeds United in early December.
Wednesday meanwhile, included ex-Derby keeper Stephen Bywater on the bench, alongside new signing Wickham, who joined from Sunderland on Friday.
Within the first two minutes, Ward found himself in space just outside the area and with no-one closing him down, he let fly, with only a finger-tip save from ex-England keeper Kirkland preventing him silencing the Hillsborough boo-boys, who remembered his spell with city rivals Sheffield United.
From the corner, Conor Sammon muscled his way into the area and lifted a cross to the far post that was just too far ahead of Paul Coutts.
Then Wednesday broke down the right and Lewis Buxton crossed for Kieran Lee, whose glancing header was plucked out of the air by Adam Legzdins.
For the next 20 minutes, although the pace remained frenetic, neither goalkeeper was tested until a rare handling error from the Rams custodian saw him drop an easily claimed corner ball, but luckily his defence prevented any further embarassment.
A well-executed Coutts free-kick then found the head of Richard Keogh, who nodded wide.
A minute later, the Rams were ahead as Will Hughes set up a powerful charge through midfield for Hendrick, who laid off to Ward, then continued his run and received the ball back before beating Kirkland with a composed low drive.
Ward almost made it two when Craig Bryson found acres of space on the right and clipped a cross to the far post, but Kirkland gratefully plucked the ball off the Northern Ireland striker’s head.
In a bid to get back into the game, Wednesday made a change just after the half-hour, bringing on the afore-mentioned Wickham up front.
However, it was still the Rams who looked the livlier, constantly halting their opponents attacks with timely interceptions to start counter-raids of their own, whilst also showing more bite in their tackles and resoluteness with their passes.
Antonio then tried his luck from 25 yards, but his curling shot was easily saved by Legzdins, before Wickham showed his Premiership class with some nice touches, but his team-mates were not on the same wavelength, meaning there was no-one anywhere near his left-wing cross.
In a scrappy start to the second half, Antonio almost capitalised on an error at the back but shot over.
Derby went straight back up the other end and, after Coutts failed to get a shot away following good work, Wednesday could not clear from their area, and Ward, shielding the ball, was fouled by Llera, unmistakable in his Petr Cech-inspired head protection.
There seemed little agression in the tackle, but referee Oliver Langford had no hesitation in awarding the penalty, which Ward lashed home to Kirkland’s right.
However, what must have been an adrenilin-stoking half-time team-talk from Dave Jones had Wednesday fired up now, and they got back in it three minutes later when a corner led to a goalmouth scramble, and Antonio prodded home.
Legzdins’ protestations that he had been fouled in the penalty area melee fell on deaf ears.
And the comeback was completed six minutes after that, Antonio finding space on the right and delivering an inch-perfect cross that Llera, storming through a leaden-footed Rams defence, powerfully headed home.
The shell-shocked visitors attempted to get back into it through Ward, who made one of his trademark runs to the touchline but failed to beat Kirkland at his near post.
Ward was involved again when Sammon won a loose ball and fed his strike partner, whose deflected cross-shot was again held by Kirkland.
However, it was Wednesday who looked more likely to steal the win in the final 10 minutes, with Wickham forcing a save from Legzdins at his near post.
In added time, substitute Jermaine Johnson shrugged off a couple of challenges to fire a low shot goalwards, but Legzdins was equal to it, as he was to Llera’s backwards header moments later.