ANOTHER horse has entered the race for automatic promotion and it is wearing the black and white colours of Derby County.
The Rams are now breathing down the necks of two of the favourites to reach the Premier League – Queen’s Park Rangers and Burnley.
A 1-0 victory over Rangers at the iPro Stadium last night, courtesy of John Eustace’s first goal in two years, moved them to within one point of Harry Redknapp’s side and second-placed Burnley.
Both are chasing clear leaders Leicester City.
Rangers and Burnley, plus Nottingham Forest, in fifth, have a game in hand on Derby but the Rams are finding the going to their liking right now.
They are unbeaten in five matches since the mauling at Leicester and have lost only three of 21 league games under head coach Steve McClaren
And there was absolutely no indication in this performance that they are likely to drop off the pace any time soon as they showed all the qualities you need from back to front to win closely-fought games, big games in the Championship.
Perhaps more significant in the bigger picture is that the three points against Rangers stretched the gap between Derby and the team just outside the top six, Ipswich Town, to 11 points.
Of course there is plenty of football still to play and nothing is won or lost in February, so chickens are not being counted.
McClaren continues to play down Derby’s chances, understandably so because it is what managers do, but the table shows that they are genuine contenders.
Rangers are one of only three teams to have beaten McClaren’s Derby. They won 2-1 at Loftus Road in November and the Rams went into the game looking for a first home win against Rangers in 24 years, since goals from Phil Gee and Dean Saunders sank the West London club back in 1990.
The Rams named an unchanged team to the one that started the draw at Birmingham while Tom Carroll was in Rangers' midfield. He had a loan spell at Derby in 2012.
Joey Barton ran the midfield in the meeting between the two clubs earlier this season but Derby's experienced campaigner, Eustace, played the first pass of note last night.
He hoisted the ball over Rangers' square backline to send Patrick Bamford clear after only a minute. The striker with four goals in as many starts behind him has shown great confidence in the way he has accepted chances but on this occasion he was hesitant as he waited for the ball to drop and was crowded out.
Derby started at a good tempo. Jamie Ward, offering width on the left, saw his low shot gathered by Robert Green, who had to be alert to tip over when Clint Hill's attempted clearance struck Jake Buxton to send the ball arrowing under the bar.
Their bright start was rewarded when they took the lead after 20 minutes, the goal coming from an unlikely scorer.
Green's punch from Will Hughes' corner was not the strongest and Eustace looping header from 10 yards cleared everybody and dropped into the corner of the net.
Delight for Eustace and Derby, it was his first goal since 2012 and the first of his second spell with the Rams. He scored for them in 2009 while on loan from Watford.
But Rangers were far from happy.
They felt there was a foul in the build up to the corner and believed Gary O'Neil was impeded by Chris Martin as he tried to keep out Eustace's header.
Barton continued to protest and this gave the Derby fans amunition for their chants one of which was "you're just a poor Robbie Savage", or words to that affect. Derby's former captain enjoyed the moment as he commentated on the game from the press box.
Lee Grant showed Green how it is done when he made a couple of excellent punches first half although Derby were grateful to Buxton for blocking Andy Johnson's shot after Eustace gave the ball away carelessly. Grant then dived to his right to push out Aaron Hughes' header from O'Neil's centre.
Ward was helped off a few minutes before half time with what appeared to be a hamstring problem and a storming run down the left by substitute Johnny Russell saw the Rams through to the interval deservedly ahead although Green almost gifted them a second goal when he let a backpass go under his foot before he recovered to clear from Bamford in the nick of time.
Rangers made a double change at the break. Junior Hoilett and Modibo Maiga came on, Hoilett to provide some width but it was Derby who threatened after the restart.
Martin and Bamford were both inches away from connecting with Russell's centre, and Buxton met a free kick from Hughes to send a header flashing wide. Derby had their hand on the tempo dial again and it was not to Rangers' liking, but Hoilett offered a spark on the right for the visitors.
Derby, Forsyth particularly, had to keep an eye on Hoilett and the Rams left back collected a yellow card for a foul on the wide man as the contest between the two unfolded. Forsyth stood up well to the test.
Grant held a drive from Barton as Rangers enjoyed some control for the first time in the game. This forced Derby back and Andre Wisdom and Eustace made vital headed clearances as the pressure grew.
Jeff Hendrick replaced Hughes and Derby needed to regain a hold and they found it difficult to get players up in support of Martin.
Craig Bryson and Russell tried to find a solution with positive surges and when the ball did come back their way, Buxton and skipper Richard Keogh defended with terrific determination. So much so, that little was seen of Kevin Doyle and the other Rangers' strikers.
Hoilett, though, continued to offer a threat and his shot from an angle whistled into the side netting.
Chants of "come on Derby" rolled from the stands as the importance of the three points became more apparent as each minute ticked by. A hefty clearance by Keogh brough a huge cheer which was quickly replaced by groans when the fourth official's board showed five minutes of added time.
Rangers knocked on the door but spirited Derby kept it shut and securely bolted.
After conceding five goals in their previous two matches this was a most welcome clean sheet and a big win.
It was also that first win they have been looking for against one of the teams currently in the top six. That will boost confidence further.