DERBY County are in no mood to take their foot off the gas.
Defeat for Reading at Wigan coupled with Brighton’s draw at Huddersfield yesterday afternoon meant the Rams were already assured of a place in the Championship play-offs before kick-off last night.
But focus has been the buzz word, and remains so. Derby kept their eye trained on the task in hand to beat Doncaster Rovers 2-0 at the Keepmoat Stadium and strengthen their grip on third place.
This was not Derby at their fluid best. They were not particularly good first half, better second, but in the end they had too much for their opponents and kept another clean sheet – their eighth in 14 outings.
Result are everything at this stage and the victory lifted them to 78 points, five ahead of Queen’s Park Rangers who play at promoted Leicester City today.
Second place is still not mathematically out of reach, but Burnley’s win at Blackpool kept them firmly in the box seat for the one remaining automatic promotion spot.
The Clarets have an eight-point cushion with only nine up for the grabs.
Strange things can happen during run-ins, but Derby’s hopes of playing Premier League football next season now lie in the play-offs it would seem.
Finishing third must be seen as an advantage. It would see them play the second leg of a two-legged semi final at home and probably avoid QPR and Wigan.
A first top-six finish in seven years since the promotion campaign of 2006-07 is fully deserved and their away form has played a significant part.
The 2-0 win at Doncaster was Derby’s 11th away victory in the Championship, and leaves them one short of matching the club record of 12 in a season set three times previously in 2006/07, 2004/05 and 1991/92.
Fine goals from George Thorne and Chris Martin, his 22nd of the season, separated the teams but there was an anxious start to the game when goalkeeper Lee Grant slipped as he awaited a back-pass from Richard Keogh. The ball rolled towards goal and Grant recovered in the nick of time to clear.
Thorne, who has played in the top flight, gestured to his team-mates to calm down. Thorne got on the ball when he could to draw the sting from what had been a frantic start.
Doncaster’s need for points was clear from their position in the table. They went into the game only three above the relegation places having lost four of their previous five games.
David Cotterill tried his luck from distance for the home side after Patrick Bamford had been caught in possession, but Derby went closer when Craig Forsyth’s centre skimmed off the head of Abdoulaye Meite and forced Sam Johnstone to tip the ball over.
Doncaster, full of determination and tempo, had the better of the opening 25 minutes.
Gabriel Tamas made use of space on Derby’s left to venture forward from right back and supplement attacks. Twice he delivered crosses onto the head of centre forward Chris Brown.
The first header brought a fine save from Grant, who leapt to turn the ball over from under his bar, while his second save from Brown was more routine.
Derby had still to find their rhythm and this was seen when Craig Bryson’s clever pass released Will Hughes in the area and he over-hit his centre.
Keogh took some unnecessary risks on the ball and with his passing, not wise with the likes of James Coppinger and Billy Sharp eager to pounce. Keogh then made a super block from Enda Stevens’ volley.
But apart from Thorne and Buxton, Derby did not pass the ball well enough first half to seriously trouble Doncaster or work Johnstone.
Head coach Steve McClaren left his seat in the stand to join first-team coach Paul Simpson in the technical area. The pair appeared to be discussing how and where Derby could improve when Thorne fired the Rams ahead.
Hughes laid the ball into Thorne’s path and his strike from 25 yards flashed past Johnstone low to his right.
It was fitting that the goal came from the on-loan midfielder because he was Derby’s best player, although the lead was undeserved on the balance of play. Derby made a change six minutes after half-time when Jamie Ward replaced Bamford, who had struggled to make an impact.
Ward went to the left, Johnny Russell moved to the right and the Rams had a chance to double their lead when Thorne picked out Bryson’s run.
The Scot, who has 16 goals, drilled his shot on target but Johnstone denied him.
Another change in the wide areas saw fit-again Simon Dawkins return to action after a six-match absence, but Doncaster showed they were very much still in the contest when Sharp just failed to connect with a cross before Tamas headed wide from Cotterill’s centre.
Doncaster introduced former Derby striker Theo Robinson.
He was given a rousing welcome by the noisy 3,300 Rams fans, although they held their breath when Robinson’s pace looked to have taken him clear of Jake Buxton, but the defender used his strength to retrieve the situation.
Robinson did get in a few minutes later on Mark Duffy’s pass and Grant was out quickly to block the effort.
Derby’s number one continues to make important saves at key moments in games, as he did against Blackpool and Huddersfield.
This was highlighted when Martin put the Rams two up 11 minutes from time.
Ward, now operating on the right, whipped over a cross and Martin, at a stretch, controlled his finish superbly.
He made contact with the outside of his right boot to send the ball back across a stranded Johnstone and high into the net.
The quality of the finishing proved the difference on the night.
The goal set the Rams fans bouncing with delight again.
They enjoyed another good away day, one of many this season, and Ward almost provided the icing on the cake when his goal-bound chip was clawed away by Johnstone.