ALTHOUGH edgy in the closing stages, and unnecessarily so, Derby County secured a fourth consecutive victory to strengthen their grip on third spot in the Championship.
A 2-1 win against Barnsley at the iPro Stadium has left them five points clear of fourth-placed Queen’s Park Rangers with only six points up for grabs,
QPR came from behind to beat Watford, Derby’s next opponents, while second-placed Burnley sealed automatic promotion to the Premier League.
The Clarets saw off Wigan and thoroughly deserve to take their place in the top flight next season, along with Leicester City. They have been the best two sides in the division.
Derby will need to negotiate the play-offs to join them.
Steve McClaren’s team is currently enjoying another impressive run of results – six wins in eight – despite yesterday’s late scare against strugglers Barnsley, who are fighting to stay up.
The Tykes find themselves four points adrift of safety and plenty to do if they are to escape the jaws of League One.
Goals from Jeff Hendrick and Johnny Russell had the Rams in control before Barnsley substitute Nick Proschwitz reduced the deficit.
Russell had an opportunity to calm matters immediately, but his penalty was saved and the shortage of a ruthless streak in front of goal could have proved costly.
It did not, and the Rams are now over the 80-point mark – a fantastic achievement. They freshened up in a couple of positions for their second game of the Easter weekend.
Hendrick and Jamie Ward came in for Will Hughes and Patrick Bamford, who were both named among the substitutes.
Former Rams duo Tomasz Cywka and Lewin Nyatanga, not comfortable at left back, started for Barnsley.
Ward was on the right but Derby’s forays in the opening minutes came down the left through Craig Forsyth, Craig Bryson and Russell.
The raids troubled Barnsley who were relieved when Bryson, put in by Forsyth, fired his cross into the side-netting.
Derby were soon in their rhythm, feeding balls into Martin who picked out runners Ward and Hendrick. Ward’s shot was saved by Luke Steele low down to his right, Hendrick’s effort curled over.
Forsyth had played more like a left winger for 15 minutes, but when needed defensively he produced three important clearances as Barnsley finally began to emerge from their own half.
Cywka, from an angle, forced Lee Grant to make a save but Derby had a chance to take the lead after 20 minutes.
Ward released Russell in the area and he should have done better than drag his shot well wide of the far post.
Derby’s tempo was right, their final ball and finish not. The quality in the final third deteriorated as the first half unfolded, despite positions of promise.
But they scored a goal out of nothing after 34 minutes. Another attack appeared to have been crowded out by the visitors when the ball reached Hendrick whose beautifully-struck 25-yarder flashed low past a surprised Steele and into the bottom corner.
Hendrick had his second goal of the season and Derby doubled their lead three minutes before the break when Russell’s shot from 20 yards took a deflection and the ball looped over Steele.
Russell celebrated his ninth of the season, although Bryson indicated that the ball went in off him, as happened in the game at Birmingham in February when the goal was awarded to Martin.
Bryson has scored 16 goals from midfield this season. He could well be on 18 if there was a dubious goals panel for the Championship.
Derby had been the better side first half against opponents who huffed and puffed, but never really got close enough to knock the Rams off their stride.
However, a casual start to the second half offered the visitors an opportunity from a free-kick and Liam Lawrence’s effort was curling under the bar until Grant tipped over.
Ward got an hour under his belt before he was replaced by Simon Dawkins. Both are working their way back from injuries and it is important as many players as possible are handed match-time ahead of the play-offs.
Eustace was also introduced for George Thorne in the holding role in midfield before Dawkins, Forsyth and Bryson went close to increasing the lead.
Dawkins’ low shot was deflected wide, Forsyth’s rising drive cleared the angle and Bryson’s swinging free-kick dipped over.
Barnsley have kept only six clean sheets in the league this season, the fewest in the division, and you could see why.
Forsyth saw his header cleared off the line by Nyatanga as the Rams controlled matters, but they were jolted when Proschwitz pulled a goal back for Barnsley with 10 minutes left to play.
The response was instant, as Rams substitute Conor Sammon was brought down by Jean Yves Mvoto in the area – only for Steele to save Russell’s penalty.
The Scot struck his spot kick well enough but it was too close to Steele, who still made a fine stop.
Russell had a chance to redeem himself only to put a great chance wide and Derby’s failure to find a third goal led to a frantic closing few minutes.