PATRICK Bamford’s fifth goal in seven appearances, and another peach, lifted Derby County to third place in the Championship last night and kept them firmly in the race for promotion.
The loanee from Chelsea struck with 12 minutes of normal time left to give the Rams a 1-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
A hard-fought, dour contest was heading for a goalless draw when the youngster produced a moment of magic and he is repaying the faith being shown in him by head coach Steve McClaren.
Bamford displayed an eye for a goal during a loan spell at MK Dons in the first half of the season.
He hit a late winner to sink Brighton, thumped in an excellent equaliser in the draw at Blackburn and also found the net as more points were collected against Yeovil and Birmingham.
The three points against Wednesday moved Derby to within two of Burnley who occupy second place and one of the two automatic promotion spots.
This was the Rams’ ninth away win of the campaign and for long, long spells they had to dig and show terrific character to grind out the win.
Wednesday are a tough nut to crack under Stuart Gray. They recently went eight games without defeat but were undone by Bamford’s moment of quality.
Derby were unchanged and looking to stretch their unbeaten run to six matches.
Mason Bennett was out having been concussed in Sunday’s FA Youth Cup tie against Newcastle United and his place on the bench was taken by James Bailey.
Wednesday handed debuts to loan signings Gary Gardner and Leon Best, who scored against Derby while with Blackburn Rovers in the opening fixture of the season.
Former Rams striker Chris Maguire, six goals in 10 games, was in Wednesday’s side and his corner almost brought an early goal for the home side. The ball drifted beyond Lee Grant and was met by Glenn Loovens whose downward header was blocked close to the line by Craig Forsyth.
The sides matched up in terms of formations and there was little room in midfield but a big pitch at Hillsborough allows teams to play with width. Michail Antonio offered it for Wednesday and tested Andre Wisdom, while Ward and Bamford filled the wide roles for Derby.
Jake Buxton found Ward on the left with what is becoming his trademark long and accurate diagonal pass and Ward’s teasing low centre was turned behind.
The corner came to nothing but Wednesday continued to win corners of their own, although Maguire’s accuracy was hit and miss.
Cohesive play was in short supply during the opening half an hour although Derby showed signs of settling.
Richard Keogh headed down a free kick from Will Hughes and when the ball dropped to Craig Bryson he dragged his shot wide. Hughes then spotted an opportunity to run at Wednesday’s defence which parted, but the midfielder’s low shot lacked the power to trouble Chris Kirkland.
The set-piece count continued to rise and endeavour outweighed the quality.
Three yellow cards added to what was a scruffy and instantly forgettable first half.
Miguel Llera deservedly collected one when he led with his arm as he challenged Grant for a high cross.
Chris Martin was then booked for a foul on Llera as their physical tussle developed under the eye of the referee who was not happy when Bryson kicked the ball away after Wednesday had been awarded a free kick, and out came the yellow card.
Grant received a warm reception from the Wednesday’s fans on the Kop at the start of the second half. He served the club well for three years during which he made 145 appearances.
Those same fans cheered when it was announced that Derby had made a change for the second half as Johnny Russell replaced Ward, a former Sheffield United player.
Grant dived to is right to hold a low shot from Antonio, before another shot from the same player deflected behind for a corner.
Antonio’s direct style provided a threat and Wednesday started the brighter after the break.
Grant showed impeccable timing and handling to collect a centre from Joe Mattock before the keeper plunged to his left to push away Antonio’s shot. Derby’s number one put in another secure display to follow the one against Queen’s Park Rangers in the previous game.
Grant held yet another effort from Antonio while Wednesday goalkeeper Kirkland had not been seriously tested with 70 minutes on the clock.
McClaren made a positive final substitution when he sent on Conor Sammon for Eustace, who had mopped up with great effect in front of the back four.
The Rams had four forwards on the pitch and one of them, Bamford, made the breakthrough on 78 minutes.
Everyone thought the 20-year-old was about to delivery a cross, but not him.
Instead, his unstoppable curling left-foot strike from 25 yards left Kirkland a spectator.
The ball sailed high across the startled keeper and found the net off the underside of the bar.