NIGEL Clough asked his Derby County players to show him their teeth following the dire 4-1 defeat at Leicester City — and got exactly what he wanted as the Rams beat Leeds United 3-1 at Pride Park.
Derby snapped into tackles and outfought their vastly more experienced visitors following boss Clough’s call to arms in midweek.
Conor Sammon scored early on as the Rams killed off a bright start from Neil Warnock’s side.
Paul Green then levelled with half-time looming as Leeds grabbed a lifeline against the run of play.
It was anyone’s match until Jake Buxton gave Derby the lead when he deflected Richard Keogh’s header into the net.
Leeds then pushed hard for another equaliser before Ben Davies climbed off the bench to seal it in injury time with a lovely left-footer to remind fans he is still very much alive and well.
The victory lifted the Rams up to ninth spot before the other day’s games had taken place and was deserved after possibly the most complete performance of the season.
The harder edge Clough sought was there for all to see — with even young playmaker Will Hughes getting stuck into tackles.
It was reflected in yellow cards for the outstanding Hughes and fellow central midfielder Jeff Hendrick, who put in his best performance of the season so far.
But Clough will take the bookings for the way his side went toe-to-toe with their much-fancied visitors, who came into the game on the back of three impressive wins in the Championship.
Although results later meant Derby finished the day in 10th spot, the win means they are just three points off sixth spot and a place in the play-offs.
If they can now solve the disparity between their excellent home form — they have taken 22 of their 30 points at Pride Park — and disastrous away record, a tilt at the top six is not impossible.
A lot rides on young Hughes, who at 17 carries a lot of the Rams’ hopes on his narrow shoulders.
He was superb on Saturday, setting up the opener with a lovely pass and displaying an unflustered elegance as neither David Norris nor Michael Tonge could live with him.
There were also stand-out displays from striker Sammon, Paul Coutts and Keogh, who was back to something like his best after a few nightmare performances culminated in a near self-destruction at Leicester.
The ghosts of the King Power Stadium were thoroughly exorcised and fans will hope the new tougher edge they saw will continue and see Derby into the upper echelons of the table.
The Rams were unchanged after Craig Bryson (knee) and Gareth Roberts (calf) failed late fitness tests.
Leeds, meanwhile, included former Rams midfielder Green, who was named captain as he started on the right of midfield.
Ex-Derby loan man Tonge was in midfield and Luke Varney was on the bench.
Leeds started the better of the two sides but Clough’s battlers soon found their feet and went ahead on the quarter-hour.
Theo Robinson’s quickly taken free kick allowed Hughes to break away and his perfect pass picked out Sammon, who turned Lee Peltier before deceiving Paddy Kenny with a shot to the near post.
Sammon had another effort blocked by Kenny with the half-hour looming before Hughes showed he can mix it with a terrific run back to dispossess Tonge with a near-perfect sliding tackle.
The Rams were well on top but got caught by a sucker punch as they waited for the interval — and it had to be Green who provided it.
A ball over from the left was headed down brilliantly by Luciano Becchio and Green nipped in ahead of Adam Legzdins to finish from close range. Never a prolific scorer — he managed 13 in 143 games for Derby — Green chose the match to open his account for Leeds after his summer free transfer.
A goal at such a time can knock the stuffing out of teams and change the momentum of a game.
Following half-time both sides had opportunities, with the disappointing Ross McCormack firing straight at Legzdins 13 seconds after the restart and Coutts blasting one at Kenny after 51 minutes.
Michael Jacobs hacked a Ryan Hall cross off his line a minute later before Hughes was denied by Kenny after beating Green. A Brayford header from a Jacobs corner was then cleared by Tom Lees.
Buxton then grabbed the lead when Jacobs’ corner was cleared only as far as Keogh. His firm drive received the lightest of touches from Buxton for his fourth of the season.
Warnock threw El-Hadji Diouf on and the former World Cup star made a big impact as the Rams came under intense pressure.
He was a constant threat and found Lees with a dangerous cross that the big centre-half rattled against the post, with Keogh clearing the rebound.
Green went down under pressure from Hughes looking for a penalty before substitute Davies won it.
Leeds looked to attack but Coutts broke things up and surged into the visitors’ box. He gave it Davies, who looked up and bent it around Kenny from 15 yards with his left foot. It was an impressive finish to an impressive game — and the former Notts County man can be forgiven for jettisoning his shirt in sheer delight, with referee Scott Mathieson handing it back to him a minute later, along with a yellow card as Pride Park erupted in delight.