STEVE McCLaren admitted his side were not at their best despite Derby County climbing to the dizzy heights of fourth as Conor Sammon’s late strike finally sunk 10-man Middlesbrough at Pride Park last night.
Chris Martin netted his 10th goal of the season in the final throes of a fairly even first half, 10 minutes after the Rams were given a huge helping hand by referee Andrew Madley, who sent young Boro striker Curtis Main off for two 50-50 challenges, neither of which really deserved any punishment.
A man and a goal ahead, Derby should have seen the game out against a Boro side who have struggled to find form all season, but missed a number of chances and paid for it when Dean Whitehead fired home the equaliser.
However, Sammon is becoming something of a super-sub for the Rams, and came off the bench to fire home a late winner for the second time this season.
It extends Derby’s winning run to four games on the bounce, and they are now just seven points off the automatic promotion places.
McClaren said: “It’s three points, that’s all you can say, and we’re in the results game.
“We threw Sammon on to try and get the winner, and they are the sort of wins you need if you’re going to challenge.”
On the sending off, he said: “If it had been me, I would have been very disappointed, and I thought it was harsh, because the players didn’t react.”
McClaren made one change to the team which started the 3-1 win at Wigan Athletic on Saturday, with the fit-again Jamie Ward replacing the only-just-fit-again Johnny Russell.
The Rams looked to take the game by the scruff of the neck early on, looking a particular threat in bursts down their left flank.
Boro had the only shot of the first 10 minutes though, when Kei Kamara’s effort was headed away by Andre Wisdom.
Shay Given, who joined Boro on loan from Aston Villa last week, was more vexed by Derby’s first shot of the game, as a rifled, deflected, dipping shot from Craig Forsyth had the former Republic of Ireland custodian scrambling to tip over the bar.
Forsyth was looking one of the hosts’ most dangerous threats, and he twice forced corners with his crosses, the second of those nodded over by Jake Buxton.
Ward was then twice incensed to have decisions go against him.
First, the lively forward took a knockdown from Martin and nutmegged George Friend before going down on the edge of the area, but no foul was given, and then he was adjudged to have controlled the ball with his hand before flashing a shot across goal.
Simon Dawkins then made a great run through on goal, and only the close attention of Rhys Williams prevented a goal.
Kamara threatened again when a free-kick was not cleared and the Sierra Leone international improvised an overhead kick which, by Lee Grant’s calm reaction, was wider than it looked.
The Rams’ best chance came in the 32nd minute, when Forsyth got down the left again, and his low, dangerous cross was palmed away by Given, with Will Hughes blazing the rebound over from outside the box.
The flashpoint of the first half came two minutes later when young striker Main, harshly booked minutes earlier after a challenge on Grant, picked up another soft booking for a tackle on Buxton and was sent off.
A nice passage of play then saw the Rams pick Boro apart with a series of neat short passes, ending with Dawkins being denied by Given.
But the Rams finally made their man advantage count in the final minute of the half, as they took play down the left and crossed to the far post, where Martin took the ball at an awkward height and sliced it past Given.
Martin almost got a second soon after the break as, following a spell of Derby pressure, he prodded wide from a corner.
Derby had two great chances to increase their lead just after the hour, as first Buxton’s shot was headed off the line, and then Dawkins did brilliantly to dribble into space before picking out Ward with a fantastic chip to the back post, and the striker’s stinging volley was saved.
And they were made to rue those misses when half-time substitute Mustapha Carayol burst down the right, and after Richard Smallwood’s shot from his cross was off target, Whitehead gambled, pounced and tapped in.
The equaliser seemed to frustrate the home fans and players equally, with the Rams struggling to re-discover their earlier fluency.
But when it counted, Sammon looped the ball over Given after collecting from Hughes.