A PERFECT 10 against Leeds United was the perfect way to end a turbulent week at Derby County.
The Rams emerged from the settling dust following Nigel Clough’s dismissal a week earlier to record their now customary victory over a traditional rival.
In doing so, they also chalked up a first home league win of the season in what was new head coach Steve McClaren’s first game in charge, not counting his half-time words of wisdom during the Ipswich match a few days earlier.
Ten consecutive wins against one club is a remarkable achievement, possibly unique at this level of English football.
Leeds’ last win against Derby was eight years ago, and the last occasion they left Pride Park with three points, was in 2002 in the Premier League.
Many qualities are needed to win a game in the Championship and Derby displayed most of them in this 3-1 success.
There was character, commitment and discipline to balance their energy, movement and flair.
The ingredients blended to produce a cocktail that tasted sweet on Derby lips, but proved bitter for Leeds – although the visitors were never completely out of the contest until Will Hughes hit the Rams’ third goal 12 minutes from time.
Finishing the Ipswich game on a high fuelled Derby’s fast, confident start, and Leeds went toe-to-toe with them in the early minutes.
Hughes’ chip was inches too high, while Rodolph Austin sent a low shot fizzing narrowly wide for Leeds.
McClaren was quick to admit he inherited a ‘good’ team. He made three changes to the side to face Leeds and manipulated the shape.
John Eustace anchored a three-man midfield also containing Hughes and Craig Bryson.
Jamie Ward was on the left, Johnny Russell – recalled to the starting 11 – on the right, and Chris Martin the frontman.
One up top at home? Fans have been critical of that in the past, but the constant support and attacking menace from Ward and Russell made it feel like three.
After an even start, Derby took a firm grip with two goals in three minutes.
Bryson caught former Rams midfielder Paul Green in possession in the 20th minute. The Scot cleverly exchanged passes with Martin who fired high past Paddy Kenny from 10 yards for his seventh goal of the season.
Derby’s movement and desire to run off the ball ripped Leeds open again two minutes later.
Hughes found Martin whose back-heel teed up Russell and he expertly, finished first time from 12 yards. It was a lovely move delivered with rapier precision.
To pinch a press colleague’s description, you could have driven a tram through Leeds’ midfield.
A similar criticism has been levelled at Derby’s midfield in the past, but Eustace’s presence filled any gaps. He was highly influential throughout.
His know-how helps Eustace do the basics well. He mops up and plays the ball simply and sensibly. He knows where to stand – crucial for a holding midfielder.
Eustace’s positional savvy offers Hughes and Bryson the chance to push forward. Bryson ran the legs off the Leeds midfielders including Green, who is a dynamo himself.
There were, perhaps understandably, some uncertain moments for Derby’s new centre-back pairing of skipper Richard Keogh and the on-loan Zak Whitbread in the first half.
Keogh had returned after serving a one-match ban and Jake Buxton stepped down having been an ever-present this season.
Leeds continued to put balls into the box and this pushed Derby deeper as the half drew to a close.
A problem that has blighted the side – conceding soft goals – was seen again a minute before the break.
Ward gave away an unnecessary free kick by the corner flag which was cleared only for Lee Peltier to hoist a cross to the back post.
Lee Grant totally misjudged the flight of the ball and allowed Tom Lees to head back across goal for his centre-back partner Jason Pearce to head in.
Timing wise, it was exactly what Derby did not need. How would they react?
They remained disciplined and stood firm in the face of Leeds’ growing belief. Keogh and Whitbread were key figures in the second half.
Derby also remained a threat themselves.
Hughes declined a clear chance after good work by Ward and Forsyth, who joined in from left-back at every opportunity as did Adam Smith on the right.
Russell then pulled a shot narrowly wide with Kenny flat-footed and breathing a sigh of relief.
But Leeds, who had enough possession, plugged away and there was concern Derby’s midweek exertions against Ipswich might become a factor.
Grant saved at the feet of Dominic Poleon and Ross McCormack, and Derby needed a third goal.
McClaren was now down in the dugout from his seat in the stand and he watched on as Martin and Bryson linked to set up Hughes, who bamboozled Pearce with his neat footwork and fired right-footed into the far corner of the net to calm home nerves.
Martin, having scored the opener, had a hand in the two other goals.
Add in the striker’s ability to hold the ball up and find team mates, and he played a big part in the win.
Bryson was given a standing ovation when replaced a minute from time.
Scotland team boss Gordon Strachan was at the game and cannot fail to have been impressed by Bryson.
A lively display by Russell, another Scot, will have been noted as well.
Fans have seen a dozen goals in the last couple of home games although a few too many conceded.
They enjoyed the football and energy on show from Derby who have produced similar displays this season at Brighton, Yeovil and Millwall.
However, it is vital to win at home. It is something that has not happened enough in the past two months.
The second half against Ipswich and Saturday’s performance against Leeds saw the Rams finally cut loose at Pride Park in the League.