DERBY County’s marvellous seven-match winning streak came to an end but they remain in fine shape as we approach the halfway stage of the Championship campaign.
A point from a fiercely-contested 1-1 draw against Huddersfield Town at the John Smith’s Stadium left the Rams fourth and only four points behind leaders Leicester City.
They are eight unbeaten since losing narrowly to Queen’s Park Rangers at Loftus Road in early November, and their impressive run has made the division sit up and take notice.
There was a mixture of delight and disappointed after yesterday’s clash.
Derby bossed the first half. Their football was incisive and they could easily have been three up rather than only one ahead.
Chris Martin saw a penalty saved for a second successive match before Craig Bryson turned in his 11th goal of the season to give the Rams a thoroughly deserved lead at the break.
The Championship’s highest scorers looked a threat each time they attacked.
Huddersfield, no doubt relieved not to be trailing by more, produced a spirited show in an open second half and Martin Patterson fired them level four minutes from time.
Lee Grant was beaten in that moment but the Rams goalkeeper made important saves – and the back four dug deep when Huddersfield threatened to win the game late on.
On-loan defender Michael Keane made his first start in place of injured Rams skipper Richard Keogh.
Another central defender, Zak Whitbread, was on the bench having been sidelined by a calf problem since in October.
Kieron Freeman was also among the substitutes having been recalled from his loan spell at Notts County, but midfielder Jeff Hendrick was an absentee.
The club said he was suffering a bout of concussion.
Huddersfield were without top scorer James Vaughan due to injury. Vaughan had a brief loan stint at Derby in 2009 and was a transfer target in the summer when the Rams searched for a frontman.
The temperature dipped at kick off but there was a fiery start to the contest.
Murray Wallace was booked for a high challenge on Jamie Ward before a furious Adam Hammill went head to head with Ward following a tackle between the two.
Hammill felt Ward caught him late and referee Carl Boyeson had to calm matters.
Andre Wisdon ventured forward when he could to supplement Derby’s attacks and his pass found Martin whose low shot was pushed away by goalkeeper Alex Smithies.
Keane settled quickly alongside Jake Buxton in Derby’s back four and produced two or three pieces of good defending – appreciated by the 3,000 Rams fans behind the goal.
Huddersfield looked lively, especially Hammill wide on the right, but Derby almost forced the opening goal from a corner. Bryson delivered and Buxton’s volley in a crowded area was blocked close to the line.
The positive running of Ward and Simon Dawkins in wide areas troubled Huddersfield’s back three – they switched to the back four later in the half – and Ward won a penalty after 26 minutes.
He twisted and turned substitute Joel Lynch who brought him down.
The referee, with no signal being offered by his assistant, pointed to the spot.
Martin stepped up again, despite his failure from the spot against Doncaster Rovers, only to see his spot kick kept out by Smithies.
A golden opportunity to take the lead had gone, but Derby refused to let it affect them and went ahead four minutes later.
Wisdom raided into the space being offered by Huddersfield down the flanks. His deep cross picked out Martin at the back post who knocked the ball back across goal for Bryson to turn in from close range. It was his fifth goal in the last six games.
The ball found the net off the foot of a post, and Derby struck the same piece of woodwork soon after when Bryson’s low centre deflected off Lynch, who was having an eventful few minutes.
Home supporters groaned as Huddersfield’s attempts to respond met with determined Derby resistance in the closing stages of the first half.
Indeed, Derby looked capable of adding to their lead and a drive from Will Hughes whistled over.
Derby popped the ball about confidently at the start of the second half and Dawkins hit two shots from distance straight at Smithies before a clever move involving Hughes and Martin almost opened up Huddersfield.
There is real belief about Derby’s play but Huddersfield provided a reminder that they were still in the game on the hour.
Paul Dixon received possession wide on the left and curled in a quality, teasing centre.
Grant could only push the ball out to substitute Duane Holmes who lifted his effort over from 12 yards.
A let off for the Rams and the chance probably arrived early for Holmes, who had been on the pitch for only a couple of minutes.
Keane connected with a Bryson free kick to find the net and spark wild celebrations among the Derby fans, but his and their joy was cut short by a flag for offside – and the escape sparked a spell of Huddersfield pressure.
Danny Ward was denied by Bryson’s timely block. Oliver Norwood curled a shot inches wide, and Hammill’s stinging drive was parried by Grant.
It was time for Derby to dig deep.
Kalifa Cisse was sent on for Hughes, who was troubled by a niggling groin problem, but back came the home side.
Ward’s effort was blocked after Holmes’ clever footwork created the chance and Norwood’s strike was kept out by Grant.
But Grant was beaten after 86 minutes.
Holmes’ flick found Paterson whose volley looped high across the goalkeeper’s dive to draw Huddersfield level and the Terriers, now snapping away, sniffed a possible win in the dying minutes.
Keane made an important challenge to deny Paterson. Lynch headed over from a corner and Ward saw his drive tipped over by Grant deep in added time.
No eighth consecutive victory for the first time since 1969 but still a very good point on the road.