DERBY County picked up their first league win in a month as an impressive display against Pride Park visitors Huddersfield Town earned them all three points on Saturday.
The Rams have found consistency hard to come by in recent months and had not tasted victory in the Championship since despatching Middlesbrough on New Year’s Day.
However, there was no sign of that against the Yorkshire Terriers, and a deserved victory came courtesy of goals from Craig Bryson, Jamie Ward and Richard Keogh.
The match statistics of Derby’s 21 shots to their opponents’ nine does not flatter the hosts, who dominated throughout and constantly looked to test a nervous Huddersfield defence.
However, as good as the forward play was, it would have been all for naught without an exceptional defensive display, led by Keogh and the imperious Mark O’Brien, who are developing into a nice partnership that could one day grace the international stage.
Clough kept faith with the team heavily beaten in the FA Cup last weekend, and well he might, as that 3-0 reverse to Blackburn Rovers did not reflect a match that was even for large periods.
Ward played up front alongside Sammon and, unlike in the cup loss, stayed there for most of the game, rather than drifting left, and that was a decisive factor in his side’s victory.
In the third minute, Will Hughes was fouled just outside the area, and though the Rams were keen to play on, with Sammon in a good position for a shot, the referee called play back for a free-kick.
And that proved a good decision as Ward whipped the ball over the wall with pace, and highly-rated young keeper Alex Smithies needed to hurl himself to his right to keep it out.
A great ball from Adam Clayton then released former Rams loanee James Vaughan but with better options on, he tried the spectacular and saw his shot fly wide.
In a lively opening, Paul Coutts’ ball in then fell to Jeff Hendrick, but his long-range header was saved.
The Terriers were always a threat though, and Oliver Norwood’s free-kick had Adam Legzdins scrambling to his left to make sure it went wide.
Neat interplay between John Brayford and Will Hughes – both of whom Derby fans will be pleased to have seen remain at the club in the January transfer window – led to the latter crossing for Ward, but his uncomfortable header fell wide.
The best chance so far came in the 19th minute, as a great first-time pass from Hendrick found the run of Ward, who flicked the ball into the path of Sammon, and his strike partner took it on before curling a great shot just wide.
A similar move saw Ward and Sammon again exchange passes, with the latter laying the ball off to Bryson, but his thunderous effort from 25 yards followed a similar trajectory to Sammon’s minutes earlier.
Bryson was much more deadly from closer range in the 24th minute though, as Paul Coutts sent a lovely ball in from the right and Bryson was in the right place in the box for a simple tap-in.
Clayton then twisted and turned before firing in a decent effort high over the bar, and then Sammon got into the area but could not get a shot away as Huddersfield skipper Peter Clarke got back to block.
There was then a goalmouth scramble following a corner, and although no Derby player could turn the ball home, they did double their lead a minute later.
Sammon did well to chase down and then win the ball by the corner flag, and fed Gareth Roberts, whose cross was missed by Sammon but not by Ward, who smashed a determined volley past Smithies.
Brayford then had two chances to make it 3-0, but after his first was blocked, his second flew high and wide.
Derby had been the dominant side throughout the first half, winning the majority of headers and 50-50s, and they were growing in confidence with every minute, launching attack after attack on the Huddersfield goal.
At the other end, their defending was resolute, epitomised by successive blocks by O’Brien, who threw his body in the way of two shots.
Just before the break though, the Terriers relieved some pressure with a corner that Derby failed to deal with, but Clarke’s tame header was saved by Legzdins.
It took the Rams a while to get back into their stride after half-time, but 10 minutes in, Sammon set up Coutts, and his powerful strike cleared the bar.
Two minutes later, Huddersfield went close when a ball in from the left was dinked onto the post by Vaughan, although the striker had already been flagged offside.
In the 59th minute though, Derby put the game to bed.
While the first two goals had come through good periods of passing football, the third was a simple set-piece routine, Ward’s free-kick from wide on the right curled into the mixer, and Keogh rising highest to head home.
Neat footwork from Hendrick then fed Ward, who powered into the penalty area but saw his shot blocked.
Sammon did very well to hold off his marker and work his way into the box, and with options on, made the right decision in taking the chance himself, as his shot forced a diving save from Smithies.
Inside the last 10 minutes, the Rams still pressed, and good play between Ward, Sammon and Coutts set up Hendrick to strike wide from distance.
All the home players were looking to get on the scoresheet now, with left-back Roberts – shortly after being knocked to the ground by a pass from one of his team-mates – tried a shot that flew over the crossbar.
It had been a long time since Derby had kept a clean sheet in the Championship, and they almost had it snatched away from them at the death as they gave the ball away with a rare piece of sloppy play, but neither Sean Scannell nor Clayton could capitalise.
Had the Rams conceded then, it would have been harsh after a display that sees them into the top half of the table, six points off the play-offs.