Derby County 1, Nottingham Forest 1
DERBY County extended their unbetaen run against their bitterest rivals to four games, but were unable to complete a second successive double over Nottingham Forest as the 91st East Midlands derby ended in a stalemate.
Chris Cohen’s opportunistic first-half strike was cancelled out by a neat finish from the returning Jamie Ward, to leave all members of the capacity Pride Park crowd with something to brag about.
This was hardly a classic in the mould of recent derbies, and the visiting fans will perhaps feel they deserved more after a final 10 minutes in which only desperate defending prevented them heading back down the A52 with all three points for the second time in three seasons.
Meanwhile, Nigel Clough’s side will hope the return of Ward and fellow injury victim Craig Bryson - who both had good games - will help them for their push for the play-offs in the second half of the season.
It is hard to draw too many conclusions from derby games such as this, as tensions and passions run high - although this was the first tie in five that did not produce a red card - but the hosts can be proud of the way they matched their wealthy and more experienced opponents, especially in the opening half an hour.
Clough made two changes to the side beaten at Brighton & Hove Albion, as Bryson and Ward returned to replace Kieron Freeman and Ben Davies, who dropped to the bench.
Unusually for this fixture, there were no players facing their former club in either starting XI, although Freeman has done a comprehensive tour of the East Midlands despite being only 20, having played for Forest as well as Notts County and Mansfield Town.
The first whistle was like a starting gun for the Rams, and almost immediately, Paul Coutts chased down a loose ball and fed the overlapping John Brayford.
The former Burton Albion full-back sprinted to the byline and cut the ball back to Conor Sammon, whose shot was blocked by Danny Collins.
From the corner, Richard Keogh’s header was saved by Karl Darlow, before Ward burst down the left and set up Jeff Hendrick, and then Bryson fired just wide from distance.
That was all inside the first five minutes, and Forest looked shell-shocked.
In the seventh minute, Bryson won a free-kick on the edge of the area that Ward smashed through the wall but wide.
Forest’s nerves finally settled enough to create their first chance, as Billy Sharp did well to hold the ball up and feed strike partner Simon Cox, and his shot on the turn rattled the crossbar.
Derby’s best opportunity of the opening half an hour came when nice interplay between Coutts and Sammon saw the former smash a shot wide.
Forest were ahead in the next minute though as the Rams failed to deal with a break down their left, and when Sharp’s ball was delivered into the area, Keogh headed out only as far as Cohen.
His first shot was mishit, but when the ball came back to him, he made no mistake, striking the ball into the corner of Adam Legzdins’ goal.
Brayford came close to levelling the scores as, after a typically surging run down the right wing, his shot rippled the wrong side of the Forest net.
Just before the break, Cox could have made it 2-0, but after nicking inside Brayford, his shot deflected into Legzdins’ warm embrace.
Three minutes into the second period, Ward’s low shot was saved by Darlow, before Sharp burst through one-on-one to the edge of the Derby area, but Legzdins made sure he went no further.
And the importance of that save was hammered home a minute later as the Rams levelled.
Sammon did well to win the ball inside the Forest half, and strode forward before slipping the ball to Ward who, with two opposition defenders closing, hit a first-time shot past Darlow.
A capacity crowd were in full voice now, and they were almost cranked up to 11 a minute later when Hendrick sliced through midfield and saw his thunderous drive tipped over by the Reds keeper, before Mark O’Brien headed over the resultant corner.
The chances dried up somewhat after hat, although the introduction of Derby’s ball of energy Theo Robinson injected some urgency.
For their part, Forest were always a threat, especially through pocket dynamo Cox, who whipped a dangerous low cross into the Rams box that just missed both Sharp and Madejski.
Eight minutes from time, Forest upped their game, and only some desperate defending from Derby prevented them conceding.
Brayford was at the heart of this, twice throwing his body into the line of fire as his team-mates failed to clear the danger.
Sharp then missed his side’s best chance of the second period as he turned Richard Keogh 20 yards out but saw his shot flash wide of the goal.
There was always a good chance that an untimely error or a moment of brilliance would win this game, and Will Hughes almost conjured up the latter with a dipping shot from 35 yards out that cleared the crossbar.
In the final minute, Keogh made a last-gasp challenge to deny Sharp a shooting opportunity.