Derby County should go up this season - and Sheffield Wednesday will be mightily relieved if they do.
Derby are now unbeaten in their last 14 meetings with the Owls in all competitions, winning nine of the matches. You have to go back to April 2006 for the last time the Owls tasted victory over the Rams.
Following an entertaining five-goal thriller at the iPro Stadium, Wednesday head coach Stuart Gray said he expects Derby to gain promotion, and it’s hard to disagree with him.
The Owls gave the promotion-chasing Rams a real scare by twice taking the lead with their only shots on target.
But Derby’s strength in depth and extra class in the final third ultimately told as the Owls suffered a third successive away defeat. If you score twice away from home, you should not lose.
However, as Rams boss Steve McClaren pointed out post-match, Wednesday were worn down by the hosts’ “constant pressure and the tempo”.
Gray said: “Derby will definitely go up with the quality they have got and the quality they are putting on from the bench.
“They have Darren Bent who has a habit of putting the ball in the net and have recently signed Tom Ince so they have some quality players.
“They are a good side and move the ball well from side to side.”
A trademark 20th-minute free-kick by Lewis McGugan ensured the Owls led at half-time. Ince struck the post from an acute angle and saw his long-range free-kick brilliantly tipped over the top by Keiren Westwood as Derby struggled to break down Wednesday’s well-organised defence.
But Gray’s men uncharacteristically conceded three cheap goals from set-plays after the break. They never forced a corner themselves and were twice caught out by Jake Buxton from dead-ball deliveries before Bent swept home a penalty to claim his seventh goal in eight matches since arriving on loan from Aston Villa. Bent’s spot-kick came after Westwood had been sent off for tripping Ince in the area.
“We have defended well all season but we didn’t defend well enough at Derby,” said Gray, who’s team had leaked only one goal from a corner prior to Saturday’s clash. “All of their goals came from set-plays.
“It’s hugely disappointing on the back of the performance, the effort and commitment we put in. We thoroughly deserved something out of the game.
“I asked for a response after the Ipswich game and I totally got a response but we’ve got nothing to show for it.
“Derby put us under far too much pressure and we gave too many free-kicks and corners away. The law of averages says that if you get the delivery right, you will get in and unfortunately they got in twice.”
Gray questioned whether Westwood should have been dismissed, claiming the decision was a “bit harsh”. But the truth is Derby were in complete control by that stage, with substitutes Jesse Lingard and Craig Bryson giving them extra pace and penetration.
“I thought it was similar to the Wayne Rooney one the other night at Preston,” said Gray.
“The referee has a decision to make and I think we’ve been punished twice.
“Whether it’s a penalty or not, Kamil Zayatte was back to cover so I thought it was a yellow card if he was going to be punished.
“The red card was a bit harsh. I thought we deserved something from the game.”
Ten minutes before kick-off, Wednesday’s preparations were dealt a big blow when Sergiu Bus picked up a groin injury during the warm-up and the Romanian striker was forced to pull out of the fixture. Bus, who is unlikely to feature in tomorrow’s tussle at Millwall, was replaced by Atdhe Nuhiu.
“It’s groin problem and it looks as though he will be ruled out for Tuesday,” said Gray.“It’s very frustrating for the boy but I thought Atdhe Nuhiu came in and did well. He caused Jake Buxton and Richard Keogh problems and it was a good battle up there.
“We are not getting the rub of the green at the moment.”
Despite Bus’s late withdrawal, Wednesday’s game-plan worked well in the first period. McGugan’s strike, his first in Owls colours, came against the run of play but they frustrated Derby by defending effectively in numbers and allowing them little time and space out wide. They made the Rams, who have a far superior playing budget, look very ordinary.
Sam Hutchinson and Kieran Lee superbly closed down Derby’s much-vaunted midfield, forcing mistakes out of talented players such as Will Hughes and George Thorne. They manfully protected Wednesday’s back four and McGugan enjoyed playing in the number 10 role. The tactical change allowed the Nottingham-born star to bomb forward and support Nuhiu.
Wednesday refused to panic, even after Buxton’s 47th minute leveller, and regained the lead through Keane, who rifled a right foot shot past former Wednesday shot-stopper Lee Grant following a defensive mix-up.
For much of the contest, Keane was deployed on the left flank and the Manchester United loanee produced a disciplined performance and tried to help Jeremy Helan keep Cyrus Christie and the dangerous Ince at bay.
He said: “Will can manipulate the ball. He read the situation well and it was a great finish for the second goal. It gave us a lift but it didn’t stop us from keeping the ball out of the net from two corners which is very disappointing.
“We didn’t think Will would be appearing this time last week because he got a knee problem.
“Goals will give Will confidence. He’s got football intelligence whether I ask him to wide left or wide right and his ball retention is very good.”
Ultimately, Wednesday paid the price for switching off from set-pieces. Tom Lees, one of the Owls’ stand-out performers during the 2014/15 campaign, lost Buxton for both of Buxton’s goals and McGugan, inexplicably, left his post for the second equaliser.
Buxton has now scored four times in Wednesday’s last three trips to the iPro Stadium.
Ince curled a shot narrowly wide before Bent’s winner. Things could have got even worse for Wednesday in the closing stages if Lingard, Ince and Bryson had been more ruthless.
Gray said: “It’s a hugely disappointing result. We got our noses in front twice. We had something to hang on to but unfortunately we didn’t defend our box well enough.
“We can take positives out of Derby. I was hugely disappointed with the Ipswich performance but I can only pat the players on the back after the Derby display. They gave absolutely everything. The fans could see the effort and commitment. Players put their bodies on the line.”
Derby: Grant 6; Christie 6, Keogh 6, Buxton 7, Forsyth 6; Thorne 6 (Lingard 62**, 7), Hendrick 6, Hughes 6; Ince 7, Dawkins 6 (Bryson 62*, 6), Bent 7. Substitutes: Roos, Ward, Thomas, Shotton, Mascarell.
Wednesday: Westwood 6; Palmer 6, Lees 6, Zayatte 6, Helan 6; Lee 7, McGugan 6, Hutchinson 6 (Kirkland 76***), Maghoma 6 (Maguire 62* 6); Keane 7 (Mattock 72**); Nuhiu 6. Substitutes: Vermijl, Dielna, Melo, May.
Manager’s view - Steve McClaren: “We said to the players at half-time that this could be a very big three points if we come back and I think in the end we wore Wednesday down with constant pressure and the tempo of our football. Wednesday were very hard to break down but we kept going and showed so much character.”
Manager’s view - Stuart Gray: “We have been doing very well in our own box so to concede three goals from set-plays was very disappointing. We can take huge positives from the way we played and I can remind the lads about that performance and how close and far we pushed them.”
Hero: Will Keane played out of position on the left flank and admirably stuck to his task. He deserved his second goal in six starts since joining Wednesday. Kieran Lee also put a great shift in in the middle of the park.
Key moment: Jake Buxton’s first goal just after the restart. That gave Derby momentum and dented Wednesday’s confidence. It was a soft goal to give away and Gray’s men looked vulnerable at corners from that moment onwards.
Viewpoint: Yet another missed opportunity. Wednesday created little but, for a change, were clinical. Unfortunately, they struggled to keep Derby’s attacking talent quiet. That’s seven matches without a win, putting extra pressure on tomorrow’s trip to relegation-threatened Millwall.
Ref watch: Darren Bond. The Lancashire official incensed the home fans with some of his decision-making in the first half. Booked four players in total and got the penalty decision right, although Gray argued it was “harsh” to send off Westwood.