Derby County regain their drive and energy as they defeat Huddersfield Town
FROM the outside looking in, this was a run-of-the-mill victory and another League win at Pride Park for Derby County, who can boast one of the best home records in the Championship.
But it was much more than that.
The importance of the victory over Huddersfield Town and the three points should not be underplayed.
Question marks hung over the Rams following a surprisingly flat showing against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup.
The poor performance came on the back of the team's most barren run of results this season – one win in six League fixtures and only five points from 18.
They had slipped into the bottom half of the table and form had deserted a handful of the key players.
Manager Nigel Clough admitted that half the side were not firing on all cylinders.
So there was concern over what is a young team and a small squad.
Could they regain the drive and energy that had been such a glowing feature of the first half of the season?
Could they climb back into the top half and among the pack of clubs assembled just below the top six?
The answer was pretty emphatic.
The 3-0 victory was as comfortable as wins come in this fiercely-competitive division.
Derby built a two-goal lead by half-time through Craig Bryson and Jamie Ward.
The third goal of a contest is often crucial and this also went to the Rams as Richard Keogh headed in a Ward free kick.
The points were safely tucked in the bag and Huddersfield, under caretaker manager Mark Lillis, could have no complaints.
They were looking for their first win on Derby soil in 56 years since Denis Law scored twice in a 4-2 win in November 1957 and hoped to build on a battling win against Crystal Palace a few days earlier.
But there was never really a suggestion it would happen.
Adam Legzdins barely had a save of note to make and Derby have now won 17 of the last 19 home games against the Terriers.
Derby are at their best when they start quickly and the tempo was good from the beginning.
The Rams had been second best in the middle of the pitch against Blackburn, when the experienced Danny Murphy was allowed to dictate matters, but Derby's midfielders were determined there would be no repeat.
Jeff Hendrick, impressive and strong again, Will Hughes, Paul Coutts and Bryson snapped around the Huddersfield players. Hughes and Coutts put their recent off-days behind them.
Ahead of the midfield, Ward and Conor Sammon unsettled the visitors' uncertain defence. They took their markers into areas they did not enjoy, areas that found them wanting when it came to pace.
Ward was lively and a menace throughout, while Sammon rampaged and won a number of headers, which has not always been the case in previous games.
The two of them impressed as individuals and as a partnership because Ward held a position closer to Sammon rather than roaming too much, as he did in the first half against Blackburn.
Ward tested Alex Smithies with a 20-yard effort in the third minute and the goalkeeper tipped over a dipping free kick from the same player shortly afterwards.
Ward's link-up with Sammon finished with shots narrowly off target from the latter and Bryson before the Scot gave Derby the lead after 24 minutes.
The combination of Paul Coutts and John Brayford on the right had misfired of late but it clicked back into gear. The two exchanged passes and Coutts delivered a teasing low centre across the six-yard box from where Bryson's first-time finish gave Smithies no chance.
Sammon continued to give Huddersfield's central defenders a torrid time and his neat control in a tight situation played a part in Derby's second goal after 33 minutes.
He worked the ball out to Gareth Roberts and the left-back centred to Ward who displayed balance and technique to dispatch his left-foot volley from 10 yards back across Smithies and into the top corner.
Ward now has seven goals in 13 appearances this season.
Derby's third goal arrived just before the hour when Ward curled in a free kick and Keogh met little resistance as he rose to head down and wide of Smithies from eight yards.
Only Leicester City and Crystal Palace have scored more goals at home in the Championship than Derby's 33 and the Rams went in search of more against a Huddersfield side that have now conceded 13 in their last three away games and won only one of their last 14 matches.
Sammon and Hendrick both deserved a goal for their efforts but Smithies denied Sammon and then Hendrick drilled a shot narrowly wide.
Derby recorded only their second clean sheet in 14 League games to complete a fine afternoon's work.
Much of this was down to Mark O'Brien, who was dominant in the air, and Keogh was not far behind him.
Huddersfield's best moments saw James Vaughan turn the ball on to a post, although the flag was up for offside, and an acrobatic volley from the striker flashed wide. Substitute Alan Lee scooped the ball over from close range deep in time added on.
Derby will face sterner tests than Huddersfield could muster but returning to winning ways was important, whoever the opposition, and Derby did that with something to spare.