Derby County striker Conor Sammon on target as Rams earn deserved point against leaders Cardiff City
UNDER-FIRE striker Conor Sammon looked to have given Derby County victory against Cardiff City only for the Rams to be cruelly denied by the Championship leaders late on.
Sammon silenced some of his critics when he struck after 75 minutes – his first goal in two months – and a shock result was on the cards at the Cardiff City Stadium.
But Cardiff substitute Craig Noone was allowed to head the home side level eight minutes from time in last night's 1-1 draw.
Conceding in the closing stages coupled with the manner of the equaliser – goalkeeper Adam Legzdins misjudged the cross – was bitterly disappointing but should not overshadow a remarkable display by the Rams.
Depleted by injuries, they showed terrific spirit and never allowed Cardiff to settle.
Cardiff boast the best home record in the division. They have won 13 of 17 matches on their own soil but they have not and will not face many tougher tests than the one Derby supplied.
The Welsh capital has not been a happy hunting ground for the Rams. They had lost on their previous four visits and shipped 16 goals in the process but those painful memories were forgotten.
The odds were stacked against Nigel Clough's team but the players gave their all and were unlucky not to come away with three points.
Derby were without eight players through injury for this venture into South Wales and their small squad was stretched to breaking point.
Already missing top scorer Jamie Ward (hamstring), midfielder Will Hughes (groin), James O'Connor (knee), Mark O'Brien (knee), Kieron Freeman (ankle) and Shaun Barker (knee), the Rams were dealt two more huge injury blows going into the game as John Brayford (hamstring) and Craig Bryson (groin) both missed out.
Brayford had played every minute of all 38 fixtures this season and his absence leaves skipper Richard Keogh as the only ever-present in the side.
Valentin Gjokaj filled in at right-back in what was his first senior start and only his second appearance following a brief stint as a substitute in the opening game of the season against Sheffield Wednesday.
Ben Davies came in on the right side of a four-man midfield, Paul Coutts switched to the middle and new loan signing Craig Forysth made his debut on the left of midfield.
All the injuries meant Derby could name only five substitutes.
Clough would probably have added another couple of Academy youngsters to the squad but the Under-18s are preparing for their FA Youth Cup quarter-final tie against Chelsea on Friday night.
There was no Craig Bellamy for Cardiff but former Rams forward Tommy Smith was in their side and his break almost brought the home side a goal inside five minutes. His low centre just evaded team-mate Fraizer Campbell.
But Derby made a positive start themselves. Coutts went close with a volley from 20 yards before Forsyth cut inside and drilled a shot wide.
Gjokaj, beaten easily by Matthew Conway, brought down the Cardiff man and was booked after 13 minutes, not what a defender needs so early in what was already a big test for the 19-year-old. However, he stuck to his task and he can be pleased with how he played.
Aron Gunnarsson received a yellow for tripping Jeff Hendrick. The home fans did not agree but the midfielder stopped a promising Rams attack and then referee Darren Deadman waved away claims for a penalty. Derby felt Hendrick's shot struck Ben Turner's arm when the defender threw himself in front of the ball.
The first groans of frustration, bordering on concern, were heard from Cardiff fans because Derby had more than matched their high-riding opponents.
Those concerns increased for a second or two when Chris Martin swept an excellent finish past Marshall following a storming run from Hendrick but Derby's joy was short-lived due to a flag for offside against Martin. It looked a tight decision.
White shirts, bursting with determination and good football, seemed to outnumber the red shirts of Cardiff and Marshall dropped to his right to turn another shot from Coutts behind.
Derby's character has never been in question this season. They have dug deep throughout, and their display in the first half given all the circumstances was right up there with the best in the past seven months.
Their desire and snap had Cardiff huffing and puffing, and struggling to find any rhythm although Smith served a reminder of the Bluebirds' threat shortly before the break when he whipped over a centre and Gjokaj did just enough to put off Heidar Helguson at the back post.
Cardiff's Marshall was the busier goalkeeper in the first half. Legzdins did not make a save but the underlying worry was that Derby did not find a goal for all their good play.
A shortage of pace at the heart of Cardiff's back four continued to offer hope to the Rams, particularly Sammon, who is a willing runner.
One of Cardiff's weapons is the long throw of Gunnarsson. With towels strategically placed, he was able to dry the ball and hurl it in.
From one his throws, the ball came off the head of Keogh at full stretch and dropped menacingly towards goal until Derby somehow cleared, possibly through Buxton in a crowd scene.
Derby went close moments later when Davies curled on a free kick and Keogh, straining to make up the ground, was inches away from making contact much to the relief of Marshall in the home goal.
The game could not have been more evenly balanced at this stage.
Cardiff, their play still disjointed, started to spend more time in the Derby half and the Rams were thankful to centre backs Keogh and Jake Buxton, who made crucial blocks from Peter Whittingham and Campbell.
Both sides made changes just after the hour. Michael Jacobs replaced Forsyth, who put in a workmanlike performance, although he seemed to fade after the break, probably down to match fitness.
Noone, a tricky wide player, was on for Cardiff but Derby made the breakthrough after 75 minutes.
Davies, down the right, centred low and when the ball was only half cleared, Sammon pounced to finish first time low across Marshall from 10 yards.
His eighth goal of the season was his first away from Pride Park and his first in an away game in more than two years since he scored for Kilmarnock at Hamilton in January 2011.
It was an accomplished finish for a player without a goal in his previous 10 games because he could easily have snatched at the chance.
Could Cardiff respond? They did seven minutes later through Noone.
Legzdins came and seemed to misread the flight of Andrew Taylor's high centre and Noone headed into an unguarded net.
Tails up, the home side went after a winner.
Rudy Gestede, falling backwards, volleyed over and Taylor's fierce drive was deflected narrowly wide.
But Derby held on – and fully deserved to.