Flying start to 2013 means it's certainly happy new year for victorious Rams
IF THIS is a taste of things to come in 2013, Derby County fans could be in for a treat.
Only a couple of blips result-wise against Burnley and Hull City have spoiled Derby's eye-catching home form this season.
They have dispatched the likes of Watford, Blackpool, Birmingham City and Leeds United at Pride Park Stadium but this latest high-energy display was up there with the best so far on their own patch.
Middlesbrough arrived occupying third place in the Championship and they have genuine hopes of being involved in the promotion shake-up.
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Their away form is not the best and they will point to injuries but take nothing away from Derby, who started the New Year in impressive fashion.
The 3-1 victory was richly deserved and Middlesbrough had no answer, nor can they have any complaint.
They were beaten – and well beaten.
Now 10th and three points outside the play-off places, Derby's young side – average age under 24 yesterday – are capable of going toe-to-toe with any side in the division when they play at a high tempo.
And they did against Middlesbrough.
First-half goals from Michael Jacobs and Jeff Hendrick put the Rams in control before Conor Sammon added the third just after the hour. Middlesbrough's goal came in stoppage time ,by which time the outcome had already been determined.
Derby made four changes to the team that drew at Charlton Athletic.
In came Mark O'Brien, Kieron Freeman, Jacobs and Sammon. Out went James O'Connor, Nathan Tyson, Theo Robinson and Gareth Roberts, who has a calf strain.
Roberts' absence at left-back handed Freeman his first start in a Rams shirt, while Jacobs partnered Sammon up front as Tyson and Robinson, who both had chances at Charlton, dropped to the bench.
Injuries kept out Craig Bryson (knee) and Jamie Ward (hamstring), not to mention Jake Buxton and long-term absentee Shaun Barker. Middlesbrough had their injuries. Defenders Justin Hoyte, Seb Hines, Andre Bikey and George Friend are all sidelined.
Freeman and Jacobs made confident starts. Freeman pinged an accurate diagonal ball onto the head of Richard Keogh as pressure was maintained following a Ben Davies free kick and then Jacobs whipped in an excellent centre from the right but none of his team-mates were able to get on the end of it.
Davies kept his place in the side and made only his first start at home since April. One of the qualities he offers is his ability to deliver set-pieces and Derby took the lead from one in the 19th minute.
Paul Coutts won a free kick wide on the right. Davies curled the ball in and Jacobs found a surprising amount of space in a central position 10 yards from goal. He met the ball and swept a fine first-time shot low past Jason Steele.
Derby are at their best when they get a team's throats from the off and Jacobs buzzed across the frontline to good effect, although his next moment of note was less impressive.
Hughes tidied up with his typical composure in the middle of the pitch and picked out Jacobs, who gave the ball away in trying a clever, unnecessary flick. Manager Nigel Clough and coach Andy Garner made their feelings known from the technical area but the Rams had an air of determination and confidence about them.
They pressed the visitors, whose defensive problems increased when the experienced Jonathan Woodgate, playing his fourth game in 11 days, was replaced eight minutes before half-time.
Conceding free kicks, as Middlesbrough did, was not wise with Davies in confident mood and he twice went close.
His first effort from 25 yards dipped narrowly over but that was just a sighter. His next, from an identical position beat Steele's dive and crashed against the bar.
In between, Derby doubled their lead with three minutes of the half remaining.
Their persistence kept the ball in the final third and when Middlesbrough cleared only to the edge of the area, Hendrick moved on to the loose ball, chested it down and thumped a volley high past Steele and into the top corner.
Next to nothing was seen of Middlesbrough in the opening 45 minutes, leaving Adam Legzdins relatively untroubled.
Their best moments came when Stuart Parnaby sent a drive fizzing over from 16 yards, before Scott McDonald's header was easily gathered by Legzdins.
Much is made of two-goal leads and how delicate they can be and Derby squandered a great chance to go three up only three minutes into the second half.
Coutts split Middlesbrough's square defence with a pass and Sammon was clear. The striker's shot was blocked by Steele and the ball looped up for Sammon to have another go but his header was cleared off the line by Nicky Bailey.
The stand-in right-back did well but being wasteful with such chances can prove costly, as Derby discovered at Charlton, when they had enough good opportunities to take three points rather than one.
Middlesbrough found some more urgency and Legzdins twice commanded his six-yard box. He pushed one cross out before he collected the ball and then came to catch another centre under significant pressure. When a goalkeeper does that it takes the pressure off the defence.
But just as the visitors sensed there might be something in the game for them, Derby struck again after 65 minutes.
The goal owed much to the sheer class of Hughes.
The 17-year-old showed wonderful footwork and vision in what was a congested, tight space in the area. He spotted Jacobs, whose low drive was parried by Steele and Sammon was on to the loose ball in a flash to smash his finish high into the net.
Substitute Ishmael Miller stung the palms of Legzdins as Middlesbrough looked for a way back but there was none for them and Jacobs' lively performance was recognised by supporters who gave him a good hand when he was replaced by Tyson.
Hendrick impressed again and the midfielder has come back strongly from his struggle for form earlier this season.
Freeman, a right-back by trade, had a good game on the left side of the back four and Coutts was a driving force.
Twice he tried his luck from distance. His first shot was parried by Steele, his second flew narrowly wide.
With the points in the bag, Derby handed young full-back Michael Hoganson his debut. The 19-year-old slotted in on the left side of midfield ahead of 20-year-old Freeman, highlighting the youthfulness of the squad.
Victory was Derby's and it was just a pity the win was not accompanied by a clean sheet.
Two minutes into timed added on, Lukas Jutkiewicz turned in Miller's centre from close range to give Middlesbrough no more than a consolation.