Jamie Ward's late header earns Derby County a point in 1-1 draw with Bolton Wanderers
TOP scorer Jamie Ward took his goal tally to double figures for the season with a late leveller as Derby County battled out a 1-1 draw against Bolton Wanderers.
They looked to be heading for defeat until Ward popped up to head home nine minutes from the end of normal time in the Championship clash at Pride Park.
It was the striker's 10th goal in 17 appearances – an impressive return – and it rescued a deserved point in what was the Rams' third draw in four matches.
Bolton, finding the second tier a test following relegation, went ahead on the stroke of half-time when a free kick seemed to skim off the head of Rams skipper Richard Keogh and the ball flashed into the net.
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Fluency was missing from much of Derby's play but there is character in the side, as a run of only one defeat in six League outings shows.
And no-one typifies that character, that spirit, better than John Brayford.
Even from centre-back, he drove the side on with his determination not to be beaten.
Brayford, normally at right-back, partnered Keogh at the heart of the back four again because of injuries which are biting deep into the squad.
A groin strain ruled out midfielder Will Hughes. The 17-year-old had featured in every game this season and had started all but one.
His absence saw Michael Jacobs come in on the left of a four-man midfield and Craig Bryson moved to his preferred position in central midfield.
Nineteen-year-old Michael Hoganson continued at left-back for the suspended Gareth Roberts and there was a first appearance on the bench for the first team for Jamie Hanson, who is 17.
Hanson is another product of the Academy, a first-year scholar, and can play in defence or in midfield. Derby's 18 included eight players aged 21 or under.
By contrast, 10 of Bolton's starting 11 have Premier League experience.
It was Jacobs' first League start since the victory over Middlesbrough on New Year's Day and the winger set up an early chance. A positive run and low centre found Ward in space but the striker's shot on the turn was blocked.
Bolton goalkeeper Adam Bogdan made an edgy start but the first save of note was made by the Rams' number one Adam Legzdins, who dropped to his right to gather David Ngog's low shot.
The visitors were content to let Derby's back four have the ball and concentrated on making it difficult for them to play through midfield, especially without Hughes.
Jeff Hendrick tried to make himself available and Jacobs flickered on the left but Coutts had an opening 20 minutes he will want to forget.
The right side has been a source of much of the team's attacking play this season. Without the Brayford and Coutts combination, it suffers.
Another injury to a defender was the last thing Derby needed and when Kieron Freeman went off just before the half-hour mark, he was replaced by midfielder Ben Davies, who filled in at right-back, admirably so.
Defensive resources are now at breaking point with Shaun Barker, Jake Buxton, Mark O'Brien, James O'Connor and Roberts already out.
The blow did not prevent Derby fashioning two chances in as many minutes.
Bryson, having ghosted into the box, headed narrowly wide from Hendrick's centre and when Bolton failed to clear a cross from Hoganson, Coutts volleyed off target as he was closed down quickly.
Derby wanted a penalty when they felt Coutts was caught by a defender as he shot and their mood was not helped when a foul was given against Conor Sammon in a tangle with Zat Knight.
Ward's strike was deflected over but the Rams were never able to build a head of steam in the first period because they squandered possession in Bolton's half too often and fell short when it came to end product in the final third.
Not that Bolton had threatened much.
However, the visitors went into added time at the end of the half.
Hendrick tripped Sam Ricketts, Jay Spearing curled in a free kick and although Craig Dawson wheeled away in celebration, the ball appeared to glance off the head of Keogh.
Derby continued to make unforced errors early in the second half and the groans from the crowd grew louder.
Ngog's volley flashed high and wide and the Rams had to dig deep and find some composure on the ball. Frustration is understandable but conceding daft free kicks does not help matters and there was no excuse for some of the sloppy passing by both teams.
Derby needed something to lift them and Coutts almost provided it when he drove a low shot through a forest of legs in the area and Bogdan made a fine save low down to his left.
But Derby plugged away.
Coutts' drive was pushed clear by Bogdan, Jacobs follow-up was brilliantly blocked by Ricketts before Sammon turned smartly in the box and his shot fizzed agonisingly beyond the far post.
Theo Robinson was introduced for Coutts and if a goal was needed from the joint top scorer, it was now.
But it came from another player who was on nine goals, Ward
There appeared to be little danger to Bolton when Jacobs curled in a centre from the left. Ricketts obviously thought the same but Ward had other ideas. He nipped in front of the defender and guided his header from six yards wide of a surprised Bogdan.
The close-range finish belied the way Ward controlled his header from an angle.
Bolton, who had dropped deeper as the second half unfolded, now had it all on to keep Derby at bay.
The Rams somehow survived a scramble in their area before they went in search of a winner.
Bogdan stuck up a arm to stop Robinson's powerful header and Keogh was not far away from turning in a Ben Davies free kick at the back post.
There was also a late surge from Bolton and in the end each side had to settle for a point.