WITH ONE striker sent off and one possibly getting his send-off, Derby brought another off the bench to grab an unlikely but richly deserved victory in as eventful a match as Pride Park has seen. A record crowd at the new stadium saw Jonathan Hunt come on in the 83rd minute and, with his first meaningful touch, steer the ball past Mark Schwarzer to claim the three points that Derby had earned with their excellent football in the first half and their grim determination in the second.
Derby had to overcome the handicap of having Paulo Wanchope dismissed two minutes before half-time when he reacted angrily to a nasty challenge from Andy Townsend. The Derby assistant manager, Steve McLaren, standing in for the flu-hit Jim Smith, had no complaints about his player going after he raised his fists, but it looked as though Townsend was lucky to escape with a booking after instigating the flare-up.
In the 43 minutes he was on the field, Wanchope and Dean Sturridge, playing what could be his last match for the club amid mounting transfer speculation, recaptured the flair and mutual understanding that had made them such a menace last season but which have been seen too rarely this.
Derby had already driven a jaded Middlesbrough close to distraction with their touch and pace before they fashioned the opening goal after 29 minutes. Paul Gascoigne, who had set up the first chance of the match missed by Hamilton Ricard but almost turned into his own net by Spencer Prior, was at fault. He dallied in midfield and underhit his pass to Townsend, allowing Wanchope to break clear and put a precise ball into the stride of Sturridge, who chipped it over the advancing Schwarzer and into the net.
The Middlesbrough manager, Bryan Robson, fearing that his midfield was being overrun, took off Gascoigne and Phil Stamp before half-time, despite the former's obvious eagerness to make amends with two shimmying runs that brought shots on goal.
Robson later revealed that Gascoigne was less than fully fit with a knee problem but, as Middlesbrough's most creative player by far, they sorely missed him as they laboured to break down a depleted Derby in the second half. They finally succeeded when Dean Gordon got free on the left and picked out Mikkel Beck who, completely unmarked, was left to head home.
After that, it seemed just a matter of time before Derby cracked again. Instead, with six minutes remaining, Sturridge, now fully restored to hero status even if his future remains unresolved, got in a good cross from the right, Darryl Powell nodded it down and there was the substitute to clinch a hard- earned victory.
"We got exactly what we deserved from the game, which was nothing", said Robson afterwards. "It's been a bad Christmas for us."
Goals: Sturridge (29) 1-0; Beck (77) 1-1; Hunt (85) 2-1
.Derby County (3-5-2): Poom; Prior, Carbonari, Elliott; Laursen, Bohinen (Hunt, 83), Carsley, Eranio (Kozluk, 71), Powell; Sturridge (Harper, 86), Wanchope. Substitutes not used: Hoult (gk), Christie.
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Cooper, Vickers, Festa; Stockdale (Maddison, 75), Stamp (Beck, 41), Gascoigne (Fleming, 41), Townsend, Gordon; Deane, Ricard. Substitutes not used: Moore, Beresford (gk).
Referee: R Harris (Oxford).
Sending-off: Derby: Wanchope. Bookings: Middlesbrough: Townsend.
Man of the match: Sturridge.
Attendance: 32,726.Reuse content