Derby County reinforced their own promotion prospects and dealt a blow to Queen’s Park Rangers’ hopes of catching Championship leaders Leicester when John Eustace’s first-half header proved enough to claim the points here last night.
Steve McClaren’s side have only three league defeats under the former England manager and the result takes Derby to just a point behind third-placed QPR, who remain 11 points behind Leicester, albeit with a game in hand.
Aaron Hughes, borrowed from Fulham, made a telling contribution within less than a minute, racing across to block Patrick Bamford’s shot after a long ball from the back had sent Derby’s on-loan Chelsea forward clear and onside.
There was an open flow to the action from the start, although it was McClaren’s side who looked the most threatening. Rob Green tipped the ball over after Clint Hill’s clearance had rebounded with some force off Jake Buxton, but could not prevent John Eustace giving Derby a 20th-minute lead.
The goal stemmed from a corner on the right by Will Hughes, punched away by Green but without clearing the penalty area. Eustace met it with a looping header that cleared Green and Gary O’Neil on the line, scoring his first goal for Derby since a summer move from Watford.
Derby were chasing a first home win over QPR since February 1990, as well as revenge for a 2-1 defeat in in November at Loftus Road, where McClaren, had begun the season on Harry Redknapp’s coaching staff.
Concerned that his side had not posed a significant threat to Derby’s goal in the first half, Redknapp made changes at half-time, giving Modibo Maiga a chance to partner Kevin Doyle up front in place of Andrew Johnson and replacing O’Neil with Junior Hoilett on the right of midfield.
Yet Derby continued to look more dangerous going forward, with Johnny Russell – on for the injured Jamie Ward – the key player as first Bamford and then Buxton sniffed chances.
There was frustration from Rangers, for whom Niko Kranjcar joined Benoît Assou-Ekotto in referee Michael Nayor’s book, both for fouls on Bamford, before Joey Barton was cautioned.
Barton drew a save from Lee Grant as the visitors tried to find a way back into the match before Maiga’s header was deflected wide, with Derby’s goal finally under sustained pressure as the contest entered its final quarter.
Derby County (4-3-3): Grant; Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Hughes (Hendrick, 68), Eustace, Bryson; Bamford (Sammon, 81), Martin, Ward (Russell, 42). Substitutes not used Legzdins (gk), Bennett, Whitbread, Thorne.
Queen’s Park Rangers (4-4-2): Green; Hughes, Dunne, Hill, Assou-Ekotto; O’Neil (Hoilett, 46), Barton, Carroll (Jenas, 79), Kranjcar; Johnson (Maiga, 46), Doyle. Substitutes not used Murphy (gk), Traore, Onuoha, Henry.
Referee M Naylor (South Yorkshire).