The question among some Middlesbrough fans before kick-off was whether their glass was half-full or half-empty. Tony Mowbray's men might have achieved a club-record 11-game unbeaten start to the season – ended in midweek at Nottingham Forest – yet they entered this contest without a win and with only one goal from their last five outings.
Half-full had to be the verdict at 5pm yesterday, though, after goals from Rhys Williams and Marvin Emnes earned a 2-0 victory that lifted Boro back up to second place in the Championship table.
If the scoreline was harsh on Derby, who hit the woodwork three times and found the Boro goalkeeper Jason Steele in sensational form, it was a relief for Mowbray after a frustrating sequence of four home draws.
"I think with the way our season at home has gone it is a massive three points for us," he said. "While we remain unbeaten at home we've drawn five out of seven so to get the three points is very, very important."
Boro's position in the table underlines the impressive job Mowbray has done since replacing Gordon Strachan at the helm 12 months ago on Wednesday, with Boro stuck in the bottom three.
Derby, likewise, have a manager who has had to shrink a squad and slash a wage bill and whose team are surpassing pre-season expectations. Nigel Clough will have been buoyed after a promising debut by schoolboy Mason Bennett.
Bennett, one of three academy products in Clough's starting XI, made history as the youngest Derby player at 15 years and 99 days. The England Under-16 forward had been in Clough's thoughts for last Tuesday's trip to Reading but the squad's 2am return was deemed too late for a schoolboy with an early start at Swirebrook Academy the next morning.
Bennett learned he would be starting at 1.45pm yesterday and very nearly walked away with a piece of history as the Football League's youngest scorer. He missed an early headed chance and in the second half was foiled by a superb Steele save and the crossbar.
Clough praised the teenager for a "very mature debut". He said: "To play in a Championship game game at just over 15 [shows] he is a very exciting prospect. He will be back in training with the Under-18s on Monday morning because it is half-term and he is off school."
A quiet first half produced few clear chances – Theo Robinson heading wide for Derby while Emnes had a shot blocked by Lee Croft – before Boro struck in the 45th minute. After Frank Fielding had turned behind a Tony McMahon drive, the ensuing corner was only partially cleared and Justin Hoyte drove in a shot which Williams stuck out a foot to deflect into the net. Clough complained: "We thought it was foul on Jason Shackell and then it is a mishit shot deflected in it. It seemed to sum up our day."
The second half opened with a flurry of chances. Williams blazed wastefully over, then Steele turned a Robinson header on to the post at the other end and denied Bennett, tipping over his rising strike on the rebound, having first parried a Craig Bryson drive.
Those near misses were followed by Boro's second goal as Hoyte sent over a fine right-wing cross and Emnes buried his header past Fielding.
Clough had to send on the veteran Kevin Kilbane at centre-back to replace the injured Shackell but saw his team lay siege to the Boro goal. Bennett, Jamie Ward and Nicky Bailey, with an unwitting header past his own goalkeeper, all hit the home crossbar as Boro, in Mowbray's words, "sat deeper and deeper and invited trouble". They got away with it, though, Steele securing his clean sheet by foiling substitute Chris Maguire in the closing moments.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Steele; McMahon (Kink, 80), Williams, McManus, Bennett; Hoyte, Bailey, Arca, Zemmama (Ogbeche, 67); Emnes (Martin, 75), McDonald.
Derby (4-4-2): Fielding; Croft, O'Brien, Shackell (Kilbane, 57), Roberts; Davies, Bryson, Hendrick, Ward; Robinson (Maguire, 64), Bennett (Cwyka, 78).
Referee Carl Boyeson.
Man of match Steele (Middlesbrough).
Match rating 7/10.Reuse content