- Middlesbrough top of the second-tier for the first time in over two years
- Derby lose grip on top spot ahead of next week’s trip to Norwich
- Two shots on target for the Rams
- Boro suffered just one defeat since August
MIDDLESBROUGH temporarily top the SkyBet Championship for the first time since November 2012 after a deserved victory over 10-man Derby County.
Patrick Bamford struck for the fourth game running against his former employers to give the hosts a dream start.
Grant Leadbitter added a second from the penalty spot after the break when the Boro captain was brought down by Ryan Shotton – who was sent off for the foul.
It was an unhappy return to Teeside for Rams boss Steve McClaren, whose managerial career launched at the Riverside Stadium and is the only man to guide them to a major trophy.
Derby had the chance to go four points clear at the summit but instead a third away defeat in four saw the Midlands side, who face Chelsea in the Capital One Cup quarter-finals in midweek, drop down to third.
Boro manager Aitor Karanka had branded Derby as “the best team in the league” prior to kick-off and the former Real Madrid assistant – who watched from the stands whilst serving a one-match touchline ban – praised his players for another impressive display after their 5-1 thrashing of Millwall last weekend.
Leadbitter was a bright spark alongside Adam Clayton in the middle of the park while Albert Adomah’s pace caused problems for Derby left-back Craig Forsyth throughout.
The hosts – enjoying their best start to a season for 17 years with just one defeat in their last 17 – were in control from start to finish with Bamford at the heart of their dominance.
It took only six minutes for the on-loan Chelsea striker to make an impact against the side he was on loan at last term – converting Adam Reach’s cutback into the bottom corner for his seventh goal of the campaign.
Derby were indebted to goalkeeper Lee Grant for a string of fine saves, including a double stop from Bamford’s fierce drive and Jelle Vossen’s follow-up on 27 minutes.
McClaren reacted to an insipid display with two half-time alterations as the ineffective Omar Mascarell and Simon Dawkins made way for Jordan Ibe and Leon Best.
But it made no difference to the pattern of the game – and Boro’s situation got better when on-loan Stoke defender Shotton brought down Leadbitter when clean through on goal and gave referee Roger East no alternative but to point to the spot and brandish a red card.
Leadbitter had netted his five previous penalties this season and kept his composure to stick away another on 63 minutes – despite Grant’s best efforts.
The Rams keeper also had to be alert to foil Bamford on two occasions in the second period as Boro’s resurgence continued to grow.
For last season’s play-off finalists Derby – who had won four of their previous five, it was a frustrating afternoon in which they struggled to make the most of possession and lacked a cutting edge going forward.
Jeff Hendrick brought a routine stop from Dimi Konstantopoulos in first-half stoppage time and Johnny Russell was kept out by the Greek stopper late on as the Rams’ best chance was spurned.
Their wait for a first victory at the Riverside since 2000 goes on but Boro are now unbeaten in eight home games – ahead of a testing trip to second-placed Ipswich next weekend – and have firmly installed themselves among the promotion favourites.
Substitutes: Kike (Bamford 74′), Wildschut (Vossen 78′)
Not used: Osorio (GK), Husband, Omeruo, Whitehead, Veljkovic
Booked: Ayala (28), Leadbitter (81)
Goals: Bamford (6), Leadbitter (63 pen)
Substitutes: Best (Dawkins 45′), Ibe (Mascarell 45′), Hughes (Hendrick 61′)
Not used: Roos (GK), Calero, Buxton, Coutts.
Booked: Hendrick (53), Bryson (71), Forsyth (75)
Sent-off: Shotton (62)
Referee: Roger East (Wiltshire) – 9/10