SINCE last Sunday’s draw for the FA Cup quarter-finals, much of the football talk in and around Sheffield has centred on the potential for a derby at Bramall Lane next month.
With more than two years having passed since the Steel City clubs last met, such excited chatter among Wednesdayites and their Blades counterparts has been understandable.
The only Derby that concerned Owls manager Stuart Gray last night, however, was Steve McClaren’s promotion chasers, who back in November had “battered” his side into submission.
Ahead of the Rams’ visit, Gray had promised that the visitors would be facing a “very different” Wednesday.
His players did justice to those bold words. with an industrious and gutsy performance that bore few similarities to the pedestrian and laboured efforts that had led to the Rams strolling to a 3-0 victory in November.
As a result, Lee Grant was the busier of the two goalkeepers with his two saves which denied Michail Antonio drawing grateful applause from the 3,000 or so travelling Rams supporters while Craig Bryson kept Chris Maguire’s corner out with a last-gasp clearance on his own line.
What Wednesday did not have, however, was a player capable of conjuring up a goal out of almost nothing.
Derby had just that in the form of Patrick Bamford, the loanee striker from Chelsea who settled the contest with a quite remarkable strike 12 minutes from time.
When Bamford collected the ball on the right of the Wednesday area, there seemed to be little on. The home side, as they had done all night, were marking the Rams’ forward line tightly.
Bamford, unperturbed at his lack of options, looked up before hitting an unstoppable 25-yard shot that flew beyond the despairing dive of Chris Kirkland and into the net off the underside of the crossbar.
It was enough to seal a real smash-and-grab three points for Derby, who moved up a place to third in the Championship table.
As for Wednesday, they remain nine points above the drop zone thanks to Barnsley’s defeat at Wigan Athletic and bottom club Yeovil Town being held at home by Watford.
The first half had been a largely frustrating affair with plenty of industry but, in terms of genuine chances, there was precious little to excite the 21,039 crowd with either a misplaced final pass or a poor decision wasting decent approach play.
Neither Kirkland nor opposite number Grant, a former Owl, had a save to make in those opening 45 minutes.
Instead, the closest the game came to a goal in that first half was Glenn Loovens’s header from Maguire’s corner that Craig Forsyth did well to block a couple of yards in front of the goal-line.
That came after just four minutes and the only other incident of note came just after the half-hour when Chris Martin was fortunate to escape with a yellow card after blatantly elbowing Miguel Llera.
Wednesday’s Spanish defender had been booked for a clumsy late challenge on Grant moments earlier.
Referee Darren Bond opted to yellow card Llera, but the Rams striker clearly felt this was insufficient punishment as, when the game re-started with Grant punting a long free-kick forward, he stuck his forearm in Llera’s face.
It was not the most subtle of acts, which basically summed up the opening 45 minutes as neither side was able to capitalise on promising approach play.
Derby’s best opening of the first half came when Jamie Ward wriggled clear down the left before firing a low cross that deserved better than the former Blades midfielder’s team-mates being on their heels rather than toes as the ball flashed across the six-yard box.
For the first half-hour of the second half, the Rams were similarly toothless in attack.
Then, however, visiting manager McClaren decided to go for broke by sending on Conor Sammon for central midfielder John Eustace.
It meant County had four forwards on the field and the reward for such an adventurous approach came within three minutes courtesy of Bamford’s fifth goal in seven appearances.
The goal – his 22nd of a season that has also seen the Chelsea man sport the colours of Milton Keynes Dons – was one worthy of winning any game.
Nevertheless, it was tough on the Owls who until then had looked by far the more likely to break the deadlock.
Antonio had twice been denied by smart saves from Grant, his one-handed effort to keep out the winger’s 47th-minute shot being particularly impressive.
Bryson also had to clear the ball off his own line to keep out Maguire’s corner that was curling in at the far post after a host of players had been unable to get a touch but, in the end, it was Bamford’s brilliance that proved decisive.
Sheffield Wednesday: Kirkland; Palmer , Loovens, Llera, Mattock; Lee (Helan 45), Coke, Gardner (Hutchinson 61); Antonio, Best (Afobe 70), Maguire. Unused substitutes: Martinez, Maghoma, Helan, Lavery, Nuhiu.
Derby County: Grant; Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Hughes, Eustace (Sammon 75), Bryson (Hendrick 55); Ward (Russell 46), Bamford, Martin. Unused substitutes: Legzdins, Whitbread, Bailey, Thorne.
Referee: D Bond (Lancashire).
Results and tables: Page 22.