Paul Warne hailed his “amazing” Derby team after David McGoldrick and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing struck in quick succession at the death for a remarkable come-from-behind 2-1 victory at Port Vale.
Derby’s 13-match undefeated Sky Bet League One run seemed to be going up in smoke when Funso Ojo struck for the hosts after 56 minutes at Vale Park.
But manager Warne’s team, energised by the 68th-minute introduction of forwards Lewis Dobbin and James Collins, were ultimately rewarded for their persistence.
Dobbin centred for the evergreen McGoldrick to tap home with three minutes remaining, before the substitute claimed his second assist two minutes later when Mendez-Laing clinically finished a delivery to the front post.
“The lads played really well and if we’d lost I wouldn’t have been incandescent with rage,” said Warne, whose team stay fourth but close to within eight points of second-placed Sheffield Wednesday.
“I thought we did enough to win. We created some gilt-edged chances we didn’t take, then to score two late goals adds to the panto of it. It made it more exciting and I don’t think many people could think we didn’t deserve it.
“The subs had a positive impact and we leave feeling amazing… which we should.
“I love this team, they are an amazing group. I took superstars off and the substitutes came on and had a massive effect and you leave feeling good about everything.
“Dobbs caused absolute mayhem. I thought he would have an effect… luckily it [substitution] came off. But if it hadn’t, I still would have told them [Derby’s players] how proud I was of their performance. I think lesser teams would have folded, but not this one. They just keep going.”
Vale fleetingly had Derby rocking at 1-0. The home team weathered a mini-first-half storm, with Jack Stevens especially impressive to deny McGoldrick one-on-one.
But the goal from Ojo, starting for the first time since September following a hamstring injury, ushered in a period of Vale pressure.
Gavin Massey saw a shot blocked and Nathan Smith was fractionally off-target with a header.
Derby regained their composure and following a spell of concerted dominance struck through McGoldrick and Mendez-Laing to flatten Darrell Clarke and his players.
“It is a tough night, that is for sure.” said home manager Clarke. “We are gutted, the staff are very low.
“But we need to be proud of a lot of that performance and we will pick ourselves up.
“We are a little bit despondent losing the game in that manner but we will heal our wounds and have confidence in the group to pick themselves up.
“Credit to Derby, they kept going, that is why they will finish in the top six, maybe the top two.
“For ourselves, it is a steep, harsh learning curve…we have to control moments of the game better. We lost too many transitions late in the game and if you do that against a team of Derby’s quality they will punish you.
“The lads will need tonight and tomorrow with their families to get over that. I don’t want any sour faces on Thursday morning, we will build again towards the next game.”
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