MIDDLESBROUGH boss Tony Mowbray admitted his side were far from their best following their win over Derby.
Jamie Ward had put the hosts in front from the spot in the first half after he had been felled by Nicky Bailey in the area.
Following a rather subdued first half performance, Boro fought back in the second period and after Seb Hines had equalised, Merouane Zemmama grabbed a late winner.
Mowbray said: “I think it’s called winning ugly.
“It was two anxious teams. It wasn’t a game of football – it was a bit of a war, bit of a scrap.
“The first half was obviously very, very disappointing from our aspect and yet they found the answer in the second half – again not by any great play but desire and drive and I think with the help of the crowd, asked more questions of them and we won the game late on.
“It wasn’t a great performance, it wasn’t a free-flowing football match and yet on nights when we’ve played a lot better than that, we’ve probably lost or drawn football matches, so like I said, it’s winning ugly.
“Not on purpose, of course, but that’s the way the game panned out and we have to accept it and take it.
“It makes a change for us, but we’ll take it.”
When asked whether he was pleased to see Moroccan Zemmama pick up his first goal for the club, Mowbray added: “Particularly after the weekend, when I brought him off at half-time.
“It’s never nice when a player gets brought off at half-time.
“He was disappointed by that and yet to get the lift of being thrown on with 20 minutes to go and score the winner is great for Merouane, who feeds off confidence.
“He likes the ball, he wants to show people how clever he can be – sometimes in the wrong areas – but generally, he’s a very talented boy who can make the difference and I’m pleased for him.”
Derby boss Nigel Clough was despondent after seeing his side concede two goals in the last 16 minutes.
He said: “The game lasts 95 minutes and if you don’t do the right things for the 95 minutes then you’re going to get punished and that was the case tonight.
“I’m not too sure we’ll get too many better opportunities to win in the last 10 games.
“We’ve got 10 games to go and we’ve got to make sure we survive – end of story.”
Clough was also adamant that Bailey should have been sent off as the defender hauled down Ward as the Rams striker went clean through on goal.
“It’s not an excuse, but playing against 10 men and 1-0 up for 55 minutes or so, it would have been a different game,” he said.
“When a player is about 12 yards out and he’s about to have a shot, we would class that as a goalscoring opportunity. That was our understanding of the rules.
“That doesn’t cover up our failings in the second half where, once again, we failed to put the ball into the right areas at the right time.”
Although Boro remain just two places above the danger places, they are now six points clear of 22nd-placed Scunthorpe.
With Jason Steele and Danny Coyne both injured, Tony Mowbray gave a debut to Paul Smith, having signed the goalkeeper on loan from Nottingham Forest earlier in the day.
Mogga was desperate to tighten up at the back, having seen his side concede 15 times in their last five league matches – which included a 5-2 hammering at Reading over the weekend.
However, Boro’s troubles have not been in front of goal as they have also found the back of the net on nine occasions in that time.
And it was Rams shot-stopper Frankie Fielding who was forced into action early on as he did well to grab the ball at the feet of Scott McDonald, who had burst through on goal.
That was about as entertaining as it got in the opening half hour, but Boro were undone with Derby’s first meaningful attack on goal in the 32nd minute.
Theo Robinson’s dink over the top put strike partner Ward clean through on goal but, before he could strike, he was recklessly bundled over by Bailey, who rather fortuitously received only a yellow card.
Ward himself stepped up and powered his kick straight down the middle, all of which left Boro’s Smith with no chance.
After being booed off at half-time, Boro came out all guns blazing after the interval, with Bailey firing over and Leroy Lita unfortunate not to be able to get a touch on Barry Robson’s teasing delivery.
However, only an offside prevented them falling two behind.
Stephen Pearson burst forward on the left-flank and his cross left Conor Doyle with the simplest of finishes, but after heading home, the winger found he had strayed beyond the last defender.
Lita, who had notched four goals in his last five appearances, McDonald and Marvin Emnes all forced smart saves from Fielding, while Rhys Williams’ header was cleared off the line.
Their pressure eventually told and Hines gave Boro a lifeline in the 74th minute.
McMahon’s free-kick on the left channel was headed goalwards by Hines at the back post and although Derby’s John Brayford got the final touch, it was awarded to Hines.
Backed by the boisterous crowd, the hosts sensed victory and only a magnificent save from Fielding from Robson’s header kept the scores level.
However, it was all in vain as substitute Zemmama snatched a winner at the death.
After McMahon’s ball into the box had been cleared to Zemmama on the edge of the area, the defender’s deflected strike found the back of the net, to the delight of the Riverside faithful.
Middlesbrough: Smith, McMahon, Rhys Williams, Hines, Bennett, Taylor, Robson, Bailey, Smallwood (Emnes 58), Lita, McDonald (Zemmama 81). Subs Not Used: Ripley, Haas, Kink, Grounds, Tavares. Booked: Bailey. Goals: Hines 73, Zemmama 88.
Derby: Fielding, Brayford, Roberts, Barker, Ayala, Green, Pearson, Addison, Doyle (Ben Davies 77), Robinson, Ward (Porter 46). Subs Not Used: Duke, Steve Davies, Savage, Buxton, Bueno. Booked: Porter, Roberts, Green. Goals: Ward 32 pen.
Ref: Karl Evans (Lancashire).