Ethan Ebanks-Landell proved an unlikely matchwinner on his full debut as Wolves overcame the absence of half a dozen internationals to go top of League One – thanks also to Leyton Orient's home defeat by Preston.

Ebanks-Landell, a 20-year-old defender who has been at Molineux since he was nine, turned in from a James Henry free-kick a quarter of an hour from time to maintain the Midlands club's momentum as they bid to make an immediate return to the Championship.

Wolves' heavy losses to national service would have justified this match being postponed but failure to lodge a request before the deadline could prove a blessing in disguise. Their return from two previous rearranged fixtures were a defeat and draw against Walsall and Carlisle respectively.

Kenny Jackett, the Wolves manager, cut a relieved figure at the final whistle but dismissed the significance of chasing down the division's pacesetters Orient. "Points total means a lot to me rather than league position at this stage and we have got 39 points which is an excellent return so far," Jackett said. "It's great for our supporters and us to be top of the league but we have to understand we are now there to be shot at. We had the better chances in the game and could have put it away, particularly in the second half. It was a very good performance, we were committed and if I can be critical it would only be of our finishing."

The late goal meant a different kind of debut experience for Shaun Derry. In his playing role as a truculent midfielder, Derry has been regularly parachuted into the kind of situation facing him in his maiden managerial appointment. County, the club where he began in the mid-90s, remain bottom after his first home match in charge.

Yet despite suspension robbing him of the captain, Dean Leacock, and striker Danny Haynes, there was a spirit not evident in leaking 11 goals in their three previous matches. "It was a good game, value for money and everyone will go home enjoy their curry tonight and say: 'We had a good day at Meadow Lane,'"Derry said.

"Let's try to create an atmosphere down here. The only way you are going to do that is by producing performances like that and for the supporters to go home saying that the 14 lads who have made their way on to the field have given everything. Hopefully they will bring their mates with them next time and their mates' girlfriends."

Only a woeful finish from the County centre-back Manny Smith, who headed straight at Richard Stearman with the goal at his mercy, and an inspired performance from Bartosz Bialkowski, their goalkeeper, at the other end kept the scoreline blank at the break. During the opening period the Pole repelled two fine strikes from distance to deny Jake Cassidy and Henry: the first a swerving yorker of a 25-yarder that he managed to thrust his mitts upon and turn away to his left and the second a diving effort high to his right.

Then, after Jackett reshaped the visitors for the resumption – Leigh Griffiths thrown on in place of Davis – Bialkowski triumphed in two one-on-ones created by Henry's precision passing. The substitute Griffiths and his strike partner Cassidy were both guilty of striking shots centrally when the corners were calling.

A second-half flashpoint between Jackett and Derry, sparked by opposing views on the colour of card Callum McGregor saw for felling Henry 25 yards out, livened up proceedings further and the substitute Bjorn Sigurdarson could have settled things sooner but struck the base of a post only seconds after coming on for a Wolves side looking increasingly too efficient for the present company that they keep.