Steve Morison’s 61st minute header could prove priceless in Millwall’s fight for survival, as Derby County were left frustrated at their failure to break down Ian Holloway’s stringent side.
Morison’s close-range header, in one of the visitors’ rare second-half entries into the Rams’ penalty area, combined with an impressive performance from goalkeeper David Forde, proved the difference between the two teams.
The defeat was the first the Rams have experienced on home soil since New Year’s Day, when they went down 1-0 against Wigan Athletic, and comparisons can certainly be drawn between the two encounters.
Having won just one of their last 15 games in all competitions, Holloway’s men began compact and pensive at the iPro Stadium, while the Rams, freshened by three relatively attacking changes to the team, started vibrantly.
One of the changes implemented by Head Coach Steve McClaren was Conor Sammon’s inclusion from the start, in what was only the Republic of Ireland international’s second start in the League this season.
The 27-year-old hustled and harried Millwall central defenders Danny Shittu and Shane Lowry when in possession, eager to make an impression, and the former Wigan Athletic forward almost did just that when he collected Patrick Bamford’s knockdown in the eighth minute, but he could not find a way past Forde.
As well as including Sammon from the beginning, McClaren also recalled Craig Bryson at the expense of John Eustace, although it was 18-year-old Will Hughes who was deployed the deepest of the three midfielders.
From the sitting position, Hughes dictated the tempo of the game, nonchalantly spraying passes to his team mates across the pitch, but he also displayed the necessary industry that is required in the holding role, performing a terrific tackle on Owen Garvan early on.
With England Under-21 international Hughes proving the deep lying creator, the Rams soon had opportunities to take the lead as Simon Dawkins curled a 20-yard shot narrowly over following a clever interchange between blonde midfielder Hughes and Bryson, while Sammon forced Forde into a fine save, only for forward Dawkins to be flagged offside for his role in the build-up.
As the first-half went on, and with the Rams unable to build on their early domination, the Lions grew in confidence. Holloway’s side were more direct in their approach, looking to play off of forward Morison, and the frontman did a fine job in bringing Ed Upson into play in the 19th minute, only for the former Yeovil Town midfielder to send a dipping volley wide of goal.
The duo then combined again in the 27th minute, as Upson’s pass initially looked too heavy for the striker, but Morison superbly plucked the ball out of the air, before beating Richard Keogh and squaring to onrushing full-back Scott Malone, who fired over.
Former Tottenham Hotspur forward Dawkins kicked started the second-half with a jinking run and drive that Forde held well, before central defender Lowry diverted Crag Forsyth’s low cross past his own near post.
Dawkins looked the liveliest of the Rams’ forward line in the opening exchanges of the second period and almost broke the deadlock when he collected Sammon’s clever back heel, but shot straight at Forde.
The Rams looked in control and continued to make opportunities as Andre Wisdom’s low cross evaded the outstretched Sammon and Bryson.
However, then came the sucker punch. In their first attack of the half, Lee Martin’s cross to the far post found the experienced poacher Morison, who nodded in from inside the six yard box and crushed Derby’s momentum.
In a bid to arrest the swing of the pendulum, McClaren introduced Jamie Ward and Johnny Russell off the bench, reverting to a 4-2-4 formation, with Bamford moving centrally to partner Sammon.
Russell and Ward provided an initial spark, with the former’s deep cross picking out fellow countryman Bryson at the far post, but once again, Forde was equal to it, palming the former Kilmarnock midfielder’s shot away to safety.
After a spell of pressure from the Rams they almost shot themselves in the proverbial foot when an uncharacteristic mistake from Jake Buxton allowed Morison clean through on goal, but the striker’s drive was superbly turned away by former Sheffield Wednesday shot-stopper Lee Grant.
The Rams maintained heavy pressure on the Millwall goal as the game edged into extra time, but during the seven minutes of time added on, the hosts' final ball continually proved their downfall.
In a last ditch attempt to salvage a point, Keogh was thrown forward as a target man, and the former Coventry City skipper came closest to grabbing a dramatic equaliser, heading over the angle from close-range.
Derby County: Grant (GK); Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Hendrick (Ward 62'), Bryson, Hughes; Dawkins (Russell 63'), Bamford, Sammon (Bennett 80’).
Substitutes not used: Legzdins (GK), Whitbread, Eustace, Thorne.
Millwall: Forde (GK); Dunne, Shittu (Robinson 56'), Lowry, Malone; Upson, Williams; Martin (Woolford 65’), Garvan, Campbell (Chaplow 75'); Morison.
Substitutes not used: Bywater (GK), Fredericks, Abdou, Jackson.