Derby extended their unbeaten run to 10 games – their best under manager Steve McClaren – but were left disappointed at their inability to break down a hard-working and committed Millwall side that stuck firmly to Ian Holloway’s game plan.
It did not take long for Derby to serve notice of intent on a Millwall side that had won only one of their previous nine games in all competitions this season.
Within 76 seconds of the kick-off, Millwall’s defence was prised open for Jamie Ward to fire a low shot wide from just inside the penalty area and barely a minute later the same player latched onto a pass from Chris Martin to fire over the bar from a similar position.
Millwall had vehement appeals for a penalty rejected in the 10th minute when striker Lee Gregory went down under a challenge from Cyrus Christie – not the last time referee Mark Haywood would baffle and frustrate.
Martin took revenge for a late tackle from Byron Webster by dumping the central defender on his backside a minute later and Haywood decided it was time to intervene when the pair clashed again.
Webster was booked for scything down Martin with a crude tackle from behind in the 18th minute and there were more problems for Millwall’s defence six minutes later when winger Jordan Ibe skated clear down the left to cut the ball back towards the penalty spot.
Full-back Craig Forsyth was charging into the box but scuffed his shot and Derby were disappointed twice more as the pressure mounted on Millwall’s defence.
First Ward had a 25-yard shot well saved by David Forde, diving well to his left, and then Derby had what looked like justified claims for a penalty denied when Ibe went over under a challenge from the goalkeeper.
Forde’s furious reaction sparked an angry rumpus involving a dozen players and Derby’s sense of grievance grew when Ibe was booked, presumably for diving.
Martin and Forde were cautioned for their part in the argy-bargy and the referee had his book out for the fifth time when Christie was sent flying by a reckless challenge from Martyn Woolford.
Matthew Briggs shot just wide in a Millwall raid after the hosts failed to clear a corner and there was a sixth yellow card in the 38th minute when John Eustace brought down Nadjim Abdou.
Derby began the second with another spell of unrewarded pressure and McClaren made two changes in the 58th minute, bringing on Jeff Hendrick and Leon Best for Eustace and Ward.
Ibe opted to take an unnecessary second touch when he was presented with a clear shooting chance five minutes later and the winger, on loan from Liverpool, was soon afterwards replaced by Johnny Russell.
Millwall right-back Alan Dunne got the seventh yellow card for a foul on Best and Zak Whitbread got the eighth when sub Ricardo Fuller went down dramatically with 10 minutes left – but the second half was a less testy affair as the game settled into a midfield tussle producing few chances.