DERBY County have been grinding out results for a number of weeks now, probably since mid-January.
If a team is to be successful in the Championship it has to be able to chisel out points.
Four 1-0 wins against Brighton, QPR, Bournemouth and Sheffield Wednesday added to a 3-2 victory over Yeovil after being two down, lifted the Rams to their current position of third.
They fell the right side of a fine line on those occasions.
The problem with walking a fine line is the likelihood of falling the wrong side of it.
This was one such occasion, and the Rams can have no complaints following the 1-0 defeat by Millwall at the iPro Stadium.
They were poor in the final third, an area of the pitch in which they had been so bright and ruthless before the turn of the year.
Only three goals have been scored in the last five matches and 12 in the last dozen.
Derby scored 27 in the previous 12 games.
They rarely looked like scoring on Saturday.
Fans had been asked to show patience but their patience was tested to the full by Derby’s fruitless ventures into the final third.
Once there, they fluffed their lines when it came to the final pass, cross or finish.
So, what had appeared to be a home banker became a coupon buster when striker Steve Morison headed Millwall’s winner just after the hour.
The visitors arrived without a win in seven, just one victory in 16 away games this season – and having conceded more goals than any other team in the division.
Derby had won eight of their previous nine home league games, of which experienced midfielder John Eustace had started seven, so it was a surprise to see the 34-year-old on the bench and not patrolling and controlling in front of the back four.
Maybe a run of three games in eight days played a part in the selection.
The Rams meet Bolton tomorrow and play at Reading on Saturday, but Eustace’s presence from the start usually helps the two other midfielders, and also the balance in the middle of the pitch.
On the previous occasion he was left out the Rams were battered at Leicester City.
George Thorne, sitting on the bench, was signed on loan from West Bromwich Albion in January as “cover and competition” for Eustace, but we have yet to see him in a Derby shirt.
Instead, Will Hughes filled the role as the deepest of the three central midfielders.
He was neat in possession and tidy with his passes, but his starting position meant not enough was seen of him in areas where he could really punish Millwall.
If you need more quality in the final third then having your most creative player – in terms of passing – where he can hurt the opposition seems a good idea.
Hughes had plenty of touches in a promising opening by Derby.
Millwall found it tough to pick up Craig Bryson, back in the team, and Jeff Hendrick looked to make powerful surges.
There was a good early chance for Conor Sammon, making only his second league start of the season in place of the suspended Chris Martin.
But Millwall’s no-nonsense defending and the way they scrapped for every ball was no surprise.
Nor were they in any hurry, much to the frustration of the Derby fans.
Goalkeeper David Forde was spoken to for time-wasting as early as the 29th minute!
As Derby began to stutter and lose their way, Millwall’s belief blossomed.
The safe money was on a change or two at half time.
Rams head coach Steve McClaren has never been slow to make substitutions, but the side remained unchanged.
A brief stirring at the start of the second half saw Simon Dawkins force Forde into making two saves before the visitors went ahead.
Millwall won a free kick and played it quickly out to Derby’s right, where Patrick Bamford was not in the correct position, defensively.
This allowed Lee Martin to whip over a cross which neither goalkeeper Lee Grant nor any defender dealt with – and Morison took advantage to head into the empty net.
Jamie Ward and Johnny Russell came on, while Bamford was moved up top with Sammon as Derby looked to change the game.
It was virtually a 4-2-4 shape and even centre back Richard Keogh was pushed forward in the closing stages as things became a bit scruffy, a bit desperate.
This was not Derby’s day, and Grant made a fine stop from Morison to prevent Millwall doubling their lead.
Derby’s bid to build a head of steam was continually extinguished by Millwall players going down and needing treatment.
The stoppages led to seven minutes of added time, but Millwall stood firm to record what is a huge win for the Championship strugglers.
For Derby, more frustration after losing at Burnley.
This is only the second time they have suffered back-to-back league defeats under McClaren.
They have, in the past, shown themselves to be capable of responding.
The key now is to halt the defeats before they threaten to become a sequence.
They face Bolton Wanderers at home tomorrow night.