Deon Burton, who had not played a first-team match for Derby since January, returned as their match-winner last night, coming off the bench with 16 minutes left to inflict only a second defeat in 12 matches on Sheffield United, who had been hoping to climb to second place in the First Division.
The Jamaican international, back in training only this week after a foot injury that curtailed a loan spell at Portsmouth two months ago, struck the decisive goal in the 86th minute to cap a comeback by a youthful Derby team in which 18-year-old Izale McLeod's first senior goal had cancelled out Shaun Murphy's opener for the Yorkshire side, against whom Burton had scored for Pompey in August.
The Rams' first win in four matches came after United, going ahead after 23 minutes, had looked capable of inflicting further pain on the troubled Midlands side, missing their England Under-21 pair of Chris Riggott and Malcolm Christie through injury.
The goalkeeper Mart Poom, who had already denied the subsequently-injured Michael Boulding, rescued his side again when Carl Asaba sent Michael Brown clear on goal. However, from the resulting corner, after an Asaba header was not cleared, Murphy stabbed home.
Yet Derby responded with purpose and equalised nine minutes before half-time with their first goal in 343 minutes, McLeod finishing with poise after the former United striker Lee Morris had slipped him into space on the left.
The teenager visibly grew in confidence and took every opportunity to look for a second. He went close to adding a second three times early in the second half, as United, despite the vociferous support of 3,000 fans, failed to maintain their earlier incisiveness, although a taller man than the substitute Peter Ndlovu perhaps would have restored their lead when Asaba's cross from the right on 73 minutes found his team-mate unmarked.
A minute later on came Burton, who would probably be a Portsmouth player by now but for his injury. It was his first appearance under John Gregory, who loaned him to Stoke for the final two months of last season, and a timely one.
After Robert Page had conceded a corner by blocking Burton's shot, the substitute reacted first after Ian Evatt's header from Paul Boertien's flag kick was blocked but not cleared.
Derby County (3-4-1-2): Poom; Barton, Evatt, Higginbotham; Hunt, Boertien, Bolder, Lee; Kinkladze; Morris (Burton, 74), McLeod (Elliott, 89). Substitutes not used: Grant (gk), Twigg, Huddlestone.
Sheffield United (3-5-2): Kenny; Murphy, Page, Yates; Kozluk, Tonge, McCall (McGovern, 89), Brown, Jagielka; Boulding (Ndlovu, 24; Ten Heuvel, 89), Asaba. Substitutes not used: Montgomery, Harley.
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).