John Gregory's insistence that inconsistent Derby can yet emerge as play-off contenders may still look a little optimistic, but his players at least gave some credence to the theory by ending Wimbledon's four-match winning streak at Pride Park last night.
The victory, made possible by goals from Steve Elliott, Deon Burton and Lee Morris, enabled Derby to move above Wimbledon and Millwall in the First Division table and, while their mid-table position may look a distant launching-pad for a promotion bid, Gregory will point out that sixth-placed Sheffield United are only five points better off.
After the first half finished all-square, Derby were the better side in the second period but Wimbledon's manager Stuart Murdoch had grounds for complaint over two harsh decisions in the opening 45 minutes.
David Connolly, who stayed on his feet when Derby's goalkeeper Lee Grant appeared to foul him, was denied what Murdoch argued was a clear penalty. Then, when Elliott headed Derby's equaliser after Neil Shipperley had put Wimbledon ahead, it was with the help of a deflection off his team-mate Malcolm Christie, who was in an off-side position.
"They were disappointing decisions, especially the penalty," Murdoch said. "If David had gone down it would have been a penalty and the keeper would have been sent off."
A goal for Wimbledon after eight minutes had subdued the home crowd but the return of Craig Burley to Derby's line-up after a year's absence with a knee injury brought a quick pay-off. The Scottish international supplied the corner from which Elliott, making his first home start for two years, headed beyond the goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, helped by a deflection off Christie's hip.
The porous nature of Derby's defence had been exposed when Shipperley sidefooted the visitors ahead from Joel McAnuff's cross. But a goal two minutes into the second half put Derby in front as Wimbledon were caught napping. Izale McLeod's hooked cross from the left was no more than a hopeful ball but, with Davis badly positioned, Burton out-jumped Rob Gier to loop a header over the keeper.
The points looked secure 12 minutes from time when Morris, just on as a substitute, fired a shot inside the left-hand post, but Connolly's header for Wimbledon inside the last three minutes gave Derby a nervous finish.
Derby County (3-4-3): Grant; Riggott, Evatt (Higginbotham, h-t), Elliott; Barton, Lee, Burley (Bolder, 67), Boertien; Christie (Morris, 75), Burton, McLeod. Substitutes not used: Oakes (gk), Kinkladze.
Wimbledon (4-4-2): Davis; Holloway (Francis, 82), Gier, Leigertwood, Hawkins; McAnuff (Agyemang, 82), Andersen, Reo-Coker (Gray, 89), Darlington; Shipperley, Connolly. Substitutes not used: Heald (gk), Morgan.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Chester-le-Street).
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