Teenager Louie Sibley’s hat-trick capped a sensational performance and earned Derby County a vital win over fellow play-off chasers Millwall as Championship football returned after a three-month absence.
The 18-year-old showed fine close control, weaving through the home defence to cancel out Matt Smith’s headed opener to leave the scores level at the break.
Sibley’s cool first-time finish from Martyn Waghorn’s measured pass made it 2-1 and he completed his treble on just his second league start with another low first-time finish.
Lions substitute Jon Dadi Bodvarsson scrambled in an injury time effort from close range to give hope of an unlikely point, but they could not deny the Rams, who move level on points with their hosts and just two points adrift of the top six.
It was a shame such an enthralling match that had to be played behind closed doors because of the coronavirus outbreak was witnessed by so few.
Both sets of players and staff took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement before the game quickly settled into a pattern.
Millwall’s willingness to surrender possession and territory paid off early on but it was Phillip Cocu’s side who were the more fluid and ambitious side throughout.
Wayne Rooney’s experience allowed the youthful midfield of Sibley, Max Bird, Duane Holmes and Tom Lawrence to raid forward at will and they tormented the home defence for long periods.
Their best chances came on the break, with Mahlon Romeo and Ryan Leonard both going close, but Sibley could easily have ended up with six goals.
Young Ram Sibley outshines Rooney
Much of the focus has been on former England captain Rooney, and his influence on a young Rams side in his now familiar deeper role was clear.
But Sibley, who only made his full league debut in Derby’s last Championship game – a 3-0 win over Blackburn in early March – was the clear man of the match.
The 18-year-old consistently found space in dangerous areas and looked assured and comfortable on the ball, both in his passing and when running at defenders.
Sibley’s first goal where he showed great control after a slick team move before crashing the ball high into the net was the pick of his three and came just after he had gone close with a decent strike from distance.
Two mazy runs almost brought further goals, one effort flashing just wide and another producing a fine one-handed stop from Bartosz Bialkowski.
Sibley was not to be denied his hat-trick, however, with two similar strikes across goal from astute passes by Waghorn and substitute Chris Martin, securing a much-deserved third successive league victory for the visitors.
Rowett’s rejuvenated Lions still in the frame
Millwall have been transformed since the appointment of Gary Rowett as boss in October and are still very much in contention for the play-offs despite this setback.
Rowett took over with the Lions 17th in the table, five points clear of danger and there were signs of the quality and organisation which has seen them climb the table so impressively.
Smith’s fine header from Shane Ferguson’s pinpoint cross ended a lovely move, and had Leonard found the net when one-on-one before the break, or Smith managed to keep down his lob when through after the interval, the result could have been different.
But Derby, last season’s beaten play-off finalists, looked brighter and sharper throughout and were good value for their win.
Millwall manager Gary Rowett: “We’re a team that thrives off the energy of the crowd in certain moments in the game and I think we found it hard when the game felt flat.
“Derby navigated it better than us, with their technical players and slow build-up play.
“We started OK, scored a very good goal, we broke well, pinched it in midfield and showed good composure to put a good ball in for Matt Smith.
“But after that we conceded two very poor goals in my opinion. They were well taken by Sibley, and I’m sure Derby will be delighted with them, but they were very poor, very soft.”