In a match that showed the persistent mentality at the club since Steve Cooper’s arrival, Nottingham Forest left it late to bag their first league victory at The Den since 2013.
Cooper made one change to the side that defeated Premier League Arsenal in the third round of the FA Cup, as goal scorer Lewis Grabban was brought in ahead of Philip Zinckernagel.
Millwall looked the most likely to score in the opening exchanges, with Joe Worrall and Scott McKenna busy at the back, stopping a rampage of crosses from former Derby County left-back Scott Malone.
Keinan Davis showed his power as he broke away from the Millwall back-line and cut inside onto his right foot, but saw his tame shot was collected easily by Bartosz Białkowski on 23 minutes.
The Reds suddenly sparked into life after a lacklustre 40 minutes, as Davis again charged down the left wing and found Grabban at the far post. He worked it back to Ryan Yates who couldn’t beat Białkowski from relatively close range. A minute later, Brennan Johnson found himself within shooting range from the edge of the box but saw his shot saved from by Polish ‘keeper.
A bright end to the first half continued into the second as Forest looked threatening, attacking towards a sold-out away end. The visitors persisted but were often forced to shoot from distance, with Steve Cook and James Garner sending efforts off target.
Millwall’s attacking threat switched to their right in the second half, with right wing-back Danny McNamara offering width. However, attacks down Forest’s left weren’t fruitful for the hosts as they struggled to get bodies in the box.
After a goal-line clearance from Worrall to deny Ben Thompson, Forest came forward with Yates. He played a nice ball to an open Johnson, but Grabban couldn’t get enough power on his shot from the Welshman’s cross with a cute heel flick in the 70th minute.
Nine minutes later, Yates missed two close range headers in quick succession after a Jack Colback corner. Grabban then saw a headed chance from a similar range saved from Colback’s cross.
With 86 minutes on the clock, Brice Samba produced an exceptional save to push away a header from Shaun Hutchinson following a free-kick from the right wing. Benik Afobe, an annoyance to the Forest defence all game, then blazed a rebound shot high over Samba’s crossbar.
After a hopeful acrobatic kick from Yates that dipped just over the bar from a corner, Samba was called upon again to deny Afobe, as he arrived late to steer a Mason Bennett cross goalwards.
As the fourth official indicated three minutes of stoppage time, the game seemed to be hurtling towards a stalemate. Forest had other ideas. The Reds, in yellow and orange for the outing, pounced on sloppy play from Millwall inside their own half. Johnson left the Lions’ defence for dead and played in substitute Zinckernagel. His chipped effort managed to get past a desperately diving Białkowski and allowed a lurking Grabban to poke home from a yard out.
Bedlam high in the north stand followed. The passion and resilience that has been instilled into this Cooper side shown at its finest — with 24 shots on goal, and seven on target — as Forest took home three precious points in the play-off race.
Cooper said: “I thought it was a really good game. We know it is a tough place to come, they’re unbeaten in five at The Den and it took a while for us to settle. Once we settled on about the hour mark, we were good. It was very much about looking to kick on after half-time and we had a lot more chances than Millwall. We deserved to win the game.
“We played some really good football in the second half with our centre halves stepping in, midfielders getting on the other side of theirs and we were a real threat down the sides. We had a little spell where we wasted two or three efforts, and 30 seconds later Brice was making an excellent save down the other end.
“There were moments where I thought maybe it’s not our day, but we weren’t going to settle for the point. We were always going to try and win the game. In the end, we’ve done it in what the game plan was — to get at their back three, to get down the sides, and we showed a great bit of quality with Philip and Lewis at the end.”