Cardiff City remain the team to catch in the Championship but promotion no longer feels like a foregone conclusion. Behind to Conor Sammon's second-half goal and playing like a team burdened by the pressure that has derailed them at this stage of the season in the past, Cardiff were thankful for a late equaliser from the substitute Craig Noone, who headed in at the far post eight minutes from time to prevent a third defeat in four matches.

If relief was the overriding emotion among the home fans when he scored, there was an unmistakable sense of disappointment come the end. This was a chance to take another step towards the Premier League but Cardiff stuttered against a Derby County side treading water in mid-table. The anxiety in the stadium was tangible and Malky Mackay's players did nothing to ease the tension with a nervous and disjointed performance that suggests the recent debate about rebranding or name changing in the Premier League may have been a little premature.

Cardiff have picked up only four points from their last four matches, which should be a source of encouragement to the chasing pack. The gap to second place remains five points, with Watford now their nearest challengers following a 2-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday, which has lifted them above Hull City. Cardiff have a game in hand over the three clubs immediately below them but they badly need to rediscover the form that carried them to the Championship summit.

There was nothing fluent or refined about Cardiff's play here, and at times they looked devoid of ideas as they struggled to break Derby down. Their best hope of a goal prior to Noone's header seemed to rest with Aron Gunnarsson's long throw, which led to a headed chance for Fraizer Campbell early in the second half, only for Adam Legzdins, the Derby keeper, to tip over. Mackay, however, refused to be downbeat about the result. "It's about trying to be the most consistent team in the league and we came back and got a point," the Cardiff manager said.

A point was the least Derby deserved from a game which they controlled for long periods, in particular in the opening 45 minutes. The visitors were left deeply frustrated that two contentious decisions went against them during that period. Chris Martin had a goal chalked off for offside – Andy Garner, Nigel Clough's assistant manager, said that replays showed Martin was "half a yard onside" – and Derby also had strong appeals for a penalty turned down when Sammon's shot appeared to strike Ben Turner on an arm. Clough made no attempt to conceal his anger on the touchline.

It was an impressive display from Derby, who had arrived in a dishevelled state, without a win in six games and also lacking in numbers. With eight players injured, including the leading scorer Jamie Ward, Clough was unable to name his full quota of substitutes. Against that backdrop, the small band of travelling supporters could have been forgiven for fearing the worst, yet it was a measure of how well Derby played that they departed disappointed to leave without three points.

David Marshall made a couple of good saves in the first half to deny Paul Coutts, although the Cardiff goalkeeper was powerless to prevent Sammon from sweeping home in the 75th minute, after Turner failed to clear a cross from Ben Davies. Mackay responded by immediately introducing Noone and the Cardiff manager got his reward for that substitution moments later when the winger headed in Andrew Taylor's deep cross, after Legzdins came off his line for a ball that he had no chance of getting.

Cardiff could have pinched a victory in the closing stages but another substitute, Rudy Gestede, blazed wide from five yards as the goal yawned invitingly in front of him. Asked whether he thought nerves were creeping into his side's play, Mackay replied: "If it's nerves, surely you don't come back at the end. It was frustrating in terms of the goal we lost but great resilience to come back from a goal down with 15 minutes to go.

"We probably should have gone on to win it. Rudy is disappointed with himself that he didn't keep it on target."