As a spectacle it never really got going until Deon Burton, starting a game for the first time this season, finally made United pay for a slack defensive display by converting Daryll Powell's low cross 15 minutes from time. This proved to be the catalyst the visitors were waiting for and, boosted by a triple-international substitution that would have worried better sides than Derby, United hit back through Jordi Cruyff with five minutes left. Dwight Yorke might even have won it for them in the final minute, but his header from Jesper Blomqvist's cross was surprisingly inaccurate.
"We never looked like losing the game, but I just wish Derby had scored 25 minutes earlier because we responded well to going down," Ferguson said. Following on from their celebrated Champions' League victory over Brondby, it was perhaps not surprising that United should fail to hit the heights for a second time in four days but Ferguson, to his credit, refused to blame tiredness.
On a run of three successive defeats, a home fixture against a rampant Manchester United was probably not what Derby needed. They have lost their way after a bright start and the fans have been mystified by some of Jim Smith's team selections, notably the omission of the two Italians, Francesco Baiano and Stefano Eranio, whose perceived lack of form Smith criticised sharply in the match programme.
Without the injured Lars Bohinen in midfield, Derby began tentatively but once they had established United were not on the Brondby-beat again they came out of their shell and with a better final ball might have granted Fergsuon's wish and scored much earlier than they did. "I was delighted with the attitude, commitment and our game plan, but I was disappointed with the draw," Smith said. "I did not feel it was the right result."
Igor Stimac, who missed all three defeats, returned to the heart of a defence which looked solid enough for Derby not to have to worry about sliding into trouble as the season goes on, but their chances of mounting the kind of challenge for a place in Europe they sustained for much of last season appear to depend upon an Italian renaissance or the success of Smith's search for a new striker.
For United Wes Brown, very much involved in the build-up to Cruyff's goal, enhanced his rapidly burgeoning reputation with another composed display at right-back.
Another pleasing sign for Ferguson is that the Cruyff enigma is starting to show signs of unravelling itself. "The secret to Jordi is staying fit," Ferguson said. "He's got great talent." That is undeniable, but he has spent long periods of his United career on the sidelines when he has been fit, suggesting his problems have been as much mental as physical.
Ferguson has been happy to continue paying his wages, presumably in the hope one day of being rewarded, and while Cruyff still has some way to go before forcing himself into the first team he is beginning to represent a valuable addition to United's powerful squad.
On the debit side, although Ferguson would never admit it, David Beckham shows little sign of having learnt from his indiscretions against Argentina and the petulance that spoils his wonderful talent was again in evidence against Derby.
His reaction to a foul by Powell - raising an arm in anger when lying prone, even though Powell was clearly attempting to apologise - was frighteningly reminiscent of St Etienne. On this occasion he barely made contact, but it seemed pure chance that it was his arm rather than his foot that was the nearest weapon of retribution.
Goals: Burton (74) 1-0; Cruyff (85) 1-1.
Derby County (5-2-3): Hoult; Delap, Prior, Stimac, Laursen (Dorigo, h- t), Schnoor; Carsley, Powell; Sturridge, Wanchope, Burton. Substitutes not used: Carbonari, Elliott, Baiano, Poom (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Brown, Stam, G Neville (Scholes, 80), P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Butt (Cruyff, 80), Giggs (Blomqvist, 80); Yorke, Cole. Substitutes not used: Berg, Van der Gouw (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Portland).
Bookings: Derby Schnoor, Powell, Delap; Manchester United Cole, G Neville, Beckham.
Man of the match: Powell.