When the Arsenal captain was banished, minutes after Ashley Ward had opened the scoring, the circumstances looked propitious for Derby to end their tenure at the Baseball Ground with a victory. But, as they proved the last time Adams was sent off, at Newcastle, playing with a man short is no impediment to Arsene Wenger's side.
While the points earned by two goals from Ian Wright and another by Dennis Bergkamp were not enough to take Arsenal into the European Champions' League, there was much for Wenger to savour at the end of his first Premiership campaign. In particular, the audacity and skill of his fellow Frenchman, the substitute Nicolas Anelka, augurs well for next season.
But if the afternoon ended with the 18-year-old Anelka providing an enticing glimpse of Highbury's future, the earlier part of the day had been devoted to Derby's past.
Brian Clough was not well enough to accept an invitation to be guest of honour at the stadium to which he brought the championship a quarter of a century ago, but there were enough nostalgic names to put a capacity crowd in celebratory mood.
Dave Mackay, who led Derby to a second title in 1975 after Clough's controversial departure, received rapturous applause before the game. Charlie George, back at the scene of his hat-trick against Real Madrid, was affectionately acclaimed by both sets of fans. All that was missing, it seemed, was one of those swamps that used to pass for a pitch at the Baseball Ground.
The weather tried to oblige. As rain swept over the ground, puddles formed on the bone-hard surface. Derby, playing with freedom after edging into mid-table, were undeterred and seized the lead after just seven minutes.
Aljosa Asanovic's deep cross was met by the head of Ward, whose first effort struck an upright. When the ball rebounded to him, a second thrust of the forehead notched up his 12th goal of the season.
Within 60 seconds, Adams was cautioned after scything down Asanovic on the halfway line. Three minutes later, when Adams perpetrated a similarly crude challenge on Darryl Powell, in an identical position on the opposite flank, Mr Durkin had no choice other than to issue a second yellow card. Adams was already sprinting towards the tunnel by the time the referee found the red.
Without his aerial presence, Ward had three opportunities to add to Derby's lead. He sent the first wastefully wide; the second bobbled against the post; and the third was athletically touched behind by David Seaman.
They were to be costly misses. Paul McGrath, that most regal and ramshackle of Rams, was nutmegged by Wright in the final minutes of his farewell appearance for Derby. Mart Poom saved the shot which followed, but it delayed the equaliser by only two minutes. When the Estonian failed to hold a shot by the increasingly confident Anelka, Wright stole in to guide the ball home.
An exquisite back-heel pass by the precocious Frenchman soon gave Wright a chance to put Arsenal ahead, but Poom held firm. However, he was helplessly beaten with nine minutes remaining. A shot by Ray Parlour broke off the defender to Bergkamp, whose chip sailed over the keeper from 18 yards.
Deep in stoppage time, Wright turned in Anelka's low cross for his 30th goal of the season. It was all rather anti-climactic for Derby, whose supporters must have watched the post-match pyrotechnics in the knowledge that Arsenal had provided the real fireworks on the great old ground's last day.
Goals: Ward (7) 1-0; Wright (55) 1-1; Bergkamp (81) 1-2; Wright (90) 1-3.
Derby County (3-5-2): Poom; McGrath (Carsley, 56), Dailly, Laursen; Rowett, Van der Laan; Asanovic, D Powell (Trollope, h-t), C Powell; Willems (Simpson, 76), Ward. Substitutes not used: Yates, Hoult (gk).
Arsenal (3-5-2): Seaman; Keown, Adams, Bould; Dixon, Merson (Anelka, 7), Vieira (Parlour, 76), Platt, Winterburn; Bergkamp, Wright. Substitutes not used: Marshall, Hughes, Lukic (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Poole, Dorset). Booking: Arsenal: Adams. Sending-off: Adams.
Man of the match: Anelka. Attendance: 18,287.