The occasion was in fact no more than the first leg of a Worthington Cup second-round tie, but since City are currently slumming in the Second Division, the way Joe Royle's youthful side fought back after conceding an early goal to Derby was a heartening measure of their progress.
City being City, there was a cloud in their silver lining. The dismissal of their captain, Jamie Pollock, left Derby facing only 10 men for the final 14 minutes. Thanks to a point-blank save by the goalkeeper, Nicky Weaver, from Kevin Harper in stoppage time, the contest will be nicely poised when the club's reconvene next Wednesday.
Pollock - playing his first match after a suspension for being sent off against Notts County - was shown the red card for elbowing Francesco Baiano in an off-the-ball incident. Royle later claimed his player had been butted in the first half, but made it clear he deemed Pollock's "retaliation" indefensible.
The City manager said: "Jamie's last sending off was unlucky, but I can't support him on this one."
Nevertheless, he saw their display as typical of the improvement which has seen them beaten only once this season. "We're a side that's growing up together. You can see the spirit among them."
His opposite number, Jim Smith, felt his players had been complacent. "All credit to City, who played very well," the Derby manager said. "But you can't take liberties with any team, and we missed four or five very good chances after half-time."
Derby, unbeaten this season, had gone in front after only nine minutes. Stefano Eranio linked with Dean Sturridge to provide Rory Delap with a shooting chance. The Republic of Ireland international, a snip at pounds 500,000 from Carlisle, took it ruthlessly, a rising drive bringing his first goal for Derby.
Last season, City would probably have folded. Prompted by Pollock, they responded positively and deserved their 27th-minute equaliser. After a free-kick on Derby's left, Pollock swung the ball into the penalty area. It was cleared only as far as Danny Tiatto, an Australian wing-back who arrived at Maine Road from Switzerland via Stoke. A stylish shot with the outside of his left foot was also his first goal for City.
Derby upped the tempo in an attempt to regain the initiative in the second half. They would have done so had Weaver not saved athletically from Paulo Wanchope - who also hooked wildly over from six yards - while a Sturridge shot struck the bar.
Pollock, with a brutal drive from 25 yards which Mart Poom pushed over, carried the fight to Derby. Unfortunately, he took the notion too literally, although his indiscretion could not take the gloss off the result for City's raucous following.
Derby County (3-4-1-2): Poom; Laursen, Stimac, Elliott; Delap (Harper, 82), Eranio, Carsley, Powell; Baiano; Wanchope, Sturridge. Substitutes not used: Schnoor, Bohinen, Kozluk, Knight (gk).
Manchester City (3-5-2): Weaver; Fenton, Wiekens, Vaughan; Edghill, Pollock, Jim Whitley, Dickov (Jeff Whitley, 77), Piatto; Goater, Bradbury (Brown, 69). Substitutes not used: Allsop, Crooks, Wright (gk).
Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).