As Alex Ferguson left The Cliff on Friday he stopped for a conversation with journalists. "Lose at this time of the season," he said with the championship in mind, "and you cut your own throats." His confident smile suggested the last people he expected to be holding a bloody razor were his own players.
Which just shows how even the best of managers can be surprised by the incompetence of his charges. Since stress-racked Manchester United tossed the title in Leeds' direction in 1992, they have exuded rigid calm when others have crumpled, winning two Doubles and three championships. They seem to enjoy testing the extent of their nerve. Or they did until this match.
The body language of the champions as they slunked off the pitch screamed. They knew they were in for a verbal mauling and, worse, they knew that the rest of Old Trafford also knew. Were you reasonably quiet in the dressing- room? Ferguson was questioned. "Yes," he replied. "What would you expect of me?" As you asked Alex, tea cups embedded six inches into walls.
Where he began with his vitriol was the the sole quandary as the red shirts had provided plenty of targets. Ryan Giggs and David Beckham underperformed, Andy Cole was anonymous and even Roy Keane was sloppy. As for the back four, it was revealing that Gary Neville and Gary Pallister were substituted.
"Our defence was terrible. Absolutely shocking," Ferguson said, his head shaking with sorrowful memory. It was almost a relief to get on to the subject of the visitors. "When people are fighting for their lives sometimes it brings the best out of them. Derby played at their very best today, they won't play better all season. Hands up to them. They did well."
Mention Jim Smith's name and the normal reaction is on the lines of "the nicest man in football". Rarely is the Derby manager given credit for his considerable tactical nous yet in this match his game plan was masterful. Three strikers spread across the field pegged back United's full-backs while Eric Cantona was reined in by man-for-man marking.
Paul Trollope had that back-breaking task yet, the Frenchman's goal notwithstanding, it was a measure of his success that he was also able to be the game's outstanding distributor as well. Allied to the prodigious work of Robin van der Laan and Darryl Powell and United's much-vaunted midfield was reduced to near impotence.
True, United had the impressive Mart Poom swooping round his area all afternoon, and on another day they might have been rewarded. Conversely relegation-threatened and injury-weakened Derby would have been 4-0 up against the champions at half-time if Ashley Ward had looked anything like a pounds 1m striker.
After 21 minutes he miskicked grotesquely to squander Trollope's perfect through ball while just before half-time he had three close-range pops at Peter Schmeichel's posts, the first two saved by the United goalkeeper, the third flicking an upright on the way to going wide. Even Ward's goal was ungainly as his shot was scuffed, hit the ground and bounced over Schmeichel's head.
The tall, gangly Paulo Wanchope had played a part in that goal, heading the ball down for Ward, but the 20-year-old Costa Rican marked his debut with something far more special. Gaining possession 10 yards inside his own half he cut inside Phil Neville and Pallister before side-footing past Schmeichel with the entire United back four surrounding him.
Cantona's glorious control and strike immediately after half-time and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's uninhibited 76th-minute volley would have got the champions off the hook but that hope was dashed with a goal of staggering ineptitude. Either Pallister or Schmeichel could have cleared when the ball bounced on the edge of the area but the former held back, presumably because of his goalkeeper's call, and Dean Sturridge nipped between them. Another win and Derby should be safe.
"Just when we were developing a tempo we gave away a killer goal," Ferguson said. "Absolutely crazy." Pure farce. If Merseyside had not been numbed by the IRA's work, the sound of sniggering from that direction would have been deafening.
Goal: Ward (28) 0-1; Wanchope (35) 0-2; Cantona (46) 1-2; Sturridge (73) 1-3; Solskjaer (75) 2-3.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville (Irwin, 69), Johnsen, Pallister (Scholes, 85), P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Butt (Solskjaer, h/t), Giggs; Cantona; Cole. Substitutes not used: Poborsky, Van der Gouw (gk).
Derby County (4-1-2-3): Poom; Laursen, McGrath, Dailly, C Powell; Trollope; Van der Laan, D Powell; Wanchope (Simpson, 65), Ward, Sturridge. Substitutes not used: Willems, Carbon, Solis, Hoult (gk).
Bookings: United: Giggs; Derby: D Powell.
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).
Man of the match: Trollope.
Manchester United: 12 April v Blackburn (a); 19 v Liverpool (a); 3 May v Leicester (a); 7 v Middlesbrough (h); 11 v West Ham (h); tba v Newcastle (h).
Arsenal: 12 April v Leicester (h); 19 v Blackburn Rovers (h); 21 v Coventry (a); 3 May v Newcastle (h); 11 v Derby (a).
Liverpool: 13 April v Sunderland (a); 16 v Everton (a); 19 v Manchester United (h); 3 May v Tottenham (h); 6 v Wimbledon (a); 11 v Sheffield Wednesday (a).