Derby County 3 Blackburn Rovers 1
Early arrivals at Pride Park could gorge themselves on a goal feast by the great Baseball Ground sides of Brian Clough and Dave Mackay on Derby's in-house television channel. Jim Smith's latterday Rams then created tomorrow's nostalgia, with Dean Sturridge and Paulo Wanchope assuming the roles once taken by Kevin Hector and John O'Hare, though Blackburn were perhaps unfortunate not to take a point.
Derby's victory, in a match oozing entertainment and commitment, took them into the Premiership's top six. Should they consolidate that position, or even improve upon it, a place in Europe would be theirs after an absence of more than 20 years. For the genial Smith, who has never led a club into Continental competition in a long managerial career, it would be a prize few would begrudge him.
Blackburn, who began the match with the somewhat loftier ambition of maintaining their pursuit of Manchester United, were left to reflect on only their third League defeat. All have fallen on a Sunday, but whereas Roy Hodgson's team were naive when losing to Leeds and outclassed at Old Trafford, on this occasion they simply did not have the rub of the green.
For Derby's opening goal - with their first shot after an initial period dominated by the visitors - Sturridge looked at least a foot offside. The second, by the same player, took a critical deflection off Colin Hendry to leave Tim Flowers wrong-footed and Blackburn facing a 2-0 deficit before half-time.
Even after Chris Sutton belatedly scored the goal Blackburn had threatened all afternoon, Derby swept down field and restored their advantage through Wanchope. Smith later admitted that his centre-forward "drives you round the bend", yet it was his counterpart who was entitled to feel the more demented.
"We committed some very bad defensive errors and paid for them," Hodgson said. "I don't believe that much in luck. You make your own."
The Blackburn manager conceded that the result meant Manchester United now enjoyed "a very healthy lead". He was not, however, ready to accept that his own side were effectively reduced to fighting for a Champions' League place via the runners-up spot.
"We can only draw comfort from the fact that when this club won the championship, in 1995, we were 12 points clear at one stage and yet went into the final day needing a result to win it. The same sort of thing happened to Newcastle. I'm not saying it will happen to United, but you don't always lose games because you play badly."
Derby's success was based on a counter-attacking strategy - the kind usually favoured by away teams - although it may have been forced on them by Blackburn's relentless pressure. Only 90 seconds had elapsed before Mart Poom parried Kevin Gallacher's shot, and there were still barely five minutes gone when the Estonian leapt to his left to keep out a Hendry header.
But Blackburn were caught out on the quarter-hour mark. Gary Croft appeared to have cleared the danger, only for Jonathan Hunt to return the ball. Wanchope's teasing flick found Sturridge in an offside position, but the movement was too swift for the linesman and the drive too fierce for Flowers.
The second goal also came when Blackburn least expected it. Jeff Kenna's fine saving tackle on Sturridge gave Croft the chance to clear. Instead he was dispossessed by Francesco Baiano, whose cunning and craft were behind all Derby's better moments. The Italian crossed for Sturridge to fire past Flowers with an unwitting assist by Hendry.
In the second half, Blackburn found Poom in even more commanding form. Ironically, their best chance fell to a defender, Stephane Henchoz, who turned the ball over an unguarded goal after Sutton had nodded Garry Flitcroft's centre into his path.
Sutton finally trimmed the deficit with another far-post header from a Flitcroft cross, his 14th goal of the season. Derby's followers, who had been singing "we've only had two shots", braced themselves for a fraught finale but the maddeningly mercurial Wanchope still had a trick up his sleeve.
In fact, the arms were just about the only part of his anatomy that the Costa Rican did not use to control the ball after Hendry miscued his clearance from a header by substitute Ron Willems. Hector may have done it more gracefully, but the ensuing volley proved an emphatic finish in more ways than one.
Goals: Sturridge (15) 1-0; Sturridge (41) 2-0; Sutton (86) 2-1; Wanchope (88) 3-1.
Derby County (3-4-1-2): Poom; Yates, Stimac, Elliott (Willems, h/t); Laursen, Hunt, Rowett, C Powell; Baiano; Wanchope, Sturridge (Burton, 89). Substitutes not used: Bridge-Wilkinson, Carbon, Hoult (gk).
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Kenna, Henchoz, Hendry, Croft (Wilcox, 61); Ripley, Sherwood, Flitcroft, Duff; Sutton, Gallacher. Substitutes not used: Pedersen, McKinlay, Valery, Williams (gk).
Referee: G Poll (Tring).
Bookings: Derby: Hunt. Blackburn: Henchoz, Flitcroft.
Man of the match: Baiano.
Attendance: 27,823.Reuse content