Tottenham had ventured to the Midlands with the bold intention of taking maximum points but made a dreadful start by handing Derby the lead through Clive Wilson's mistake. They fought back to draw level with a Ruel Fox goal, overcoming their tendency to keel over in the second half, but saw their hopes of at least some reward dashed when Paulo Wanchope snatched his 12th goal of the season with 13 minutes left.
The last word, however, went to Wanchope, who habitually makes an impact when it is least expected and did so here after a relatively quiet match. A looping header into the box by Sturridge put pressure on Sol Campbell and the England defender found himself muscled out by the Costa Rican striker, whose right leg then stretched far enough to angle a shot past Espen Baardsen and extend Tottenham's occupancy of the bottom three.
David Ginola had complained beforehand that he disliked playing in a side forced to scrap for points but if this was a Tottenham line-up designed not to lose then Christian Gross has some unusual ideas about what constitutes a defensive selection.
With Les Ferdinand installed alongside Jurgen Klinsmann in the vanguard, Ginola tucked in just behind and both Andy Sinton and Ruel Fox making menacing runs from midfield, it was a formation Ossie Ardiles might have dreamed up. Outside of the back four, only Nicola Berti appeared to have a defensive brief.
None the less, all was going reasonably well for Tottenham until their proper defenders conspired to hand Derby a 26th-minute lead.
Derby's greatest strength is the speed with which they turn defence into attack but even so there was no obvious danger to Baardsen's goal as the home side cleared their lines after a Ginola free-kick had come to nothing. However, when the ball arrived in the space Stephen Carr was defending just in front of Baardsen, the full-back headed it awkwardly to Clive Wilson, who then tried to head back to the goalkeeper. He failed miserably, allowing Dean Sturridge to seize his ninth and surely easiest goal of the season.
By the time half-time arrived, Tottenham could look back on some promising moments but nothing more, although a Ferdinand shot had brushed the woodwork in the opening seconds. Derby had seen Chris Powell, Lee Carsley and Stefano Eranio, but otherwise could feel satisfied with their work.
Perhaps they were too content. Within seconds of referee Gary Willard restarting the action, it was their turn to regret a defensive howler. Eranio lost the ball in dangerous territory near the edge of Derby's penalty area and although the beneficiary, Klinsmann, found his own route to goal blocked he had an outlet to his right in Fox, who was unmarked. The German spotted the opening and Fox's low strike flashed past Mart Poom.
The goal brought an edge to the contest that had been lacking earlier. Derby now felt threatened and when they set about restoring their advantage only Wilson denied them with a clearance off the line after Sturridge had met Francesco Baiano's cross with a header.
But the home side could not sustain the pressure, and Tottenham were close to gaining the lead themselves when Fox again found space at the far post after Sinton's cross had sailed over Klinsmann's head, but Poom brought off a fine save.