Under his father, old Big Head, defeating Manchester United was an expectation not a shock. But last night Nigel Clough, Derby's new manager, who takes the team for the first time this morning, watched as the Championship also-rans stunned the Champions of Europe to take a slim advantage into the second-leg of this Carling Cup semi-final.
Clough senior won the European Cup too, albeit with Nottingham Forest, twice, having also taken Derby to the competition's semi-finals, but something more modest is expected of his more modest son. Nevertheless it was a remarkable evening, all the more remarkable because Derby should have come away with a far superior advantage. The final should be firmly in their grasp.
Indeed how often has Sir Alex Ferguson been reduced to saying the following after a match? "It's a fantastic result for us considering the performance," before adding: "We could have lost four goals. I think we were lucky. Lucky to only lose 1-0." Lucky they were. Derby had two chances kicked off the goal-line, with Rob Hulse also firing over, from almost point-blank range, as they dominated. Rarely have United been so disjointed, so out-of-sorts, so ineffective.
But it was more remarkable than that. The attention was understandably on Nigel Clough but Derby, last night, were led, for the first and last time by David Lowe, the former striker, now the club's academy director who, until recently, was coaching the under-eights. Even then there was more to comment on with Lowe recalling Andy Todd, an outcast this season, along with others who have not figured such as Mo Camara and Mile Sterjovski. All played their part.
And it was the latter who teed up Derby's goal which was fiercely struck, from a full 27 yards, by the man-of-the-match Kris Commons. The fanfare was expected to be solely for Clough. Instead he shared it with the Commons man. Sweet music indeed with the winger, who played in behind Hulse, and ran riot, admitting afterwards that United might play "all their top boys" in the return leg at Old Trafford. But that claim was met with a riposte from the Derby – and former United – goalkeeper Roy Carroll who rightly pointed out that was the case by the final whistle last night.
Carroll had more to say, adding: "I think I didn't have a shot to save in the whole 90 minutes" which, amazingly, was true. Only once was he in trouble – when he watched, beaten, as Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick dipped and spun close to the angle of post and cross-bar. Ronaldo came on, as did Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick, but to little effect. It was Derby's night and such was their determination, indefatigability and work-rate that they were not to be knocked out of their stride.
Ferguson denied that in two weeks time he will field a full-strength side, preferring to persevere with younger players and absolving Darron Gibson and Danny Wellbeck of blame even if the team he fielded yesterday was hardly a callow one. It was bad news, indeed, for Carlos Tevez who, newly-arrived from his break in Argentina, and with his future in increasing doubt, put in an abject display, looking a pale shadow of a £30m-plus acquisition.
And so Derby could do what Burnley failed to achieve the previous evening, holding onto a lead against a Premier League opponent, even if they have another 90 plus minutes to negotiate at Old Trafford, where Clough will be in the dug-out, if they are to, all so improbably, reach Wembley. What an occasion that would be for the Cloughs whose evening was awash with memories – and the odd moment of jest with the PA announcer playing XTC's "Making plans for Nigel" in his pre-match playlist.
He did not take to the field, did not take the applause but the effect was undeniable, as he took his seat in the directors box.
Clough had spoken to the players' beforehand and the response was immediate with Steve Davies, allowed to reach a hook back into the penalty box from a corner, pushing the ball past Tomasz Kuszcak only for Nemanja Vidic to block as he tried to force it home. Seconds later and a fierce half-volley from Sterjovski was hacked off the line by Jonny Evans with Kuszczak beaten.
Soon the goalkeeper was beaten again and, this time, Commons found the net. But United had an hour to respond. Surely they would? But they did not. Passes went astray, possession was surrendered, alarm spread. Ferguson looked, and was, shocked. "We didn't play well," he said. "We over-worried about the crossing and set piece play. We looked panicky at the back."
They did. Commons turned John O'Shea, his rebound setting up Hulse, after dragging a shot narrowly wide himself. Maybe, probably, those misses will be rued. Still, it should finally fire Derby's season and Clough, along with Lowe, can take credit for that as he entertained Ferguson in the manager's office last night.
Derby County (4-4-2): Carroll; Connolly, Todd (Savage, 87), Nyatanga, Camara; Sterjovski (Teale, 58), Addison, Green, Davies (Barazite, 80); Commons, Hulse. Substitutes not used: Bywater (gk), Dickinson, Powell, Hines.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Rafael, Vidic, Evans, O'Shea; Gibson, Anderson (Carrick, 74), Scholes (Ronaldo, 63), Nani; Wellbeck (Rooney, 63), Tevez. Substitutes not used; Amos (gk), Giggs, Fletcher, Possebon.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).