If the 3,700-strong contingent of Manchester United followers left a pulsating contest at Pride Park yesterday ruing a result that left them only a point clear of Arsenal with a game more played, their anguish was nothing compared with that of the United fan leading the attack for relegation-threatened Derby.
In his previous incarnation as a supermarket shelf-stacker, Malcolm Christie was so besotted with the Old Trafford club that he decided to give up his part-time playing career with Nuneaton to support them. Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to be about to curse his change of heart as the 22-year-old striker apparently completed Derby's first Premiership hat-trick in the final minute of stoppage time.
Fabien Barthez, fortunate not concede a penalty when he brought down Christie moments earlier, spilled Branko Strupar's shot. Christie, who had scored the winner at Old Trafford last spring to keep Derby in the top-flight, reached the ball with his right foot just as the United goalkeeper planted his hands on it at the second attempt. The Derby player's momentum prised it from his grasp and he rolled it into the net.
Yet even as Derby celebrated a dramatic, if undeserved victory, the referee, Steve Dunn, was ruling that Barthez had had control of the ball. United breathed again, but Ferguson joined Derby's manager, John Gregory, in suggesting that the 'goal' should have been given.
"I thought it may well have been all right and should have stood," the United manager said. "But the referee had such a poor game, a really shocking game. We had enough chances to win it, but their keeper [Andy Oakes] had a fantastic match and Derby fought like tigers, while we lost concentration in the last 20 minutes."
Gregory, who for a few, delirious seconds looked to have reversed the ill fortune which saw United come from behind to knock his Aston Villa team out of the FA Cup, argued that the champions' status had counted against his side. "The referee bottled it twice" he said. "Even Sir Alex agreed it was a goal, and that was a nailed-on penalty. If it had happened at the Stretford End, it wouldn't have been disallowed. The fact that it's Manchester United does influence referees." For all his frustration, Gregory could reflect on "a great result" and seven points from a possible 12 since he arrived. "We're alive and kicking, even if Christie should have been going home with the match-ball. We hung in there against possibly the best side in the world.
"On another day [Ruud] van Nistelrooy and [Ole Gunnar] Solskjaer would have buried us, and we rode our luck for long periods. But maybe we should be awarded the points just for keeping those two off the scoresheet." Derby had not beaten United at home since 1989, when Robert Maxwell owned the club, though the rare presence of their greatest manager, Brian Clough, was a reminder to older devotees of when the Rams lorded it over the Reds. When Christie volleyed them ahead after Fabrizio Ravanelli helped a pass by Pierre Ducrocq into his path, they sat back and hoped against hope to witness a little piece of history.
United's response was ruthless. Although occasionally troubled by the trickery of Georgi Kinkladze, they came at Derby in waves, using the full width of the pitch and shooting on sight. Solskjaer had already hit the post before Ryan Giggs, taking Van Nistelrooy's lay-off in his awesome stride, left Warren Barton trailing. The resultant cross was turned in by Paul Scholes.
The pressure intensified in the second half, with Oakes turning a Van Nistelrooy shot on to the upright, so it was no surprise when United seized the lead. For once, Derby's outstanding young centre-backs, Danny Higginbotham and Chris Riggott, failed to put their bodies in the way as Juan Sebastian Veron bludgeoned the ball beyond Oakes from 20 yards.
United appeared to believe the points were secure which may not have occurred had Roy Keane not been absent with a knee injury on the day after he signed his new, four-year contract and although Oakes pushed another Solskjaer effort on to and over the bar, they were punished for their folly.
Gregory launched Derby's fightback by sending on Lee Morris. His pace unhinged the right of Barthez's defence to the extent that Luciano Zavagno, the Argentinian signed from French football by Colin Todd, was able to charge into their area before crossing for Christie to score a true predator's goal.
United have conceded an unusually high number of goals this season, relying on their capacity to outscore opponents as Brazil once did. This time, however, it was Derby who looked more likely to finish the scoring. As their coach headed towards London last night for tomorrow's date with Arsenal, they were doubtless arguing that they actually did so.
Goals: Christie (8) 1-0; Scholes (40) 1-1; Veron (59) 1-2; Christie (78) 2-2.
Derby County (4-4-2): Oakes 7; Barton 5, Riggott 7, Higginbotham 7, Zavagno 6; Kinkladze 6 (Elliott, 82), Lee 6, Ducrocq 6 (Morris, 7 62), Boertien 7; Christie 8, Ravanelli 5 (Strupar, 5 74). Substitutes not used: Valakari, Foletti (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Barthez 7; Irwin 6 (O'Shea, 84), G Neville 6, Johnsen 7, Silvestre 6; Beckham 7, Scholes 7, Veron 7, Giggs 8 (Forlan, 79); Solskjaer 6, van Nistelrooy 7. Substitutes not used: Butt, P Neville, Carroll (gk).
Referee: S Dunn (Bristol) 6.
Bookings: Derby: Durcrocq, Zavagno.
Man of the match: Christie.
Attendance: 33,041.Reuse content