Reading romped to their biggest victory of the season but could not preserve their Premier League status after Fulham's win at Portsmouth saved Roy Hodgson's side and condemned Steve Coppell's team to relegation two seasons after winning the Championship title with a record 106 points.
Eighth last season, Reading were never able to recapture the form that put them in contention for Europe just over a year ago. Ultimately they paid the price for a dreadful April run in which they failed to score in six matches and won only two points.
The disappointment left Coppell considering his position as manager after his fourth relegation. "It is too close now," he said within minutes of the final whistle. "I have huge affection for this club and I want to do what is right."
He denied, however, that he had been saying his farewells when he went on to the pitch at the end to acknowledge Reading's 3,000 travelling fans. "It was not a goodbye gesture but a thank you," he said.
Derby, confirmed as the worst team in Premier League history by seven different measures, were unable to raise their game even in front of a 33,000 full house as Reading – without a goal in nine hours and 26 minutes of play before James Harper's left-foot curler from outside the box put them in front yesterday – simply swept them aside.
It meant that for more than an hour Reading's supporters thought that luck was with them as their team led and Fulham were being held goalless at Fratton Park. Further goals from Dave Kitson, Kevin Doyle, and Leroy Lita made it certain that they would at least end their season with a win. But their mood was deflated with the news of Danny Murphy's 76th-minute goal for Fulham.
Reading slipped into the bottom three in February, climbed out again at the end of March after taking 10 points from five matches but found themselves on the brink nine days ago after their 1-0 home defeat to Tottenham.
Derby have amassed a considerable collection of unwanted records – lowest Premier League points total, lowest number of goals, worst goal difference, lowest goals per game average in English league history, and longest Premier League winless sequence to go with the quickest relegation. Also, no team has finished as far adrift in last place.
Manager Paul Jewell promised changes. He said: "No player could argue if he wasn't here next season. We have not been good enough for the Premiership and if you look at our results against Championship sides in the cups if we go into next season with the same players we will have another relegation struggle on our hands."
Even in his darkest hour, however, Jewell had not lost his gallows humour. When his press conference was interrupted by a public address announcement asking fans on the pitch to leave the stadium by the north-west entrance, Jewell added: "Can you tell the players that as well, please."
Goals: Harper (15) 0-1; Kitson (61) 0-2; Doyle (69) 0-3; Lita (90) 0-4.
Derby County (4-1-3-2): Carroll; Myers, Moore, Nyatanga, Lewis; Ghaly; Sterjovski (Edworthy h-t), Savage (Feilhaber h-t), Jones; Miller, Villa (Simmons 62). Substitutes not used: Price (gk), Addison.
Reading (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Murty, Duberry, Ingimarsson, Shorey; Oster, Matejovsky (Cisse 82), Harper (Bikey 86), Hunt; Kitson (Doyle 65), Lita. Substitutes not used: Federici (gk), Kebe.
Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire)
Booked: Reading Doyle.
Man of the match: Matejovsky.