And how yesterday at Old Trafford it all went right for Derby, including an extraordinary goal from their gangling newcomer from Costa Rica, Paulo Wanchope, and so wrong for United who ended the day blustering desperately and incoherently as the title slipped in nervous hands.
Quite what effect this first home defeat since the visit of Juventus last year will have on United as they go back into Europe to face Borussia Dortmund in the European Champions Cup semi-final remains a matter for Alex Ferguson to consider nervously today while he watches Liverpool going for victory over troubled Coventry. "We were terrible in defence," he admitted afterwards. "But hands up to Derby, they deserved it. David May should be fit for Wednesday - we certainly missed him today."
Against Borussia, who are highly effective in midfield, they are obviously going to be in need of much greater concentration in both defence and midfield than they showed yesterday. They would have relished facing the day, indeed the next few days, without Liverpool, and now Arsenal, hard on their shoulders in a championship that is now going to extend them beyond even the limits of endurance which they had expected. With the European game pestering at the back of the players' minds, they clearly wanted to wrap and seal yesterday's match quickly and painlessly. Wishful thinking.
United's tactical use of Andy Cole as sole front man with a closely marked Eric Cantona supporting slightly deeper is rarely one that inspires. It left Beckham, Keane and Giggs too much work to do in support. Compounding that, yesterday, Cantona and Giggs both headed fruitlessly two early chances that should have cushioned United from ensuing trouble. As it was, Derby's worthy tenacity profited them well when United's central defence stood by as Paul Trollope centred. Wanchope headed down and Ashley Ward was left to hammer what was probably a mis-struck shot into the ground at Gary Pallister's feet. The ball bounced high, as if clearing the bar, but fell beneath it for a 29th-minute lead that only six minutes later Derby increased magnificently.
Wanchope, who is 20, and was bought only last week, sauntered on to the ball some 35 yards out, lazily turned four United players into spectators and virtually strolled into the penalty area where he calmly curled in a shot beyond Peter Schmeichel. The Danish international could easily have suffered further when, shortly before half-time, he twice blocked close-range shots from Ward who was again given too much freedom.
By replacing Nicky Butt with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United clearly intended to provide support for Cole, who badly needed it. But it was Solskjaer's fine, long diagonal pass from midfield that took United back into contention. Cantona killed the ball with typical precision and as Derby's new Estonian goalkeeper, Mat Poom, began to close down, he beat him disdainfully.
Not before time, United came awake. Derby were compressed. Solskjaer became a magnet for passes from midfield players at last beginning to control that area, and in the meantime Derby lost their new wizard, Wanchope, with cramp. Yet this obstinate Derby side weathered the prolonged onslaught.
An extraordinary moment of misunderstanding between Schmeichel and Pallister on the edge of the penalty area allowed Dean Sturridge to head the ball over them both. It gently hit the foot of the post but Sturridge was quickest to reach it while the United defenders were side-tracked arguing between themselves. So he tapped in Derby's third, leaving United to turn again for help from Solskjaer who drove in a huge dipping dive, but Paul McGrath stood his ground like the good old pro he is. United's championship hopes could have foundered on that rock. "Other players cry off with slight injuries. Paul's got no legs left but plays on," said Jim Smith, the Derby manager, while lighting up what looked like an even larger than usual cigar.Reuse content