Goalscorers: Ashley Ward 29, Paulo Wanchope 35, Eric Cantona 47, Dean Sturridge 75, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 76
Manchester United: Peter Schmeichel, Ronny Johnsen, Gary Pallister (Paul Scholes 86), Gary Neville (Denis Irwin 70), Phil Neville, Nicky Butt (Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 45), Roy Keane, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Andy Cole
Derby County: Mart Poom, Christian Dailly, Jacob Laursen, Chris Powell, Paul McGrath, Paul Trollope, Darryl Powell, Robin van der Laan, Dean Sturridge, Ashley Ward, Paulo Wanchope (Paul Simpson 65)
Referee: David Elleray, Attendance: 55,243
Going into the final two months of the 1996-1997 Premier League season, Manchester United seemed to have one hand on the title. Alex Ferguson’s side had lost just once since early November in the league and were heavy favourites to beat Derby County at Old Trafford. Derby were in mid-table and gave debuts to Estonian goalkeeper Mart Poom and 20-year-old Costa Rican forward Paulo Wanchope whilst Manchester United preferred Andy Cole upfront to top scorer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A win here would take Ferguson’s side six points clear of their nearest rivals.
Roy Keane had the first significant opportunity of the afternoon, nodding a header wide of the post from a delicate Ryan Giggs cross. The reigning champions dominated the early exchanges as expected and Giggs tested Poom’s reflexes with a point-blank header which the new Derby goalkeeper was equal to. So, it was a real shock to see Jim Smith’s side go into the lead.
Paul Trollope launched a ball to the back post and Wanchope won his header against Phil Neville. Ashley Ward’s strike wasn’t the cleanest but it bounced over Peter Schmeichel’s head and into the net. Six minutes later, Wanchope’s debut turned into a staggering contribution. He picked up possession and despite his fairly leggy style, he ran clean through past four Manchester United defenders, showed some great dribbling skills and nudged the ball beyond Schmeichel’s reach. Almost unknown to everyone before kick-off, the whole world now knew who Paulo Wanchope was.
Derby continued to boss proceedings and could have been leading 3-0 at half-time. Ward forced Schmeichel into two smart stops and then hit the post as the defence seemed to be standing likes statues. This was an error-strewn display from the table-toppers and Ferguson was bound to have got the hairdryer treatment out at half-time. He took off the disappointing Nicky Butt during the break and put Solskjaer on. There was an immediate response from the captain. Solskjaer picked out Eric Cantona, who brought down the ball superbly, held off his marker Trollope and then shot across Poom’s bows and into the back of the net.
Derby held firm though and with 15 minutes left, virtually secured a shock victory. Dean Sturridge nodded the ball past an overcommitted Schmeichel and when the ball hit the post, the bounce fell perfectly for Sturridge to score one of the easiest goals of his career. It was a poor performance from the entire Red Devils backline. Solskjaer immediately pulled a goal back when he made the most of an unfortunate flick-on from Paul McGrath but Derby held on for a memorable and deserved victory.
Manchester United remained unbeaten after this defeat to register a fourth Premier League title in five seasons. This was only Derby’s second away win of the season but it was the boost they needed and Smith’s side would finish a fine 12th in their debut Premier League campaign.