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Rubber Legs: When Derby's cult hero Paulo Wanchope destroyed Man United

The Costa Rican was exuberant and irresistible as the Rams defied expectations under Jim Smith.

Image: Barry Batchelor

DERBY BOSS JIM SMITH saw enough in the VHS tape footage to sanction the move.

So, in March 1997, the club forked out £600,000 to sign a completely unknown 20-year-old Costa Rican.

The following month, the relegation-threatened Rams headed for Old Trafford and ravaged by injury, Smith decided the new signing was worth the risk.

And it was there that the cult of Paulo Wanchope was born.

While Manchester United were sloppy and clearly had one eye on the upcoming Champions League semi-final first-leg clash with Borussia Dortmund, they faced an energetic side that smelled blood. With Paul McGrath at centre-half, Mart Poom in goal and Dean Sturridge up front, the guests were in front before the half-hour mark thanks to Ashley Ward. But, the goal was made by Wanchope who climbed high above Phil Neville at the far post to tee up the strike for his team-mate.

Things got a lot worse for Neville and his team minutes later when Wanchope picked up the ball in his own half. He effortlessly glided towards the United goal, Neville – thrashing and trailing behind him. Gary Pallister was easily swept aside too, Wanchope’s rubbery legs breezing past him from right to left. Gary Neville backed off too, unsure of how to deal with him and probably wary of conceding a penalty. As Wanchope inched closer to Peter Schmeichel’s net, he surprised the keeper by shooting early and with his right foot instead of his left , the accuracy of the finish – just a careful push to the far corner rather than a more powerful effort – ensured a two-goal Derby lead.

Source: DerbyCountyVideos/YouTube

United fought back but despite a superb Eric Cantona goal and another from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Sturridge made the most of a mix-up between Pallister and Schmeichel to grab a third for the guests.

Inevitably, the following day’s headlines were dominated by Wanchope and his remarkable debut. Though he wouldn’t score again that season, he more than played his part in an end-of-season flourish from Derby that saw them eventually finish in 12th.

And the following season, he blossomed.

He proved quite the catalyst for Derby and they battled hard for a top-seven place all season before just falling short. Smith’s side headed into the final round of fixtures with a faint possibility of European qualification but while they did beat Liverpool, other results didn’t go their way and they had to make do with 9th place.

Wanchope was irresistible at times. And, he had quite an uncanny knack too. Every time he scored, Derby won. There was one exception: a 2-2 draw with United.

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He’d already knocked in six in his previous seven appearances and, once again, he haunted Sir Alex Ferguson’s team that day too.

Derby took the lead when he forced Schmeichel into a wonderful save before Francesco Baiano lashed home the rebound from close range. Like at Old Trafford just months before, United were absolutely rattled and couldn’t handle Wanchope.

Before the break, he was shackled closely by Gary Neville along the left touchline. But as a pass was played into him, he expertly rolled the full-back and raced clear.

Heading for the penalty area, he faced up Henning Berg. He got as close as possible, moved the ball from his right to his left and then brazenly slipped it between the centre-back’s legs. As Schmeichel came out, Wanchope just side-footed past him and it all seemed very familiar.

Source: DerbyCountyVideos/YouTube

United managed to get a draw but the narrative continued to focus on Wanchope. He stayed at Derby for one more season as Smith’s side defied expectations again with a top-eight finish. Still, that would be the high point and Wanchope moved to West Ham in the summer of 1999.

After a successful season with them, he was – ironically enough – signed by Manchester City and stayed there for four seasons. Again, he achieved cult hero status and provided plenty of goals and much-needed excitement as the club experienced yo-yo status, bouncing between the top-flight and second tier.

Injuries began to become more frequent for Wanchope and by the age of 29, he was effectively in semi-retirement. There were stints back home in his native Costa Rica and Qatar while more high-profile spells in Argentina and Major League Soccer were short and unspectacular: which certainly wasn’t Wanchope’s style.

He was used to making a statement and grabbing the headlines. Which probably goes some way to explaining the post-script to his story.

Having coached his way to the Costa Rica national team job, he resigned in August 2015 after a well-publicised fight with a security guard at an Under-23 game.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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