The late 1990s was an exciting time to be a Derby County fan.

Derby, under the management of the late Jim Smith, had put their previous failures to gain promotion back to the top-flight behind them in emphatic style.

The 1995/96 season, Smith’s first in the hotseat at the club, saw the Rams secure automatic promotion to the recently formed Premiership (now Premier League).

Back in the top-flight, the club also moved to Pride Park Stadium from the Baseball Ground in the summer of 1997.

Smith’s side, upon their move to their new home, continued to progress and their exciting brand of football was admired by many.

Some big results, against top sides competing for major honours, further added to the excitement.

There was a flamboyant style to the side and foreign imports such as Paulo Wanchope, Aljosa Asanovic, Igor Stimac, Jacob Laursen, Francesco Baiano and Mart Poom added a continental flair.

Another player that arrived from abroad, just in time for the opening of Pride Park Stadium, was midfielder Stefano Eranio.

Landing Eranio was something of a coup for Derby, signing from Italian giants AC Milan on a free transfer.

The Premiership, at this stage, was beginning to grow at a rapid rate but the signing of an Italy international from one of the biggest clubs in Europe was another sign of Derby’s progression.

Eranio quickly established himself as a favourite with Derby’s fans and made 108 appearances for the club between 1997 and 2001.

He secured his place in history by scoring the first official goal at Pride Park Stadium in August 1997, in a 1-0 win over Barnsley – but more on that later.

In all he scored 10 goals in a Derby shirt before returning to Italy to play out the latter years of his career.

It’s almost 20 years since the curtain came down on Eranio’s time with the Rams - but it’s clear to see his love for the club is as strong as ever.

Eranio regards his time with Derby as a fantastic period in his career and he remains adored by the Rams’ supporters to this day.

“I had five fantastic years at the club so it is always a pleasure to come back to Derby,” Eranio told back in 2017.

“I can’t believe it’s over 20 years ago since I joined the club and while my body is getting older I feel like my mind is still the same.

“It was an important time for the club; we moved to the new stadium just as I signed and I got to meet the Queen when we officially opened.

“I didn’t speak any English at the time, so I didn’t say anything to her, but I shook her hand.

“I am so happy with what I did here. It was a fantastic period in my career.”

Smith worked his managerial magic to bring Eranio to Derby and it can easily be regarded as a masterstroke.

The affectionately-known Bald Eagle sadly passed away last year at the age of 79 and the Italian regarded the former Derby boss as a father figure.

“Jim Smith was like a second father to me,” he admitted.

“We were so close and we had a great relationship.

I think as a team we maybe could have gone on and done well further up the league too. We played some very good matches against some very big teams under Jim.

“In my first season at the club especially, we played some fantastic football and we improved in our style with every game. The supporters were fantastic and we were playing in front of full crowds.”

Eranio’s name is forever etched into club history after netting the first goal at Pride Park Stadium in a competitive fixture.

How it happened is not a straightforward story either.

Derby faced Wimbledon on 14th August 1997 in their first home fixture of the 1997/98 campaign and were 2-1 to the good, thanks to goals from Ashley Ward and Eranio, by the early stages of the second half.

Eleven minutes into the second half, everything changed and referee Uriah Rennie abandoned the match following a delay of more than half-an-hour while engineers tried unsuccessfully to restart two failed generators.

Ward’s place in history as the first goalscorer at the Rams’ new home was wiped out and therefore the first official game at Pride Park came on 30th August 1997 against Barnsley.

Derby were 1-0 winners thanks to an Eranio penalty, although it was a spot-kick which had to be taken twice after Francesco Baiano saw his effort saved by Lars Lesse.

Eranio kept his cool from 12 yards and eventually lashed home the first goal as the Rams’ new home.

“I remember the game against Wimbledon and that Ashley Ward got the first goal that night,” he recalled.

“I got the second goal in that game and we were winning, but the lights went out and the game was suspended.

“The next game we played at home was against Barnsley and we had a penalty; the goalkeeper saved it from Francesco Baiano and I put the rebound in.

“After that the referee blew his whistle and we had to take it again. I took the penalty this time and I scored.

“It was a fantastic feeling to score the first goal at the wonderful new stadium.”

One of Eranio’s finest moments in a Derby shirt came towards the end of the 2000/01 season.

The Italian scored a fine individual goal as the Rams defeated Leicester City 2-0 on home turf in April 2001.

After Paul Boertien had opened the scoring, Eranio sealed the victory as he weaved his way through the Foxes defence before firing home.

That victory, in addition to a 1-0 victory at Manchester United in the following month, helped to preserve Derby’s status in the top-flight for another year.

“My favourite memory of playing at Pride Park was against Leicester,” he said.

“I scored a fantastic goal and we won 2-0.

“We had been struggling in the league at the time but that win and the victory at Manchester United was important and got us out of a very hard position.”