DERBY COUNTY: GOOD TIMES RETURNING FOR THE RAMS?
Just over 50 years since the legendary Brian Clough and Peter Taylor handed in their resignations at Derby County, fans have been speculating whether the good times will ever return. The view of one Rams legend is “never say never” but a media expert isn’t so sure because these days the game is dominated by money.
The 1970s was an amazing time for Derby County fans. Despite not being one of the biggest clubs in the Football League, the Rams won the old First Division title twice in four years.
Under Clough and Taylor they became champions in 1971-72 and reached the lofty heights of the European Cup semi-final the following year.
When the dynamic duo fell out with the board of directors who astonishingly accepted their resignations, the Rams turned to Dave Mackay. He’d won a championship medal as a defender and under his leadership Derby won the title again in 1974-75.
One of the players signed by Clough and Taylor was a raw, 21-year-old striker from Worcester City. Roger Davies who is now a club ambassador remembers that Clough was unique.
“Coaching isn’t the right word. He didn’t do a lot. When he bought players he knew what they were good at, so he would just say ‘do your job’. The game is complicated now. Under Cloughie it was simple.
“But you could never read what he was going to do. His man-management was off the scale. And Peter Taylor never got the credit he deserved. The ’70s was so special.”
Roger who is 73 will talk to anyone about football. We spent an hour chatting in a Derby coffee shop. He says it was a “smart move” to bring in Mackay when Clough and Taylor left.
“He was more of a joker. He made some good signings: Francis Lee, Bruce Rioch, Rod Thomas. Every year Derby were always in with a chance of winning something.”
One young man who watched the first Division One championship team from the terraces was Colin Gibson. Now 67, he is back part-time at BBC Radio Derby. He presented sports programmes for 30 years there before working for Derby County for eight years.
He started going to the Baseball Ground when the Rams were promoted to Division One: “It was unreal. I just thought it was the norm that the team I started following were the best team in the land and this was how it was going to be for ever.
“The ’71-72 season was remarkable because we didn’t expect to win the league. They were a more exciting team under Dave Mackay, more free scoring, and signing players like Lee and Rioch gave the team an extra edge.”
Colin’s knowledge of the Rams led to his getting work at Radio Derby where he reported on Derby’s successes and failures over the decades.
One of his best memories is a Sunday afternoon in 1996 when the Rams beat Crystal Palace at the Baseball Ground to earn promotion to the Premier League.
“It was such good fun because the players were a great group who knew how to enjoy themselves and so was manager Jim Smith. He was a delight to work with.”
He also fondly recalls the Rams’ beating West Bromwich Albion at Wembley in the Championship play-offs in 2007 which meant they would return to the Premier League.
“Unlike other clubs who go to Wembley every year, it’s not something that happens a lot to Derby. That win was incredible.”
Probably his best experience? “After years of decline Arthur Cox came in, steadied the ship and on a Friday night in May 1986 at the Baseball Ground Derby beat Rotherham to get promotion from the old Third Division.
“I was invited into the dressing room to interview players there while they were celebrating. If I’m pushed that’s the most special moment.”
Colin has also experienced sad times including financial problems which almost forced the club out of business on more than one occasion, relegation and play-off final defeats.
“Being relegated is obviously never great. In 1984 Derby were relegated to the Third Division, as it was then, now League One. Nine years previously they were Football League champions. They’d gone through the High Court and survived a winding-up order but were relegated to the third tier of English football. That was a fairly horrible day.
“Worst of all was ten years ago this coming May – losing to Queens Park Rangers in the play-off final in 2014. That season was one of the best I’ve ever known. It was a magnificent season under Steve McLaren, Paul Simpson and Eric Steele. They played brilliant football. But we hadn’t reckoned on Bobby Zamora.”
Zamora scored a last-minute goal which meant Rangers progressed to the Premier League. “I’m not sure that Derby ever quite recovered from that,” Colin thinks.
Just over a year ago the unthinkable almost happened: the Rams were in administration and the end looked near. Potential saviours were cast aside when it was revealed they didn’t have the money they claimed to have. The outlook was bleak.
Then Derby businessman and staunch Rams fan David Clowes bought the club and gave it stability. By then the English Football League had docked Derby 21 points for going into administration and for breaking accounting rules.
Clowes decided a change of manager was needed and brought in Paul Warne from Rotherham as head coach on a four-year contract.
Roger reckons Warne will achieve success at the club: “He’s brought in his own players but they’ve had a lot of injuries to contend with. I think they’ll go up this year.”
Colin believes returning to the Championship won’t be as easy as many people imagined: “I think he’ll take us out of League One but it might take a little bit longer than we first thought. Yes, there’s stability but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Will the glory days ever come back to Derby? “Never say never,” says Roger. The academy is turning out many good players who make first-team football. About 75% of the managers and players in the Premier League are foreigners. Why do we need them?
“At Derby we know the fans are great. There’s a good fan base which brings money in. If we’ve got a good manager and he brings in the right players, they can be successful.”
Colin is not so sure: “Football has been corrupted as a competition. I don’t mean it’s corrupt – but as a level playing field, those days are long gone. The clubs with shedloads of money will by and large always win.
“The Premier League now is a little bit boring. The real competition is actually in the league below, the Championship because clubs are chasing such a big prize.”
Roger too gets frustrated with the Premier League: “You wonder where it’s going to end. A lot of Premier League clubs have spent millions and won nothing. Money doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
The man who scored all the goals for the Rams in a 5-0 thrashing of Luton when Derby won the First Division in 1975 still gets enjoyment out of watching the club.
“Derby isn’t the biggest city but a big percentage of the population go to the games: children, parents, grandparents. The biggest thing for me is the crowd. It’s the atmosphere. I know loads of people at the games. It’s a great club.”
It may be several years before Derby County have another opportunity to return to the top level of English football. But Rams’ fans are in a league of their own: in January last year about 10,000 fans marched to Pride Park Stadium urging someone to save their club.
On average more than 26,000 have been turning up for home games this season. No doubt they’ll continue to support the club whatever division they’re in.
* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine