So Close, Yet So Far: The Derby County Story

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Derby County happen to be one of the most intriguing clubs in England, with a fantastic history. Since the club was formed in 1884, they have enjoyed great spells such as the individual success of record goalscorer Steve Bloomer at the turn of the 20th century, as well as winning the league under the management of Brian Clough and then Dave Mackay in the 1970’s. A unique club that has all the potential in the world, but often find a way to snatch defeat and failure, from the jaws of victory and success.

Personally, I have a slight affection for The Rams, they’re my dad’s chosen team. Being from Cumbria I’m not sure why he decided to follow Derby, and to be quite honest I don’t think he really knows why either. Once you have chosen a football team though there is no going back, we all know that.

If given the choice in an ideal world, I doubt he would pick another club anyway such is the way football works. Loyalty is the one quality all football fans require, even if your side continues to let you down, season after season.

My earliest experience of watching Derby County in the famous black and white came in the late 1990’s as a youngster. Though my allegiance was already very much with another club that play in the same colours a lot further north (and still is of course), we would travel from our home to visit Pride Park every couple of weeks.

It was not a short journey either. Always an early start due to necessity, the trip from Carlisle to Derby is roughly 190 miles by car. At the age of 8 I wasn’t the one driving though, so I can have no complaints. It was magic really and always made the weekend something special, which is what football should always be about.

Pride Park had only opened a few years earlier, everything seemed so immaculate and new. Though the stadium is out of the way a little bit and part of a large industrial park, the walk still seemed remarkable to my young mind. A lot of the time the result went the way of the opposition, as has been often the case in the years gone by.

There are a few games that really stand out in my memory. One such match was a dismal 0-5 defeat to Sunderland in September 1999, with Kevin Phillips scoring a hat-trick in the season he ended up as the top scorer in the league with 30 goals. That was a particularly miserable journey home.

Another bad one came after Robbie Savage went full on Robbie Savage whilst playing for Leicester City, cementing himself as public enemy number one, yet again. After going down dramatically in the penalty area, in the last minute of a tense East Midlands derby, he decided to excessively celebrate the awarding of a spot kick right in front of the home fans.

Not only did this nearly cause a riot in the stadium, there were major ructions on the pitch too. Craig Burley grabbed Savage by the throat, with the latter requiring a police escort down the tunnel. You know you’re hated when you even manage to upset the famous mascot Rammie.

The ‘Bald Eagle’ Flies

The Derby County manager at the time was Jim Smith, the man who had navigated the club to the top flight of English football a few seasons earlier. An extremely popular figure with the fans, the Bald Eagle lead a real transformation, not only with the promotion but also the move from the Baseball Ground to Pride Park in 1997.

During Smith’s tenure, Derby managed to become a solid top-flight outfit. It was not to last though, as a steady decline began at the turn of the millennium. Jim Smith decided to resign in late 2001, turning down a Director of Football role in the process. He was replaced by ex-Rams player Colin Todd and it was all downhill from there. It became evident that Todd was not the man for the job very early on, and the club were not able to give him any time to improve. After just 3 months and 17 games, Todd was gone. John Gregory stepped in just days after leaving Aston Villa, but he was unable to halt the slide that eventually led to relegation to the second tier.

Ever since then, it has been a roller-coaster for Derby and their fans, that mainly consists of a very slow climb followed by a rather rapid decline. A few years of languishing in the second tier followed. Though George Burley took The Rams to the play-offs, the only other solace during the early to mid-2000’s, was that their local rivals Nottingham Forest were in an even  worse position than them.

Things changed when fiery Scotsman Billy Davies was appointed as the new gaffer in June 2006. His first season in charge ended with a shock promotion back to the big time, with play-off victories over Southampton and then West Bromwich Albion in the Wembley final, after Stephen Pearson steered home a Giles Barnes cross.

So there Derby were, back in the big time where they belonged. The dark days in the doldrums were over and the future was bright again.

Then the season begun.

The poor start led to Davies leaving the club, replaced by ex-Wigan boss Paul Jewell. The less said about his reign the better. A record low points total of 11 points cemented relegation from the Premier League and it was back to square one.

Nigel Clough came in and steadied the ship, but the club were never able to seriously challenge for promotion during his time at the helm. Steve McClaren was his permanent replacement and the former England manager started brilliantly, taking the club to another Wembley play-off final. Rams fans everywhere will not need reminding that it was an untimely slip from Richard Keogh that allowed Bobby Zamora to score a last-minute winner for QPR, earning them promotion instead.

A Mental Block

As the sun set on a warm spring day, Derby had to watch their opponents celebrating a return to the Premier League instead of themselves, to end a season that seemed destined for success. This seems to be where some of the recent major problems started to rear their heads, in terms of questions about their mentality. A lot has been made in recent seasons about the ‘bottle’ of certain sides, and the finger has been firmly pointed at Derby for many years now.

It is probably justified too, as there is no real excuse for coming so close every season and missing out. Maybe the problem is psychological, maybe it is a case of the team peaking too early in the Championship season and running out of steam by the end, maybe it is a combination of both. Who knows?

Whatever the reasons for the annual  collapse, the management, players and staff haven’t been able to identify and fix it, as the same mistakes continue to happen. Groundhog Day, every single season.

Steve McClaren, Paul Clement, Darren Wassall, Nigel Pearson and Steve McClaren…..again, all struggled to put a stamp on the division, although Derby were an ever present amongst the favourites for promotion each season. Always in and around the play-off places, fans are well accustomed to an end of season collapse. Though it seems to happen rather frequently these days, that does not make it any easier to deal with.

It’s not only the fans that are disappointed with the failings on the pitch, the club’s current owner Mel Morris has put plenty of money in, with the dream of taking his local team back to the promised land of the Premier League, only for the side to metaphorically trip over their own shoelaces. There is certainly some talent there, but maybe they are just not good enough to go up?

We’ll see i guess, during April The Rams have suffered defeats to Wolves, Burton Albion and Middlesbrough, which initially saw them drop out of the play-off places, a place they have made their home most of the 2017/18 season. A spirited comeback in the rearranged fixture against Warnock’s Cardiff has opened up a 2 point gap between themselves and surprise package Millwall, there is no longer room for error in their final 2 games of the season against playoff contenders Aston Villa and a Barnsley team scrapping for their Championship lives.

Questions must be asked about the recruitment process. Cameron Jerome has offered nothing since his arrival and the decision to let Scottish winger Johnny Russell leave the club to sign for MLS outfit Sporting Kansas City in January rather than the summer, seems like a horrendous error in hindsight.

Latest manager Gary Rowett has relied on the goals of Matej Vydra to keep the promotion hunt alive, however there is talent in other areas of the squad too. Scott Carson and Curtis Davies have been good performers at the back, whilst Tom Lawrence is great from set pieces and striking from distance. The last few games of the season will ultimately shape whether or not it will be a happy summer for everyone involved with the club.

If Derby County are to play Premier League football again within the next few years, there are some underlying problems to overcome.

Some members of the squad remain from the heart-breaking Wembley defeat to QPR four years ago, such as club captain Keogh, and they will need strong characters to finally overcome their recent failures. Whether it is this season or the next, the foundations are certainly there for the East Midlands club to reach the Premier League again, and when they do, there is no reason why they can’t stay remain for many years.

There are loads of hurdles to jump before Derby reach that level though, main one being to overcome a perennial mental block.

If it all clicks…. eventually, then the sky’s the limit.

WORDS: @JMGlencross

ARTWORK: Luke Williamson Art

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