On a very personal note, I have seen some terrible performances. As an impassioned fan I have felt it all, said it all but at least my team isn’t considered the worst in Premier League history. That honour has fallen to Derby County. With just 11 points it’s a season’s performance that hasn’t been seen since Loughborough in the 1899/1900 season when they managed 8 points in a season. So where did it all go wrong?
When things go spectacularly wrong, we can look at the immediate issues as well as the impact of history on the psyche of the club. As one of the founding members of the Football League Derby County is a name that commands a healthy respect. Its yo-yo existence endears them to many neutral fans, a mixture of awe at the highs and shock at the lows. None was lower than the 2007/8 campaign.
Top of the Scots
Promotion the top flight of football is one thing: staying up is another. Feisty Scottish manager Billy Davies had taken the helm at the relegation-threatened side in 2006. It seems that his successful rise with Derby County happened at a pace that exceeded expectations and Davies found himself facing West Brom at Wembley. Winning 1-0 as they did so many times that campaign may have put them up into the top flight but they were hardly prepared for the rigours of playing at that level. Midfielder David Jones summed it up “We didn’t have the best squad but he(Davies) created such a belief among the players and that’s why we overachieved.” They may have had discipline and a fighting spirit on the pitch but behind the scenes, things were not as positive as needed.
A manager with an uncertain future cannot maintain the momentum needed to play with the big boys of the beautiful game. There is a need to strengthen a squad during the summer but Davies had the threat of a takeover at the club looming. If he had heard about it from a contact then who would want to join a club in turmoil. The signings that were made lacked inspiration and set a tone for this titanic season.
Opening Wonder and Blunder
The first match had a moment of happiness as they went 1-0 up against Portsmouth. Fans will take any moment of joy and being top of the league for the briefest of time can be a moment to cherish. The day ended in a 2-2 draw which isn’t soul destroying. This was followed by a 1-0 defeat at the hands of a Manchester City side who had just scored their first home league goal in eight months. The portents are a bit ominous. The bookmakers offered to payout if County lost to Liverpool because they had been beaten by Spurs. The only consolation was the 6-0 defeat could have been worse.
September had only just begun. With no confidence in your team, it is going to be a long season. Even new signing Kenny Millars 39th minute goal against Newcastle was a brief moment of joy. It was never to be repeated as was victory. The 30-yard pile driver elevated County to the penultimate spot for a brief moment. It was back to reality when they played Arsenal and conceded five. People were talking about Derby now but for all the wrong reasons.
The Fans Suffer
The fans may have felt that it was a positive move but the players are the ones who determine the outcome. Having contained Chelsea and only losing 2-0 the players had turned out a stellar performance. According to Darren Moore, the mood in the locker room was buoyant. He goes on to explain, “ I felt we’d cracked it. But then Billy left and it pulled the rug from under us. I was gutted about it. I really did believe in him – his tactical awareness, his motivation, his leadership. Had he remained, we might not have stayed up, but we would have been in the late 20s or early 30s for points by the end. Billy picked up six points and Paul Jewell came in for the last 24 games and only got five.”
“Disney in Derby takeover talks,” screamed the Headlines
Honesty about your squad is one thing but Davies was now publicly critical of the team. With a new owner in Adam Pearson, who was looking for investment, from an American consortium, it’s advisable to show unity to potential investors. A manager who says his team is not good enough for the Premier League is hardly going to be touted as the man for the job. Davies said of the management, “He’s already said if we go down I’m the right manager to bring us straight back up.” A struggling side doesn’t need negativity from within and Davies was replaced by Paul Jewell two days later.
No Blame in the Game
He said, “Absolutely we can stay up”. He went on to say “We are not adrift. If I don’t believe it, if the players don’t believe it, if the fans don’t believe it, then we have no chance.”. They were behind but we have seen comebacks before. Jewell had lead both Bradford and Wigan to a second shot at Premier League success so despite a rocky start there was hope as new players were going to be bought in the January transfer window.
Time to get rid of some experienced players in the squad. Danny Mills, Roy Carroll and Robbie Savage were brought in. Sadly, this triumvirate had little impact on the outcome. The impact of this period on Robbie Savage was profound. He admitted in an interview that, “I was so insecure to the point that, after I signed for Derby and I was having a shocker, I used to go on message boards and chatrooms, make up a name and say ‘Savage played well today, didn’t he?’. It did not really improve the feeling on the terraces. He reportedly gave fans lifts to matches and even offered them tickets. A lovely gesture.
The change in leadership was not a positive one. Jewell said that “the players weren’t stupid, they knew they weren’t good enough but they also lacked the guts and determination I had at Wigan and Bradford. There wasn’t enough fight in the team.” This is why County had no chance. No amount of money is going to remedy this situation.
Having secured relegation in March you would think that the team would play for pride, what’s in a name? Well, the park part was left intact but there seemed to be no pride just a 6-0 home defeat at the hands of Aston Villa. There were five other defeats as well.
Andy Todd sums up the player’s feelings. “My father (Colin Todd) won two titles as a player there before becoming a manager later and fans expected me to live up to that,’ he recalled. ‘But the supporters never saw the best of me and it became a most embarrassing season.” It is clear that anyone associated with Derby County would like to forget that campaign.
Why Oh Why?
To pinpoint any reason why Derby County got it so wrong is unwise as it was every possible reason that meant automatic relegation. Finishing a season with a single victory and the lowest points tally is a record that no one wishes to break. They also hold many other records no one wishes to think about with a goal difference of -69 it is easy to understand why. They were not ready for the pressures of the Premier League and did not write a concrete plan to consolidate the whirlwind success they had. The beauty of the game was lost. The players were unsure and the managers were insecure.
After relegation Derby found a rhythm in the Championship. Jewell kept them on an even keel and the fans could enjoy some victories once more. The players could feel that they had something to play for. Sometimes you need someone to play for and with the appointment of Nigel Clough in January 2009 I believe that fans felt that they had someone who loved the club at the helm. This has left me thinking what was the impact of his father Brian on this club? What is the role of history on the psyche of a team?