Whew. Finally. It’s all over. At Wembley this afternoon, Derby County beat West Bromwich Albion in the £200m play-off. In truth, West Brom were somewhat unfortunate – they had the majority of the play, even before Derby scored – but, over the course of the season, they thoroughly deserved their promotion. They sat in the top two or three for most of the season before being edged out Sunderland and Birmingham’s parachute payments. It’s a surprising improvement from a club that was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy just three or four years ago.
Our non-English readers may be unaware that Derby were once a big club. They won the first post-war FA Cup final in 1946 against Charlton Athletic (a match which still occasionally pops up in pub quizzes as being “the Cup Final during which the ball burst”), but were no more than an average Second Division team by 1967, when they appointed Brian Clough and Peter Taylor as manager and assistant manager. Two years later, they were promoted back into the First Division and in 1972 caused one of the bigger surprises in the last half-century or so of English football when they won the League. Led up front by John O’Hare and with the former Spurs hatchet man Dave McKay at the centre of their defence, they saw off Leeds United in a tense battle that pivoted upon a match at the Baseball Ground in April, when Derby beat Leeds 2-0 to more or less wrap up the title.
Three years later, and with Clough and Taylor having gone after a row with the directors of the club, they were back as champions. With McKay now the manager and the team strengthened through the signings of Francis Lee and Bruce Rioch, they won the League in 1975 (arguably an even bigger surprise than that of three years beforehand), but were unable to build upon this success. By 1980, they were relegated to the Second Division, and dropped to the Third in 1984. It took the intervention of Arthur Cox, formerly of Newcastle United, to revive their fortunes. He managed two successive promotions in 1987 and 1988, and finished in fifth place in Division One in 1989, with a team featuring the likes of Peter Shilton, Dean Saunders and Mark Wright. By this time they were owned by Robert Maxwell, whose suicide in 1991 came just a few months after they had been relegated again from the First Division. Derby, who seem to have made a habit of not capitalizing on their brief periods of success, took five years to get back into the top flight, and their first season in the Premiership coincided with their last season at the notoriously cramped Baseball Ground.
Their move to Pride Park coincided with their last period of success – they finished eighth and ninth in 1998 and 1999, but again couldn’t build on their success and were relegated in 2002, and this time it looked as if their decline might be terminal. In October 2003 their parent company filed for bankruptcy and only narrowly avoided relegation in 2004. Against this background, it’s surprising that they have risen to the level that they have done this season, but Billy Davies’ team has been extremely well-organised defensively and, as I said above, deserve their promotion.
At the end of the match this afternoon, there were the obligatory shots of sobbing West Bromwich Albion supporters. This happens at the end of more or less cup match these days, but it did strike me that the play-offs are particularly cruel in this respect. The play-offs involve four teams, of course, and three of them end up enormously disappointed. West Bromwich Albion’s supporters have no massive reason to feel as if the sky has fallen in this evening – Derby finished the season in third place and deserved their promotion, and West Brom will just have to start again next year. With the Premiership’s TV money going up yet again, the stakes will be higher than ever.