As Bad As Things Got: Derby County, 1984

by | May 10, 2020

It’s time for a new series, here on 200%. As there’s no football on at the moment, everybody’s peering back into the past for stories from the days when it was safe to stand within six feet of another human being. Rather than eulogising, though, we’re going to be looking at some years of decline, some points in the history of football clubs at which it felt as though things couldn’t get any worse. Kicking off this series, here’s Derby County and the nine years between them being the champions of England and being relegated to the Third Division for the first time since the middle of the 1950s.

Only two clubs lifted the Football League Championship more than once throughout the 1970s. Liverpool won it four times, including three times in four years at the end of the decade, and would go on to dominate English football until into the 1990s. For the other club to do so, though, the experience would be very different. Brian Clough, with characteristic hubris, had claimed that Derby County could be “bigger than Liverpool” after his side shocked the First Division through lifting the title in 1972 by the thinnest possible margin. They reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1976, but by this time Clough was elsewhere.

Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor lasted sixteen more months in the job after their first league title before resigning in October of the following year. They had hoped to oust Sam Longson as chairman as they did with the Hartlepools United chairman Ernest Ord seven years before in their first job together, but failed. Both Clough and Taylor resigned on the evening of 15th October 1973. The resignation was accepted by Longson the following morning to widespread uproar from Rams fans, who demanded the board’s resignation along with Clough and Taylor’s reinstatement at the next home game against Leicester City four days later.

It didn’t come, though. Just eight days later, Dave MacKay was appointed into the job. Longson had turned out to be tougher to remove than Clough or Taylor anticipated, and would continue as the club’s chairman until 1977. MacKay delivered a second league championship in four years in 1975, but was sacked in November 1976 after a disappointing start to the 1976/77 season. His replacement was Colin Murphy, who’d been the manager of Derby’s reserve team, but Murphy – who would go on to have a distinguished two periods with Lincoln City during the following decade – was lacking in experience and won just seven out of his thirty-five games in charge of the club. Derby, who hadn’t finished below the top ten in the First Division since returning in 1969, ended the 1976/77 season in fifteenth place in the table. Murphy lasted just ten months in the Derby manager’s job.

That period from Dave MacKay’s departure through to Sam Longson’s marked the beginning of the end of the good times for Derby County. The appointment of Tommy Docherty seemed to be a sensible one for the club, a high profile manager who’d laid the base of Manchester United’s revival after relegation in 1975, Docherty had won the FA Cup with United earlier in the year before getting sacked that summer over tabloid reports of an extra-marital affair. Docherty stabilised the ship for a while, taking Derby back to a mid-table finish in 1978, but after they only finished one place above the relegation places the following year, he left the club. There were no protests, this time.

Docherty’s replacement was Colin Addison, who’d built his reputation as the player-manager of the Hereford United team that beat Newcastle United in the FA Cup and won election into the Football League in 1972. With debts rising and crowds falling, however, the club’s fortunes couldn’t improve the following season. Derby were relegated with three games to spare at the end of the 1979/80 season, the end of eleven years in the top flight. A run of two points from thirteen matches between the start of December and the second weekend in February proved too much for Addison’s team to recover from. He kept his job at the end of the season, though, and Derby performed reasonably creditably in their first season back in the Second Division in 1981, ending the season in sixth place.

Expectations were high going into the 1981/82 season. The previous season’s performance had boosted hopes that Derby’s stay in the second tier would be brief, and by the new year it looked as though this might be the case, though not in the direction that many would have hoped. Six wins in their first twenty matches of the season proved to be the end of Colin Addison and his replacement as manager by John Newman, who’d been reasonably successful at Grimsby Town in the late 1970s, but who hadn’t managed a club since leaving Grimsby in the summer of 1979. Newman kept the club in the Second Division throughout the 1981/82 season, but before the following season could even get going Newman was out, less than nine months in.

This time, the choice of successor couldn’t have been much more of a surprise. After leaving The Baseball Ground in 1973, Clough and Taylor had briefly – and unsuccessfully – reunited at Brighton, before doing so again in the summer of 1976 at Derby’s local rivals, Nottingham Forest. What they achieved at The City Ground arguably eclipsed even their achievements at The Baseball Ground, taking Forest back into the First Division in 1977, to the First Division championship the following year, and then to two successive European Cups, in 1979 and 1980. Within a couple of years, however, this team was largely breaking up, and Taylor retired at the end of the 1981/82 season. Peter Taylor was the new manager of Derby County.

Clough and Taylor’s relationship was killed by Taylor’s decision to return to management six months after retiring – and at Derby – and only deteriorated further when he brought Roy McFarland back to the club as his assistant manager without having consulted with Clough first. But the club that Taylor returned to was very different to the Derby County that he had left. Derby had spent quite heavily in the late 1970s. Tommy Docherty had wheeled and dealed in the transfer market, bringing in the “three Van Goghs” midfield trio of Bruce Rioch, Gerry Daly and Don Masson, which had not worked as he had hoped, whilst in 1979 a further £1m was spent on Barry Powell, Alan Biley and Dave Swindlehurst against the backdrop of a police investigation into alleged corruption at boardroom level. In the season after their last First Division title win, the average attendance at The Baseball Ground had been 28,350. By the end of the 1981/82 season, though, it was just 11,828.

There was no significant money to spend on players and Derby’s form throughout the first half of the 1982/83 season was little better than the year before, inlcuding a 4-2 loss in the League Cup to Hartlepool United, where Taylor had first been united with Clough, more than a decade and a half earlier. In December 1982, though, the luck of the draw came to Derby’s rescue. When the Third Round of the FA Cup was drawn, Derby were given a home match against Clough’s Nottingham Forest, a match that would guarantee the club a much-needed financial boost, as well as giving Taylor a valuable opportunity to build his team’s confidence as the second half of the league season came into view.

It was like the good old days had returned to The Baseball Ground on the 8th of January 1983. Central TV’s cameras were there, along with a crowd of more than 29,000 people. It was a match that Derby should never have won. After all, they were bottom of the Second Division while Forest were in fourth place in the First Division, but with Clough having eviscerated Taylor in the press before the match – “If I was driving along the A52 between Derby and Nottingham and saw Taylor broken down, thumbing a lift, I wouldn’t pick him up, I’d run him over” – and on a pitch that became increasingly glutinous as the match progressed, Derby won 2-0, with goals from Archie Gemill and Andy Hill.

Derby ended up progressing to the Fifth Round of the FA Cup that season before being narrowly beaten by the eventual winners, Manchester United. But the mood of gloom at The Baseball Ground had only marginally improved. On two successive Saturdays at the end of January, Leeds United supporters caused £10,000 worth of damage to the ground, before Chelsea supporters caused twice that much during their FA Cup Fourth Round tie. Slowly, though, results started to improve. The team went unbeaten in the league from the 15th of January to the end of April, but just as it looked as though they had done enough to keep themselves up without having to go to the wire, they lost their third and second last games of the season to Blackburn Rovers and Crystal Palace, leaving them needing a result on the last day of the season to guarantee survival.

They weren’t the only ones. Fulham had, under the management of Malcolm McDonald, been one of the division’s success stories of the season. They’d been promoted from the Third Division at the end of the previous season, but this was a team that was capable of going much further. Goalkeeper Gerry Peyton, defenders Tony Gale, Roger Brown and Jeff Hopkins, midfielders Ray Houghton, Robert Wilson, Sean O’Driscoll and Ray Lewington, and strikers Gordon Davies and Dean Coney made a formidable team, and they’d been in the automatic promotion places for much of the season. With five games to go, though, they suddenly choked, losing at home to Leicester City and then away to Sheffield Wednesday and Queens Park Rangers. A promotion that had seemed just about certain just a couple of weeks earlier now felt increasingly tenuous and McDonald, in his first managerial position, was giving off the air of a manager losing his cool.

The television cameras were there again. With Liverpool having already won the First Division title and Match Of The Day covering the battle to avoid relegation from the foot of that division, the Derby vs Fulham match attracted national attention on ITV. The match was played on a poor pitch amid a febrile atmosphere from a crowd of just over 21,000, but with nineteen minutes to play Bobby Davison, signed the previous summer from Halifax Town for £80,000 and the fuel behind the team’s revival throughout the second half of the season, hooked the ball in to give Derby the lead. The Derby supporters swarmed over the fences and onto the pitch to celebrate the goal.

Police with dogs pushed them back behind by the touchline, but not by much. One linesman was hit by a salt cellar thrown from the stand. The other was soaked with spit from the corwd surrounding him. One supporter ran onto the pitch to congratulate the Derby goalkeeper Steve Cherry on a particularly agile save. With just a few minutes left to play, Fulham’s Robert Wilson was on the left-hand touchline trying to work the ball inside to cross when he was kicked by a Derby supporter. With eighty-nine minutes played, the referee blew the whistle and the fans invaded the pitch again. The players made for the tunnel, one or two of them attacked by jubilant home supporters.

Then came the real bombshell. The referee told both teams that the match still had 78 seconds to go. His “final whistle” had actually been blown for offside. There was, however,  no realistic chance of the match restarting, and the matter was referred to the Football League. Fulham didn’t receive a particularly sympathetic hearing. Football League Secretary Graham Kelly stated that it would be “monstrously unfair” for the match to be replayed and that, “the circumstances cannot be recreated unless you replay almost the whole of the Second Division programme.” Fulham prepared a lengthy dossier for the appeal, but again it fell upon deaf ears.

The appeal failed because it was ruled that the League had “absolute discretion” over its intial decision. It has also been claimed that Fulham’s dossier and McDonald’s demeanour before the inquiries didn’t help the club’s case either. Some criticised the decision as being expedient, and that Derby’s recent issues of with hooliganism were overlooked by the League. It didn’t make any difference, though. Derby were safe for another year. It would be eighteen years before Fulham would get back into the top flight again. Malcolm McDonald never did get the chance to manage in the top division. He quit Fulham in April 1984 after failing to recreate the strengths of the 1982/83 season, and after a brief spell in charge of Huddersfield Town during which they were relegated from the Second Division in 1988, he hasn’t been back to management since.

Derby’s great escape, however, only proved to be a temporary reprive. The 1983/84 season turned out to be even worse, with years of financial mismanagement catching up with Derby. Both the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise issued winding up petitions on the club. The true extent of the club’s financial problems were demonstrated in their starkest light when the club could not afford to pay Telford United their share of the gate receipts after an FA Cup Fourth Round match between the two sides at the end of January 1984. The club did reach the quarter-finals that year, before losing a replay against Third Division Plymouth Argyle. Despite the obvious disappointment of missing out on a place in the FA CUp semi-finals after losing against lower division opposition, though, this run did at least go a long way towards keeping the club financially afloat throughout a difficult time.

In the boardroom, meanwhile, Stuart Webb was appointed a director of the club and set about increasing his shareholding in it whilst desperately searching for investors. and cottoned onto media proprietor Robert Maxwell, who was owner of Oxford United. Maxwell, who appeared to have vast wealth at his disposal, helped the directors raise the £220,000 necessary to lift the petitions and Derby survived off the pitch, at least. Peter Taylor, however, couldn’t survive a run during which the club having won just 31 points from 33 games, and following a 5-1 defeat at Barnsley at the end of March, he was sacked. Roy McFarland was appointed to replace him until the end of the season.

Although the team rallied under McFarland, winning four of their final nine fixtures, they were relegated to the Third Division shortly before the end of the season,  five points clear of safety in twentieth place in the table. It was a dismal way for the club to spend its centenary year, and the first time they’d been at this level since a brief period in the middle of the 1950s. That summer, however, the club did make one good decision. Newcastle United’s stylish team had won the Second Division championship at the end of the previous season, and when their granite-faced manager Arthur Cox quit St James Park shortly afterwards over a contract dispute, he was quickly picked up as Derby’s new manager.

It took Cox time to get things right on the pitch. The following season saw Derby County finish in seventh place in the Third Division, the lowest in the club’s history, while the spectre of hooliganism continued to rear its head, this time at a match in which Derby weren’t even playing. When Northern Premier League club Burton Albion, then managed by a certain Neil Warnock, reached the Third Round of the FA Cup in 1985 and were drawn to play First Division Leicester City, it was confirmed that their Eton Park home would not be suitable for such a match, so it was switched to The Baseball Ground instead.

This decision, however, turned out to be fairly disastrous. The Burton goalkeeper Paul Evans was showered with missiles from behind the goal throughout the first half, and shortly before half-time he was hit by a block of wood and nearly knocked unconscious. Playing on despite concussion, Leicester went on to win 6-1, but there was little likelihood that this result was ever going to be allowed to stand. Yet again, then, the game’s governing bodies were called together to discuss crowd trouble at a match being played at The Baseball Ground, where Leicester’s club secretary Alan Bennett made it clear where he felt the blame for it all rested:

Of the 6,000 tickets sold behind the goal, only 1,828 were issued by Leicester. The rest were sold at the gate on the day to anyone. There were incidents earlier in the match when Leicester fans behind the goal were hit by missiles from the stand above. The feeling was that the culprits were Derby people.

Derby reacted angrily to this suggestion, but the FA were considerably more sympathetic to Burton’s plight than the Football League had been towards Fulham a year and a half earlier. This time, it was decided that the match would be replayed at an empty stadium in the middle of the afternoon, to settle the tie once and for all whilst minimising the risk of crowd trouble again. At an eerily empty Highfield Road in Coventry, Leicester won the rescheduled match by a goal to nil.

On the pitch, though, the 1984/85 season was transitional. Arthur Cox had inherited an ageing and under-performing squad, and had to try to rebuild it with very little money available. The Maxwells had taken ownership of the club – Robert stayed at Oxford United and put his son in charge, reversing their positions in 1987 – but the financial position of the game in general was still poor and crowds had dipped to an average of below 11,000. The following season, however, Cox got the balance right and Derby were promoted back to the Second Division behind Reading and Plymouth Argyle. The following season they were crowned champions of the Second Division. Cox would go on to outlast Robert Maxwell at The Baseball Ground. When Maxwell fell over the side of his boat the Lady Ghislane and died in November 1991, Cox was still in charge at The Baseball Ground. He’d remain with the club until October 1993.

The middle of the 1970s was a bad time for an English football club to be going into decline. Others, such as Burnley, Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton Wanderers, would follow a similar trajectory as hooliganism grew, crowds shrank, grounds fell into disrepair, and the feeling that a number of clubs might completely fold gained considerable traction. None of these other clubs, however, fell from quite such a height. Derby County were the champions of England in 1975 and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup the following year. By the summer of 1984, in the midst of a tangible feeling of decline within the English game generally, the club was in the Third Division. That they survived at all – that they all did – feels, with the benefit of hindsight, like little short of a miracle.