“WE’RE S**T, AND WE KNOW WE ARE!”

FourFourTwo - - DERBY COUNTY -

Asi­lence de­scended over Pride Park as Stiliyan Petrov set his sights from near the half­way line, send­ing a shot high into the air. Win­less since Septem­ber, rel­e­gated by March and al­ready 2-0 down to As­ton Villa af­ter half an hour, this was the fi­nal in­sult for Derby County. Goal­keeper Roy Car­roll’s woe­ful clear­ance had landed straight on Petrov’s chest, and ev­ery­one in the sta­dium knew where the Bul­gar­ian’s ef­fort was going to drop. Right in the top cor­ner.

“It was his weaker foot too,” Dar­ren Moore says of the strike now, the mem­o­ries still raw for the ex-rams de­fender. “When it screamed into the net I thought, ‘Good­ness me, it just ain’t hap­pen­ing for us’.”

“Martin O’neill said to me, ‘Well he’s never done that be­fore,’” Paul Jewell tells Four­fourtwo. “Man­agers used to say that a lot dur­ing the sea­son. If any­thing could go wrong, it did.”

Derby would lose 6-0 on that April af­ter­noon. They would col­lect only 11 points in 2007-08, a Premier League record that doesn’t look like be­ing beaten any time soon. The records didn’t stop there: fewest wins (one), most de­feats (29), fewest goals scored (20), most goals con­ceded in a 38-game sea­son (89), long­est run with­out vic­tory (32 matches), ear­li­est rel­e­ga­tion (March 29), fur­thest adrift of 19th place (24 points)... the list goes on and on. It is a cam­paign that will for­ever be burned into the psy­che of ev­ery Derby sup­porter who wit­nessed it.

“We still won­der how that ever hap­pened,” com­ments Si­mon Kirk, a sea­son-ticket holder dur­ing that fate­ful cam­paign a decade ago. “How could we have been quite that bad?”

FFT takes a deep breath and di­als the num­ber. If we’re be­ing hon­est, we’re not sure how this phone call is going to go. We’re at­tempt­ing to speak to Billy Davies, a man who has steadily gained a rep­u­ta­tion as one of foot­ball’s feisti­est char­ac­ters, about one of the most dif­fi­cult times of his man­age­rial ca­reer.

But we needn’t have wor­ried. “It was a happy time, an ex­tremely happy time,” he in­ter­jects, as we del­i­cately try to ex­plain why we’re call­ing him. It’s quickly clear Davies is ac­tu­ally glad we have phoned: he wants his say about a pe­riod he be­lieves has been mis­rep­re­sented.

The happy time he’s re­fer­ring to is not the Premier League sea­son, of course, but his time at Derby as a whole, dur­ing which he guided them to promotion against all ex­pec­ta­tions. The Scot ar­rived in the sum­mer of 2006, shortly af­ter lo­cal busi­ness­man Peter Gadsby had com­pleted his takeover of a club who had been in fi­nan­cial trouble. “The club had just avoided rel­e­ga­tion,” Davies ex­plains. “I’d signed a three-year con­tract and the agenda was clear: year one mid-ta­ble, year two top 10, year three promotion. At no point at the be­gin­ning of that sea­son did any­one con­sider promotion to be on the agenda.”

And yet by Fe­bru­ary they were six points clear at the top of the Cham­pi­onship. “We had a won­der­ful group of play­ers who were all happy to lis­ten to the ad­vice of the man­ager and the staff,” Davies con­tin­ues. “We had or­gan­i­sa­tion, dis­ci­pline, spirit and to­geth­er­ness.”

Those lat­ter two qual­i­ties would be tested by the first of sev­eral prob­lems over the next 15 months: a row over bonuses. If the club se­cured promotion, play­ers signed that sea­son would not be due the same bonus as the other squad mem­bers.

“If you’ve got a team, then you can’t have any bonus is­sues – it’s got to be a rule for one and all,” says Davies. “Un­for­tu­nately therewere dis­crep­an­cies between the new play­ers and the old play­ers. It caused a great deal of grief.” With Davies making his feel­ings clear be­hind the scenes, his re­la­tion­ship with the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, Mike Hor­ton, be­came in­creas­ingly tense. The Pro­fes­sional Foot­ballers’ As­so­ci­a­tion was then­called in to try to re­solve the bonus dis­pute, but Derby would slide to third place by the end of the sea­son. De­spite that, the Rams dug deep in the play-offs, see­ing off Gareth Bale’s Southamp­ton af­ter a penalty shootout be­fore nar­rowly over­com­ing West Bromwich Al­bion at Wem­b­ley to se­cure promotion. Stephen Pear­son’s strike gave them their 13th 1-0 win of the cam­paign.

“We weren’t the bet­ter team on the day but we just stuck to­gether,” says Craig Fa­gan, in the start­ing line-up that af­ter­noon. “As a team we kept grind­ing out re­sults.” “I re­mem­ber feel­ing ab­so­lutely joy­ous,” re­veals de­fender Moore, of the mo­ment the fi­nal whis­tle blew. “At 33, I was rel­ish­ing the chance to play against the Ron­al­dos and the Rooneys again. I was so proud.” There was no ap­pre­hen­sion at that mo­ment: only hap­pi­ness. “In my 35 years of watch­ing Derby County, it was the greatest feel­ing ever,” sup­porter Carl Walker tells FFT. The eu­pho­ria wouldn’t last too long, though. Just min­utes af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle, Davies was non-com­mit­tal when asked about his fu­ture. The in­ter­view made the head­lines. “This is where mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion kicked in,” he in­sists. “Sec­tions of the press claimed I had made it the Davies Show. They asked me a ques­tion about next sea­son, but what they didn’t know was I’d had a call when I was sit­ting in the ho­tel in Southamp­ton, the day be­fore the first leg of the play-off semi-fi­nal.” The call came from a con­tact, telling him that a takeover of the club may be afoot, and his po­si­tion as man­ager ap­peared to be in jeop­ardy as a re­sult. “I im­me­di­ately called a meet­ing with the staff,” he says. “I told them that no mat­ter what hap­pens, it looks as if we’re going to be out of the door come the sum­mer. “Af­ter the play-off fi­nal, what I said was, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be here next sea­son.’ The press never clar­i­fied with me why I said that. I was trying to say that some­thing’s going on. They tried to make it out that it was the Davies Show, but it wasn’t – Davies had a knife in his back.” To this day, he still feels the prospect of a takeover badly ham­pered his at­tempts to strengthen the squad that sum­mer. “Peter Gadsby was ex­cel­lent and told me what was hap­pen­ing – that they were going to be­come an out­go­ing board,” he says, stress­ing that he re­tained a good re­la­tion­ship with the County chair­man. “Un­for­tu­nately, be­cause of that, the agenda changed and that’s when things went wrong. It was pretty clear that we weren’t going to be spend­ing any proper money that sum­mer to com­pete. “We’d achieved some­thing that was unthinkable – promotion af­ter just 11 months, two years too early. But we had an ageing, mid-ta­ble Cham­pi­onship team. I gave the board op­tions for new sign­ings and the board de­cided they would pick the cheaper op­tions. We were chas­ing guys such as Matthew Ether­ing­ton and Carl­ton Cole in their hey­day, and yet we weren’t get­ting them in. If I say that there are six or seven op­tions, and op­tions one to four are play­ers who’ll help to make Derby a com­pet­i­tive Premier League club, but the own­ers opt to bring in op­tions five, six and seven, they can’t com­plain too much about the out­come. You can’t spend only £10 mil­lion in the Premier League and ex­pect to com­pete.”

“WE’D ACHIEVED SOME­THING UNTHINKABLE – PROMOTION AF­TER 11 MONTHS. BUT WE HAD An AGEING, MID-TA­BLE CHAM­PI­ONSHIP TEAM”

Sup­port­ers were frus­trated, too – al­though many felt the funds avail­able could still have been used bet­ter. “It wasn’t so much that we weren’t spend­ing the money, it was what was com­ing in,” says Ste­wart Smith, who wrote the book Bad Worse Worst re­gard­ing the dis­as­trous 2007-08 cam­paign un­der the pseu­do­nym Edgar Smith. “Rob Earn­shaw for £3.5m, Claude Davis, Kenny Miller, Ty­rone Mears, Andy Todd, Andy Grif­fin, a young Amer­i­can called Benny Feil­haber who barely played. The lo­cal pa­per had a bill­board say­ing, ‘Rams sign in­ter­na­tional’ – it was Ed­die Lewis from Leeds. It wasn’t in­spir­ing.”

Op­ti­mism wasn’t ex­actly ram­pant, though things looked rosy five min­utes into the new sea­son when Matt Oak­ley put Derby ahead at home to Portsmouth. “We were chant­ing, ‘We are top of the league,’” fan Kirk re­calls with a smile. The game ended 2-2 with Todd lev­el­ling late on, be­fore a 1-0 de­feat at Manch­ester City – re­spectable, al­beit against a City side who in­cred­i­bly hadn’t man­aged to score a league goal at East­lands since Jan­uary 1.

A 4-0 spank­ing at Tot­ten­ham – the Rams were los­ing 2-0 inside six min­utes and three down af­ter 14 – was fol­lowed by a home de­feat to Birm­ing­ham, and al­ready County were rock bot­tom of the ta­ble. Book­mak­ers Paddy Power had promised to pay out on the club going down if they failed to win at Liver­pool on Septem­ber 1. They lost 6-0.

“Fer­nando Tor­res was on fire and you came off the pitch glad it was only six, not 10 or 11,” ad­mits Fa­gan. “Our aim had always been just to stay up, but we weren’t quite at our sharpest early in the sea­son and were found out really quickly.”

Find­ing it par­tic­u­larly tough was £3m cen­tre-back Davis, re­cently voted Derby’s worst ever player in an FFT poll. “He looked out of his depth,” Ste­wart Smith says. “He wasn’t alone, but he was the poster boy of ev­ery­thing that went wrong.”

Kenny Miller was only 39 min­utes into his de­but when he de­liv­ered the greatest mo­ment – in fact the only great mo­ment – of Derby’s Premier League cam­paign. New­cas­tle were the vis­i­tors for Mon­day Night Foot­ball when a long kick fell at the Scots­man’s feet and he ham­mered a half-vol­ley into the net from 30 yards. It was not the sort of goal that could be re­peated ev­ery week, but it gave County a 1-0 win – their sole vic­tory of the en­tire sea­son. Derby were off the bot­tom of the ta­ble, just above Sammy Lee’s Bolton Wan­der­ers.

“We were think­ing, ‘Great, here we go now’,” says Smith. “But it wasn’t street par­ties. It was Septem­ber, you ex­pect to win a dozen games a year.” Since the for­ma­tion of the Foot­ball League al­most 120 years ear­lier, only Lough­bor­ough had gone through a sea­son win­ning one match, in 1899-1900.

Stark re­al­ity swiftly re­turned in the form of a 5-0 de­feat at Arsenal, thanks to a hat-trick by Em­manuel Ade­bayor and a rare Abou Di­aby goal. Within a month Derby were bot­tom of the ta­ble again – where they’d re­main for the rest of the cam­paign – when Gadsby made way as chair­man and Adam Pear­son ar­rived to take over the po­si­tion, with a view to at­tract­ing new in­vest­ment.

In early Novem­ber, af­ter a 5-0 home loss to West Ham – in­clud­ing a goal by sum­mer tar­get Ether­ing­ton – news broke that Pear­son was in dis­cus­sions with an Amer­i­can con­sor­tium, po­ten­tially in­volv­ing Roy Dis­ney, nephew of Walt. “Mickey Mouse club: Dis­ney in Derby takeover talks,” read the news­pa­per head­line.

Davies had been tipped off that Pear­son would be ar­riv­ing as part of the tran­si­tion to new own­ers. When that hap­pened, he sus­pected his time would soon be up. “Let me find you a quote,” he says, paus­ing briefly. “It’s from Adam Pear­son. He said, ‘Billy Davies has the board’s full sup­port, I be­lieve that Billy’s the right man for the job.’ But I knew ex­actly what was going to hap­pen.”

Believ­ing his exit to be in­evitable, Davies went on the of­fen­sive. The Rams per­formed cred­itably in a 2-0 de­feat at home against Chelsea, but Davies com­plained to the press post-match that Pear­son did not speak to him often enough, be­moan­ing a lack of in­vest­ment in new sign­ings and in­sist­ing that the cur­rent team were not good enough.

“I sat down with my ad­vis­ers and we knew the thing that had to come up was where did all the money go from win­ning promotion?” Davies ex­plains. “Af­ter Chelsea we de­cided that was the time to talk about it, be­cause there were plenty of peo­ple talk­ing about the club – the man­ager is s**t, the play­ers are s**t. Not one ounce of re­spect was given to a group of play­ers and staff who’d achieved some­thing mar­vel­lous. Lo and be­hold, at 8pm that evening, it was nice to talk to Adam Pear­son. He phoned and asked me to meet up with him – I knew what was going to hap­pen.”

Clock­wise from top left Davies was a dead man walk­ing at Derby; it never rains but it pours for Roy Car­roll; Rams cen­tre-back Dar­ren Moore is con­soled dur­ing a 6-1 drub­bing at Chelsea by Frank Lam­pard, who hit four of the goals

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