THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Two sides that met in the Premiership in 2001 are in the Championship’s bottom half and selling key players isn’t the way to get back to the play-offs writes Al Needham. Cue protests...

X On the face of it, laughing openly at the home team’s protest against their board while sitting in their end isn’t the prudent thing to do. “PLEASE HOLD THIS BANNER UP AS THE PLAYERS GO INTO THE HUDDLE BEFORE THE GAME, AND THEN AFTER THE FINAL WHISTLE,” it says. In actual fact, it is a sheet of A4 that looks as if it has been run through an office photocopier and I spend a good ten minutes arguing the toss with it.

“Following the sale of Grzegorz Rasiak behind Phil Brown’s back and the failure to bolster the squad for the next four months, it is now clear Derby County Football Club is being run solely in the interests of moneylenders rather than supporters.” Oh yeah? Try telling that to Leicester, mate. Or Forest. Or even Mansfield, who had a really lamentable protest the other Saturday where the ringleader locked himself in the toilets to have a good cry afterwards. Jesus Christ, Derby, don’t you realise how lucky you are?

Obviously, it’s exceedingly bad form to have a go at any fans group (and if you want to know more, visit www.reclaimtherams.com and www.ramstrust.org), but I couldn’t help it. Ever since I first went to Forest games at the age of nine, I was taught to hate Derby, which was evidently a Neanderthal settlement to the north where bestiality was practised on a regular basis. Notts County were only across the river, but neither side could stay in the same division long enough to get a decent rivalry going. Leicester were just as close, but there’s never really been the chemistry for a proper exchange of venom.

Derby, on the other hand, are different. While Forest were languishing in the old Division Two in the early Seventies, they were absolutely having it. Resentment turned to gloating when a few years later, Brian Clough was ours. We nicked John McGovern, Peter Taylor and Archie Gemmill (and of course, they nicked back Peter Taylor and John Robertson, which created a rift between Clough and Taylor that was never resolved). The next thing you know, Forest are beating Ajax in the European Cup semi-final and hundreds of bewildered Dutchmen are wondering why we’re chanting: “Sheep! Sheep! Sheepshaggers! BAAAHHHHHHHHH!!”

How the tables have turned. Derby were this close to making it to the Premiership via the play-offs last season and are now official top dogs of east midlands football. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much, but there’s a lot to like about Derby County. They moved from the dank confines of the Baseball Ground (which always seemed to look like the Somme at nightfall on Star Soccer) to a glistening white edifice, around which are clustered lots of car dealerships and new industries with exotically bland names. They serve pints with a lid on the top, in case you want to put it in your pocket and take it home with you. They even have a badge crafted in the golden age of the Seventies that wouldn’t look out of place on the inner sleeve of Led Zeppelin IV.

My mission is to take the home end, sleep with the enemy, finish the job and learn to love Derby. Strange thing is, as the supporter protest bears out, the locals are not happy at the moment. The sale of Rasiak, who was pulled through the transfer window by Spurs just before it slammed shut, was a kick in the teeth (as the programme points out, four players involved in the last Derby v Forest game are now at White Hart Lane), and a team expected to do something in the Championship find themselves wallowing in mid-table.

Here’s the problem with having a state-of-the-art stadium with quality acoustics: when there’s little to chant about, on the verge of a distinctly unglamorous game against a threadbare Coventry squad virtually held together with Band-Aids, you can hear every gripe and moan from more than 20,000 mouths. The teams come out and people with banners in their hands are torn in the age-old struggle between love for their club and dislike for the people who run it. So they sort of wave them about like hankies clutched by women in railway stations at the beginning of war films.

Derby fly out of the blocks, with Morten Bisgaard coming very close with a swirling left-foot shot, but it needs a bloke with a drum who stands sentinel by a corner flag to start whacking away before the crowd got involved. Coventry are already in a state of disarray that will stay with them for much of the game and by the 14th minute they are 1-0 down thanks to a neat passing triangle, the nifty control of Bisgaard and a jammy deflection off Richard Shaw. Bisgaard’s not too bad. Spurs should have a look at him.

As the first half flew by in the usual Championship manner – ie loads of players throwing themselves about in an industrious manner and bellowing, but not really amounting to anything – I take a good look at the locals. By this time at the City Ground, the name of Derby and their ovine sexuality would have been called into question a dozen or so times, but here, in the community area of the Derbyshire Building Society, no bile whatsoever is aimed towards Nottingham. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten us. It’s a mixture of young blokes and fiancées, middle-aged women and teenage grandsons, dads and lads, and old gets, and there’s no swearing. At all.

Towards the end of the half, a nervy hum descends over Pride Park after Marcus Tudgay clashes heads with Coventry defender Richard Shaw and the latter stays prone for nigh-on eight minutes. Then people get bored of that and start nattering among themselves. Sounds bad, but I once saw the same reaction in Nottingham when someone was hit by a bus and killed.

Half-time. Three people drawn at random come on to the pitch, put on blindfolds and run after an inflatable pint. Then 22 players come on and run after an inflatable ball with similar vision and perception. Derby, instinctively catching the whiff of dread that emanates from all supporters when they’re 1-0 up and they feel their team is going to Sven it (ie throw their lead away by sitting back), make themselves very busy indeed. A rapid free-kick from Inigo Idiakez throws Coventry into absolute disarray, Tommy Smith nips in, slices through the Blu-Tack that was holding the Sky Blues defence together and bends a low shot around the keeper, only for it to dink off the post. And still no swearing from the home end.

It’s evident that Derby miss Rasiak – Tudgay can’t do it alone up front, Bisgaard provides the main attacking threat and every time a scoring opportunity presents itself, the home support coo “Shoooooot!” as a Ram dithers over the ball, or nag for Paul Peschisolido to come off the bench. It seems only a matter of time before Coventry nicked a lucky equaliser – Dele Adebola, marked out of the game till now, gets City’s one and only shot off on the hour.

For the last 30 minutes, it is like looking down on the world’s biggest and least interesting pinball table. By the end of the game, as fans picked up their “BOARD OUT” banners, thrust them in the air, fold them up and put them in their pockets for the next game, I decide I can’t really hate Derby County any more. Like Leicester, they’re a Premiership club in all but status – the ground’s there, the support’s there and fear of crippling financial burdens is in place. Just like Leicester, they’re just a couple of boardroom errors away from League One.

From WSC 225 November 2005. What was happening this month

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