Terry Staunton investigates the changing of the guard at Pride Park

Having spent the best part of two years reading stories with more than a hint of obituary about them, fans of Derby may not appreciate the irony that the club’s new chairman is more used to presiding over inquests.

Barrister John Sleightholme, who counts assistant coroner to North Yorkshire among his day-job responsibilities, rode into Pride Park in late October, as mysterious and unknown as the Lone Ranger. Accompanied by the twin Tontos of business strategist Jeremy Keith and marketing consultant Steve Harding, Sleightholme believes he can rescue a once great club, after a lengthy period of neglect at the hands of former chairman Lionel Pickering

But where have they come from, this “Mystery Three”, as the local press swiftly dubbed them? None has any obvious connections to the city, let alone the club, but they assured a packed press conference that they were football fans “in the broadest sense”.

Few Rams followers would subscribe to the theory of better the devil you know, especially since Pickering’s infamous response to criticism – he suggested fans who didn’t like what was going on should head down the A52 to watch Nottingham Forest instead – but most are reserving judgement.

All that was known as WSC went to press was that the triumvirate is the public face of a consortium which has come up with £15 million to restructure loans from the Co-operative Bank, who are owed £26m. The new chairman says the backers do not include anyone previously connected to County, allaying fears that former Coventry chairman Bryan Richardson, with whom Pickering “consulted” this time last year, had a finger in the pie.

National reports hinted that the investors, who Sleightholme confirmed were based in Monaco, may include former Spurs and Forest director Irving Scholar, who is known to have huge business interests in the principality, but Sleightholme stuck to his guns, stating simply: “We were enabled to arrange finance through a group of investors who wish to remain anonymous but wish to support the current board and Derby County.”

It’s a statement that hasn’t cut much ice. Local legend Brian Clough – granted the freedom of the city this year – voiced the concerns of the 20,000 who come to worship at Pride Park. “I can’t see how they can remain anonymous forever,” he told the Derby Evening Telegraph. “They’ll have to be named when the club’s signed over to the new chairman and there’s also the question of fans having a right to know who’s making decisions about their club.”

It’s unlikely there will be further revelations about the new paymasters in the immediate future, so attention now turns to the job at hand. Sleightholme says that there is no money for George Burley to spend on new players and that the current £6.4m wage bill would have to be “considered”. For most, this worryingly reads like a plan to offload some of the club’s brightest talents, including 16-year-old first-team regulars Lee Holmes and Tom Huddlestone, once the transfer window opens in January, a move not dissimilar to the failed stabilising exercise which saw Mart Poom, Malcolm Christie, Chris Riggott and Danny Higginbotham pack their bags 12 months earlier.

Having secured just one win from eight home games this season, it’s clear any New Year departures will only compound the inevitable relegation struggle, but Sleightholme no doubt sees himself at the helm of a long-term strategy and it may be some time before there is a reversal of fortunes either on or off the pitch.

Events have also left a question mark hanging over John Gregory’s £2.1m compensation claim. With Pickering’s Derby County Ltd having gone into receivership the day before the new boys took over, it’s debatable whether there is anyone left for the sacked manager to sue.

From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month

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