County folklore

Derby supporter Alistair Hewitt reflects on ow his expectations for the team have changed since the heady days of the Seventies

At home I have a dusty old copy of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and a few Slade singles. Somewhere in the attic I’ve got school reports which told my mother how I was rude and lazy and cheated in exams. When the mood takes me, I can still recall how the sunshine brought out the freckles on the face of my first girlfriend.

I also own a couple of videos on which the likes of Coleman, Motson and Hugh Johns commentate as the great Derby team of the 1970s smash home the goals against clubs as homely as Burnley and as mighty as Real Madrid. And, hanging on the wall of our spare bedroom, just by the computer, there is a framed aerial photograph of the Baseball Ground.

Looking at the picture now I feel quite disorientated. For although it depicts a place I visited hundreds of times, it is not a photo I readily recognise. And it is not just because it was taken from an unusual angle, on a sunny day. It looks odd because first, the pitch is green and second, the ground is empty.

These are two images which simply don’t ring true with me. I mean, everybody knows that it was never green. And in this photo, it’s not just any old green. It’s Fifties American front lawn green. And even in August, in the Watney Cup, it was never that green.

And then the empty stands. Now I know there are times when every ground is empty, like when there isn’t a match on, but in my memory the Baseball Ground was never empty. Not even in those dark Third Division let’s-get-a-point-off-Brentford days. There was always a crowd. So I look at this picture and think, this doesn’t really capture the spirit of the place I worshipped as a youth. And then I look at it again and think, who cares?

Slade have become nice middle-aged blokes. My mate has sat next to Elton John at Watford and says he’s a nice middle-aged bloke as well. My first girl­friend I haven’t seen for over 20 years and at some point I stopped being rude and lazy and I hardly ever cheat. Like me, I suspect, the vast majority of Derby supporters who are old enough to remember those days have moved on.

No longer do we stand on foul afternoons, as we did in the Eighties, watching the poverty of talent which was slopped before us and dream of Todd’s sublime tackles and Hector’s cheeky, shimmying goals. No longer do we mutter about how this ground used to hold twice as many as it does now. No longer do we utter the forlorn cry, “I wish Cloughie were back.” We have left that place, with all its ghosts, legends and curses, and moved to another, where the toilets are clean of graffiti and the grass is always green. If not always greener.

Pride Park has not brought us joy unlimited. It has not heralded a new age for Derby County, in which we conquer all before us. Indeed, were you to ask any group of (sane) Rams fans whether they envisaged their team winning the Premiership this side of William Hague’s fourth consecutive general election victory, they would all shake their heads.

It’s not that the past can be repeated, or that the achievements of Clough, Taylor and Mackay can be bettered. We know they can’t. It’s just that the world has changed and our expectations have changed with it. Now we know that simply by being in the Premiership we are doing all right. And, we know that by having that lovely new stadium, with all that lovely green grass, and by having 30,000 people and more to fill it, we are doing better than all right. And even during this dismal, step-back­ward season, when we have often scream­ed, inside and out, for a goal, or sometimes just a decent shot, part of us still knows that we are doing better now. Much better than for a long, long time.

I have it on good authority that Forest fans travel around those First Division grounds imploring people to “stand up if you hate Derby”. I am also led to believe that their hosts generally refuse. I have also heard the expression, used of clubs who are facing the twin evils of relegation and financial hardship, that they might “do a Forest”. And I am sure that sitting in the Trent End, watching another dog-eared display against dire op­position, Forest fans must be caught dream­ing of the past and be heard to mutter the forl­orn cry, “I wish Cloughie were back.”

While we have recovered from our past, they are still suffering from theirs. And, after so many years of playing second fiddle, it feels just grand to be better than they are. You can call me petty if you like, but if you can’t be boss of your country then being boss of your region becomes more important. And being the pride of the east midlands is something we can achieve and delight in.

The only thing that bugs me is Leicester City. Crap ground, patchwork team, barmy self-publicist man­ager and they keep winning that League Cup thing. Hmm. Think I’ll give those Slade singles a quick spin.

From WSC 160 June 2000. What was happening this month