The season is not half-done yet relegation is assured, despite the arrival of a new manager. But amid the retail outlets and call centres, there’s no anger – it’s not so much Pride Park as Resigned Park. By David Stubbs

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve made the trip up north by rail. It matters not that you were actually brought up in the north. No matter, either, that you have resolved not to fall into the usual trap of the condescending London-based writer venturing into the provinces and remarking on the frightfulness of it all, the supreme example of which was a piece written by the Guardian’s Katherine Whitehorn in the 1960s, entitled “You Can’t Take Aubergines For Granted Outside London”. Step off the train at Derby, step outside and the scene that greets you, dominated by a browned-off looking Midlands Hotel, makes you deeply conscious not just that you have stepped outside your home town, but stepped outside your own decade.

It’s the sort of establishment where you wonder whether decimal currency is accepted. You give that a miss and walk on to a caff where a chip lunch is the only real option – aubergines definitely not to be taken for granted there. Walk on further, however, through an underpass where two anoraked old blokes are selling programmes from a shopping trolley, over the sort of weedy, unloved terrain that would actually be improved by dropping litter on it, past a roundabout or six, and there she sits, Pride Park, imposing over a landscape that was once railway sidings, but is now a pedestrian-hostile, concreted infinity of industrial and retail developments. Amid all this sits a solitary Harvester restaurant, its outside lamps already on despite it only being one o’clock, a melancholy reminder of what England once probably wasn’t.

A confused-looking character, clearly as new to this area as myself, stumbles up, looking gnarly and weathered from perhaps having spent one too many nights sleeping in a pub car park. The two blokes she’s with don’t look too clever, either. This would be the Middlesbrough away support. “Is there a pub round here?” she asks, having searched in vain for some 30 yards. I point her back in the direction of the Harvester.

Derby is a proud old manufacturing town, where they built trains, planes and automobiles and as such sneer at their Nottingham neighbours, whose industrial heritage runs merely to curtains. It would be wrong, however, to depict it as an obdurate, bloody-minded anachronism clinging to its past in the post-industrial era. Pride Park and the area around it – with its expensive car dealerships, David Lloyd gym, sportswear chains, pizza outlets, malls and, most ominously, a call centre for the Egg credit card company, with Belmarsh-type security fences presumably designed to keep the employees in – are all very much manifestations of the present and the corporate-­dominated future.

If the locals ever resisted all of this, such a fight seems long forgotten this afternoon. The “Reclaim the Rams” spirit of yore doesn’t seem to have percolated generally through. Derby’s populace has resigned itself, rather enthusiastically it would seem, to its fate. As crowds mill busily before the game the atmosphere is docile, ­“family‑oriented”, slightly dulled somehow. There were worries that this fixture might be under-attended due to fans opting to do their Christmas shopping instead, but in this sort of environment, with shops and stadium practically bleeding into one another, it’s easy to combine both – the ground is full, the club shop rammed.

If there is any duality about Derby, it’s symbolised by the Sally Army band, drawing on the area’s rich old tradition of brass bands, offering very capable renditions of Christmas carols outside what is scheduled to be a new Starbucks built right into the side of the stadium – as a welcome, perhaps, for the much hoped-for American investment in the club.

New Derby manager Paul Jewell, a fortnight into his tenure, has done a canny job of drumming up interest in this fixture – “Our season starts here,” he reiterates in the programme. With just six points to their name and deeply conscious that if they can’t pick up points at home against the struggling likes of Middlesbrough then the game is probably up, he calls for the sort of passion Derby fans showed in their last fixture, at Manchester United, in which they outsang, though unfortunately did not outplay, their hosts, going down 4‑1. Middlesbrough, however, arrive feeling rather perked up – their team coach, parked outside the players’ entrance, is absolutely filthy, as if, in the excitement of taking a deserved home win against a jaded, depleted and uncharacteristically inept Arsenal the week previously, no one had remembered to hose it down.

Boro confidence is personified by the figure of Bernie Slaven, who now enjoys a sort of “Mr Middlesbrough” status having scored 146 goals for the club, holding court jovially in the press room like it’s Bernie’s world and we’re just living in it, tucking into a complimentary Scotch egg as if it is his just tribute. We all shuffle out to the press box to the strains of Steve Bloomer is Watching, the Rams anthem, as sung by Robert Lindsay, which has that trusty, circa-1971 football song air redolent of Stylo, Double Diamond and March The Tailor. Paul Jewell, overseeing his first home game, receives a cordial, if not exactly rapturous welcome. Derby fans seem wary of getting over-excited.

It’s a rather nervy beginning to the game, in which the only dominance established is by Boro’s away support, who lustily outsing the host fans. Jonathan Woodgate, looking composed and magisterial, sends an elegant, lofted pass right over the Derby right-back in a perfect arc to no one in particular, the ball going out for a goal-kick. For a while, that’s as cultured as it gets. The ball earns enough air miles in the first ten minutes for a return weekend flight to Amsterdam.

This is undistinguished fare and you find yourself being distracted by cloud formations. The reporter next to me tuts and shakes his head, like Brian Sewell being forced to listen to the Wurzels. The general ineptitude is capped by Boro’s George Boateng, who delivers perhaps the worst pass since Timothy Spall’s Barry, in an Auf ­Wiedersehen Pet episode, asked a German girl if she’d like to come back to his hut.

It’s Middlesbrough, however, with the wind of encouragement at their backs, who settle soonest and in the 38th minute they show the class of which they theoretically ought to be capable. Stewart Downing flicks in a cross to Tuncay who, at last awakening to his responsibilities as a Boro hero-in-waiting, volleys in first time in what is probably the goal of the day around the country – though given the hospitable amount of space he has been given by the Derby defence, the goal may as well have come with a complimentary Scotch egg.

The reporters around me, hacking out copy on the hoof, reach into their grab-bag of cliches for “Turkish delight”. This acts as a cue for Derby metaphorically to sup up the dregs of their tea, stub their fags out and get to work themselves, with Gary Teale and Kenny Miller linking up for some threateningly deft interplay down the right, in defiance of the Boro fans’ jeers of “You’re going down with the Mackems”. All of a sudden, after 40 mute minutes, Derby’s own version of the Screaming Lady comes hurtling out of one of the corporate boxes, a fury in a peach dress and designer specs, raining down exhortations on the Derby team like lightning bolts and emitting ear-crunching peals of anxiety.

During the break it’s agreed by many that Derby look good for an equaliser, but come the resumption it’s clear that Jewell’s half-time team talk has neither stiffened sinews nor summoned up blood. It’s Boro who start stronger and, despite a sequence in which Derby win six successive corners, a debatable handball by a Boro defender and the introduction of Steve Howard, scorer against Manchester United, a wintry air of Euripidian inevitability begins to pervade this fixture, as the light fades and the temperature sinks towards freezing.

Robert Earnshaw is brought on and, in that small man’s way of his, almost but doesn’t quite score for want of six-inch longer legs. And by now it’s clear that ­Derby’s players are more likely to get sunburnt than to equalise. Though there is a consoling bit of comedy as the substitution of Boro’s Gary O’Neil is announced over the PA – however, O’Neil appears to overrule the substitution, signalling that he’s staying on, leaving Gareth Southgate inadvertently looking like the underconfident young teacher who has ordered a fourth-form bully from the class, only for the boy to remain sitting, successfully defiant, at his desk. “That substitution was not made,” intones the PA superfluously, to general hilarity.

Thereafter, the game peters out, a mess of hit-and-hope hoofed high balls from Derby, ill-co-ordinated approach play, poor decisions when on the ball and a reluctance to shoot reminiscent of Arsenal, minus the silk. Home fans are already trickling away as the final whistle blows. “We thank you for your continuing loyal support,” says the PA man, stressing the word “continuing” so sharply he ends up sounding deeply snide. “Well, that’s us down,” smiles one flat-capped chap. “We haven’t got the players. Never did,” agrees a middle-aged female, and it’s hard to disagree or add to these analyses, plain as red noses on faces.

Jewell certainly doesn’t, in his post-match press conference. He speaks with the slightly detached air of a man who’s just moved into a house and is contemplating the hideously patterned carpet and pub-style living room bar he’s inherited from the former owners. “These fans aren’t daft,” he says, and talks matter-of-factly about the team’s lack of quality in every department. With Derby now eight points off 17th, he’s not trying to kiss-of-life a dead horse with the hot air of “passion” and “fighting to the last”. He’s signalling, without saying, that relegation is inevitable and that that is the reality around which they must work – as inevitable, indeed, as the opening of the new Starbucks. Derby are taking all this well, but perhaps going just a bit too gentle into that good night.

From WSC 252 February 2008

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