Great Football League teams 34: Derby County 1986-7
Part 34 of our Great Teams series sees us welcome Jonathan Rodgers, a long time fan of Derby County. Here, he recalls one of the great Baseball Ground campaigns – always a fiendishly difficult place to visit as an away fan and a place that simply oozed character, history and tradition. Jonathan can be followed on Twitter at @popsider
It’s started already. Ten months of undoubted, solid progress for Derby County has only recently finished (12th place and a number of talented Academy youngsters coming through) but Rams fans are already speculating about next season. Can we have a tilt at the play offs? Will we buy that fabled ’20 goal striker’? Which player will Nigel Clough lose faith with next and loan out to a League One side before terminating his contract..?
As far as I’m concerned, we’re a good bet for the play offs and may even sneak automatic promotion. Having said that, if I’m being realistic, getting back into Premier League is going to be a slow journey; no doubt with some setbacks along the way.
The idealist within me likes to think we can aspire to better than this. When I first started watching Derby as a teenager in the Eighties, of course I went through many moments of despair but, certainly in the second half of the decade, success seemed a bit more straightforward. With Arthur Cox as manager and with a bit of financial stability under the temporary benevolence of the Maxwell family, Derby achieved back to back promotions in the 1985-6 and 1986-7 seasons, progressing from the ‘old’ Third to the ‘old’ First Division in quick succession.
Cox’s team of 1986-7 was a great side. They won the Second Division Championship that year at a canter, with style and confidence, ending up six points ahead of second placed Portsmouth and gaining a place back in the top division we had slipped out of at the end of the 1979-80 campaign. Apart from an opening day defeat to Oldham, we were unbeaten at the Baseball Ground all season and also set a club record of eleven away victories.
The team that started 1986-7 had been gradually built up over the last two years spent in the Third Division, where Derby had ended up after traumatic relegation, the final sad retirement of Peter Taylor and near bankruptcy in 1982-3 season. Cox’s side had scraped promotion in 1985-6 but he had already built a team that was experienced, solid and worked extremely well together as a unit. He was also nearing his peak as a manager – taciturn and authoritarian but greatly respected by the players.
In goal was Mark Wallington, nearing the end of his career but vastly experienced. The central defenders were normally Ross MacLaren (player of the year in 1985-6) and the rock that was Rob Hindmarch, never the most mobile of players but one who made up for it with commitment and heart. Rob would sadly later succumb to motor neurone disease and be lost to us at the terribly young age of 41.
The full backs were Mel Sage on the right, skilful and always willing to press forward, while on the left was Mike Forsyth, solid and determined. In central midfield was Geraint (George) Williams, into his third year as a Rams player and perhaps the best of Cox’s early signings. Costing £40,000 from Bristol Rovers, George was a dogged ball winner with the ability to spread short passes around and keep play moving on. Alongside him was John Gregory, a former England international, who would use all his experience and guile to add a bit of creativity to the team and an impressive 12 goals.
Cox was always a fan of wingers and making up the midfield quartet in this traditional 4-4-2 formation were Gary Micklewhite and Nigel Callaghan, on the right and left wings respectively. Micklewhite didn’t have the flair and skill of Callaghan but made up for that with determination, pace and consistency, thrusting forward time and time again with his head down before whipping crosses into the box. Callaghan was a bit too ephemeral and inconsistent for my liking, a dribbler who would nearly always cut inside and head for the area. Often this resulted in possession being lost but on occasion it led to spectacular goals, a fine example being the mazy run from inside his own half before slotting in a goal from the edge of the box in the final game against Plymouth.
Making up the rest of the team were Bobby Davison and Phil Gee up front, scoring 34 goals between them. One of the things that sticks in my mind from this season was watching (from my normal viewing spot in the depths of the Popside terrace) either Gee or Davison sprinting away towards goal after being released by one of our midfield four. Usually, a goal was the end result.
Every side looking for promotion needs at least one reliable goal scorer and in Davison, Derby had a true goal poacher. He was good in the air, had two good feet and had bags of pace and determination. He scored 19 goals that year, mostly from in and around the six yard box. His striking partner Gee was one of the finds of the season, costing only £5,000 from non-League Gresley Rovers and going on to score 15 goals. The one he scored against Leeds in the penultimate home game (when we secured promotion) was a typical Gee goal, running directly at defenders with pace before rifling in a powerful shot. Cox would describe Gee, rather flatteringly, as ‘the next Ian Rush’ but at the time it seemed like a pretty good description.
This team was a settled side with MacLaren, Micklewhite and Gregory ever present in the league and a further four players only a few games short. Obviously, this and the fact that most of the players had been in the team since the previous campaign helped greatly with consistency.I don’t know how, but for the last game of the season against Plymouth, I managed to get a seat high up in the Ley Stand and had a great view of a team in its prime, playing some super flowing football. The victory, which included the aforementioned goal from Callaghan plus a 20 yarder from Davison, ended with Derby being crowned Second Division Champions. The elation that greeted the final whistle is difficult to describe but it was hard not to feel some sort of redemption, a feeling that we had put the years of struggle and failure behind us.
The club’s season ticket marketing campaign referred to the upcoming season in the First Division as being “back in the big time” and that’s certainly what it felt like for me and thousands of others. We were back where we belonged. For a few years, at least.