WHEN A TEAM IS PROMOTED TO THE PREMIER LEAGUE it inevitably causes an ideological conflict within the club’s hierarchy as to what philosophy would best serve them as they enter the cut-throat world of the English top flight. Some clubs decide to gamble and stick with the same players and style that got them to the Premier League, while others try in vain to sign established Premier League players on high wages in a desperate attempt to survive in the league.
These approaches invariably have mixed results; sometimes the promoted team stays up in a blaze of glory, other times they flounder and are instantly relegated. This is the story of one such team, a team who achieved a record low points tally for the Premier League that still stands today: Derby County.
It’s the summer of 2007 and Derby County have just beaten West Bromwich Albion in the Championship playoffs to earn a return to the Premier League after a five year hiatus. Manager Billy Davies had been fortunate the previous summer, he was awarded a relatively large transfer budget, which included a £1 million deal for Luton striker Steve Howard, a major fee for a Championship side to pay in 2006, while he also spent a further £5 million on recruits such as Gary Teale and Jon Macken, all reliable players for the arduous Championship season ahead. The club had expected to compete at the business end of the Championship and the long-term plan was realistic – to be promoted after a three seasons. Davies exceeded expectations by leading them to promotion in his second season in charge.
Teams that are promoted via the playoffs are often too beguiled by the delirium of promotion to take account of the fact that they have very little time to prepare for the Premier League in comparison to the two other promoted teams, who know their status often weeks earlier. The problem Derby had was that they had built a squad that relied heavily on players with vast lower league experience, and now needed to reinforce for the summer.
Davies was quick to find that whilst £5 million could get you a lot in the Championship, in the Premier League, where he was making his managerial debut, it was worth very little. The marquee signings for Derby that summer were Rob Earnshaw, who had been top scorer for Norwich in the Championship, and Kenny Miller, prolific for Rangers. Both strikers had played in the Premier League before and Davies hoped it meant they could assert themselves at the top level once again.
Captain Matt Oakley wasn’t on point, however, and, a few days before the campaign started, lamented: “Players aren’t going to leave clubs and sign for one they think is going to go down. They’re going to wait a year and see how Derby fares.” This was a fair assessment that in hindsight almost looked like a statement of resignation from the team’s captain at his side’s lack of readiness for the Premier League before the season had even begun. Nevertheless, the season got off to a reasonable start. The Rams drew 2-2 with Portsmouth, with Oakley himself on the scoresheet, but this was to be a rare flicker of light in a season marked by despair.
Four league defeats followed, including a confidence-sapping 6-0 loss to Liverpool in which Derby defenders could not handle a rampant Fernando Torres. The missed tackles they attempted on him was comparable to a video game. Gloom was prevalent all around the club until September 17, 2007, when a solitary Kenny Miller goal gave Derby a 1-0 win against Newcastle United, which literally turned out to be the win – it was Derby’s only victory for the entire season – a sorry statistic which has never been matched so far in the Premier League era. To make matters worse, things were falling apart behind the scenes.
The club saw a new chairman arrive in October, Adam Pearson replacing Peter Gadsby, and from the start there was friction between chairman and manager. “To compete in this league and at this level you need investment in players. We have to invest in the playing staff. I haven’t spoken to the new chairman in three weeks,” Davies would say in a staggering omission made in late November. Davies would then go one step further and lambast his squad: “The team is not good enough for the Premier League, that’s no reflection or disrespect to the players. They know that. They’re not good enough.” Davies may have been towing the honest line but to undermine your whole squad publically during a difficult campaign was not the wisest choice. He was sacked the same day.
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The finger of blame was wagging
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Two days later, Paul Jewell was unveiled as the new manager, a man who had led great escapes with both Bradford City and Wigan Athletic on the last day of their respective Premier League campaigns. His effect on the team was to be even more detrimental as the team’s form worsened once he took over. By the halfway stage of the league – Boxing Day, 2007 – Derby had a meagre seven points from 19 games, and Jewell decided to make drastic changes in the January transfer window.
Captain Matt Oakley was sold to Leicester, striker Steve Howard, so prolific in the Championship, yet anonymous in the Premier League, was also sold, as was striker Jon Macken, who had been key for the club in the previous campaign. The same players who formed the core of the team only a season earlier were sold in a frantic bid to try and build a squad that could survive in the Premier League. Jewell brought in Robbie Savage and instantly made him captain, Danny Mills and former Manchester United goalkeeper Roy Carroll – players who had played in the Premier League.
Unfortunately, these signing were to have little effect on Derby’s results and they managed only four points from their remaining 19 gams, being relegated with just 11 points to their name, the lowest points tally in the Premier League and one which surely scarred many of the players for the rest of their careers. A scan of their results makes for brutal reading: a 6-0 home loss to Aston Villa, a 6-1 loss to Chelsea and a 6-2 loss to Arsenal. Even Reading, themselves relegated that season, defeated Derby 4-0 in the last game of the season. Derby had been relegated by 29 March and spent the last two months of the season playing for pride. Earnshaw, the striker brought in to score goals, managed one throughout the entire campaign, while striker partner Miller managed four, with the whole team combining to score 16 goals that season in total, another record low.
The following season back in the Championship, Paul Jewell was sacked in December and replaced with Nigel Clough, whose father, the great Brian Clough, had led the club to such lofty heights in a bygone era. Nigel Clough guided the side to Championship survival in the penultimate game of the season. As if to reaffirm the scarring the 2007-08 season had on the club, Derby has never been promoted since, almost as if memories of the league are etched into the club’s DNA.
What’s plainly obvious about Derby in 2007-08 was the lack of philosophy; the club had been promoted earlier than anticipated and Billy Davies did not have time to embed a distinct style of play on a squad essentially filled with journeymen who were too good for the championship but not good enough for the Premier League. The high-profile pre-Premier League signings made by Davies were also found to be lacking; in particular, centre-back Claude Davis, bought for £3 million from Sheffield United, came under a barrage of ridicule for his substandard defending throughout the season. It was also telling that the club lacked a strong leader on and off the pitch, particularly after Oakley’s comments prior to the season beginning.
Derby County did not have the least talented squad in Premier League history, but their results suggest they were the poorest side to have ever graced the league. A lack of belief hung over the club almost as soon as the season started – and this was ultimately what cost them. In a wider context, their tale emphasises the gap between the Premier League and the Championship. For a lot of clubs, it almost seems a curse to exceed expectations and be promoted ahead of schedule, as Derby fans found out.
The story of Derby’s 07-08 campaign will always remain a soft-centred tale for the neutral fan, a plight that is unlikely to happen again in a Premier League where teams being promoted now have more money to spend on signings and greater squad depth. For Derby fans, however, this will always be the season when Pride left the Park.
By Santokie Nagulendran. Follow @San_Toki_