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From founding fathers of the football league to the worst team in the Premier League, Derby County have been it all. They strike a curious image with the ram as their symbol which seems rather American – but they spent years at the Baseball Ground so the posturing seems on the money. Big claims for a club who have a very limited trophy cabinet. Where does this big attitude come from?

Ole Big Head-who else?

One man has etched his psyche on the team and maybe he is responsible for the highs and lows of Derby County. There is only one Brian Clough yet he left his mark on three teams, Leeds and Nottingham Forest have been well documented, but what about Derby County? It is unusual for a manager to coach local rivals and what makes this rivalry even more strange is they both teams adore him. They both have statues of him outside their respective grounds and celebrate his memory annually as they compete for The Brian Clough Trophy. So what did Brian Clough do for Derby County?

Basically, what he wanted. In the first season, the duo of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor seemed to have little impact as the Rams finished a place lower than the previous season. Hardly a perfect start for this dynamic duo of football. Their previous experience had been with the fourth division at Hartlepool where they had saved the team from disappearing. Now finishing 18th in the Second Division was not good enough but Clough. The fans were returning as attendance has improved by some 5000 souls so something had made then return.

He Said It All

Clough himself summed it up with his no-nonsense candour:

“We were in a false position and we had some false results. But we were not ready to go up. We scored 71 goals but gave away 78—which speaks for itself! And last season we had to meet and overcome all our troubles as well. In fact, we crammed three seasons’ work into one in 1967-68.”

He believed in scoring goals and keeping clean sheets. He made his team believe in that too. So, now to build a team that would do just as he said.

So it was out with the old and in with the new as the dynamic duo assembled their first dream team. He kept only four of the previous season’s team. Derby had paid £40,000 for Kevin Hector so the centre forward was staying along with half-back Ron Webster and forward Alan Durban. Colin Boulton was the other safe pair of hands who remained. Clough believed in his players whatever their cost. It did not matter to him if the club paid £60,000 for inside-forward Willie Carlin or the  “great find for whom we couldn’t name a price” in 18-year-old full-back Robson. Alan Hinton, John O’Hare, Roy MacFarland and John McGovern all proved priceless too. The best £4000 Clough invested was for 33-year-old Dave Mackay. His experience and success at  Tottenham Hotspur proved invaluable.

Clough knew what his players were capable of as he said,

“We must be skilful—we intend to go up on skill, craft and physical stamina. We have players of skill already—Carlin, Hinton, John O’Hare. Hinton especially. He was in Forest’s reserves when we bought him but we have got good results from him.”

Clough was a master of getting the best out of a squad as well as building a legacy and winning psyche in players and a club.

Unlike the worst team in the premier league, Clough was promoted with a positive spirit and an eye on consolidating success with players who were hungry for success. They had been promoted as champions in 1969 and finished a creditable 9th in their first season back in the top flight. The following season they finished 4th and were seen as a strong team. They had not really tasted any success since they won the FA Cup back in 1946.

He Did It All

The fans, players and club staff were happy. This was key to Clough’s success. He had gotten rid of all the negativity, including two tea ladies who he overheard laughing at a defeat of Derby. As a manager, Clough had to be in charge and in control. This led to a conflict of ideas with club Chairman Sam Longson. Brain Clough needed to be in charge of his own affairs and take credit for the burgeoning success in the locker room and on the pitch.

Sam Longson did not like “  ole big head”. Brian explained his nickname;- “on occasions, I have been big headed. I think most people are when they get in the limelight. I call myself Big Head just to remind myself not to be.” This was not enough for Longson who was worried about Cloughie bringing his club into disrepute with his outrageous public comments.

Whatever the tensions behind the scenes Derby were on their way to winning their first Division One title and it might not have happened as the dynamic duo threatened to resign halfway through claiming a better offer from another Midlands club, Coventry. They did secure a pay rise though. They did compete in one of the strangest end of season title races ever. They did so by winning matches and scoring goals.

They did rely on other performances too. Manchester City, Leeds and Liverpool were all fighting for the prize. Manchester City was top having played all their games but Derby had to face Liverpool. Derby won 1-0 but had to wait until Leeds played Wolves and Liverpool were up against Arsenal. Taylor was in Majorca with the team and Clough was on holiday with his family.

Wolves beat Leeds and Arsenal drew with Liverpool so it went the Clough way and Derby were winners of the First Division. This pleasure was taken to new levels as they went on to make an impact in Europe. They beat a hapless Benfica to reach the semi-finals where they were knocked out by Juventus. This was an outstanding team that included Zoff and Capella and he wasn’t put out by the loss. Clough maintained that the Italians influenced the referee that night as he witnessed the referee going into the official’s room at half time. With some questionable calls, Clough said that he “will not talk to no cheating bastards”. This forthright anger certainly sealed the end of the road for Clough and Taylor at Derby County.

On To Pastures New

In October of the following season, Clough and Taylor resigned amid grassroots protests. The players were in turmoil and considered a strike. They showed that they were a good team and beat Leicester 2-1 instead. Clough was applauded by the fans and left. The board was wavering but Longson had already appointed Dave MacKay as manager. This did have a consolation as he guided Derby to their other victory in the First Division in 1975.

Curse or Worse?

Derby had a new legacy and had a new attitude and was built with self-belief and proving themselves on the pitch. The fans were proud and maybe the original curse had been lifted. Derby County had evicted a group of gipsy travellers in order to build the Baseball Ground. They reached the FA cup finals in 1898, 1899 and 1903 and lost each time. They didn’t have another chance to see if they had been cursed until 1946. A delegation from Derby visited some descendants of the displaced Romanies and possibly crossed their palms with silver in an attempt to reverse the damage inflicted on the club more than half a century earlier. At the end of normal time, the wheel of fortune turned and the draw with Charlton Athletic was interrupted with a surprise popped ball. In extra time Derby County won 4-1 and the club felt the curse had been lifted- or had it?

In 2008 Derby certainly felt cursed as that campaign saw them pronounced the worst team in the Premier League. They must have felt cursed as they watched Brain Clough lead their local rivals to unprecedented success at home and in Europe. These periods in Derby’s history have had a profound impact on fans some of whom still talk of him in the present tense. He is the proverbial hard act to follow and subsequent managers talk about living under the ”Clough Curse” all that success which his players had given him. As a fan, I would take the magic of Clough. His legacy seems like a blessing to me.