Derby County feel the grip of familiar failure

Words By Nick Miller Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 9, 2018
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They enjoy a curse in American sports. The Boston Red Sox didn’t win a World Series for 86 years, something a selection of florid types put down to ‘The Curse of the Bambino’, dating from when they sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1918. In the long barren spell, the Yankees won 26 titles.

There are plenty more, from the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, the Chicago Blackhawks (big curse town, Chicago), the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland in general: basically if there’s a sports team who hasn’t won anything for a while, you can find someone blaming it on some sort of curse.

Add Derby to that list, too. The story goes that when the Baseball Ground was being built in the late 1880s, the stadium was on, or certainly very nearby a Romani campsite, the residents of which were, in the name of unstoppable progress, evicted entirely in 1895 when Derby moved in. Understandably unhappy with this, they supposedly placed a curse on Derby, that they would never win the FA Cup.

A curiously specific curse, but those who believe in that sort of thing could simply point to the finals Derby lost in 1898, 1899 and 1903 as proof of its potency. When they again reached the final in 1946, a delegation of Derby players supposedly visited the travellers to plead with them to lift the curse: one story suggests captain Jack Nicholas paid them to do so. Derby won that final, beating Charlton 4-1, the curse apparently lifted when the ball burst in the dying seconds.

Hokum, of course. Tish and fipsy of the first order. But an ancient curse is as good a way as any to explain how Derby have contrived to still be in the Championship, after finding new and interesting ways to tumble over their own feet when promotion looked on.

In chronological order, the last four seasons have seen Derby suffer one of the most outrageous muggings of all time against QPR in the playoff final; look dead set for promotion before Steve McClaren’s head was turned by Newcastle and they lost on the final day to finish eighth; appoint Paul Clement but panic in February and sack him after a draw; and bring back McClaren, only for him to last exactly six months.

Just as people often say teams like Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Juventus will always find a way to win, in the last few years Derby have always found a way not to get promoted. For a while, when they were spending money and strutting around the place but still failed, it was funny. Now, it feels like laughing at Gil from the Simpsons.

It’s as if Derby and Nottingham Forest entered a local competition to see who could be the biggest mess in the East Midlands. Forest have still edged that one most years, but they rarely had hope. Derby had hope. Still do.

And it might be happening again. This season Derby finally looked like they’d nailed it. They hired a proper manager and spent money, but did so judiciously. Having got his feet under the table last term, Gary Rowett had assembled a team that looked solid at the back, controlled in midfield and potent up front.

Scott Carson might be the best goalkeeper in the Championship, Joe Ledley proved an inspired free signing and Matej Vydra had been enjoying one of those campaigns where he showed why he’s probably the most talented forward in the division.

At the start of February everything looked like it was going to plan. After a couple of iffy results at the start of the season, they had only lost twice since the middle of September. They were second in the table, heading the league of the 23 ‘others’ outside the Jorge Mendes All-Stars, and while this is a division where chaos reigns and nothing is certain, they looked on for promotion.

But the last six games have felt eerily familiar. No wins, only two defeats but disappointing draws against teams they flexed aside with ease earlier in the season. Injuries are ripping through the squad, the previous steely assurance of Rowett is slipping slightly. From second place and looking to secure automatic promotion, they’re now fifth, with only a four point cushion in the playoff places.

With most teams this would be a blip, the bad run that basically everyone in the division goes through at some point. In fact, you might even call it a positive that it’s happening now: late enough that they have plenty of points in the bag, early enough that you can get it out of the way and still recover.

Yet with Derby, this run has basically been a trigger warning, something to inspire awful flashbacks and cold sweats. From a neutral perspective, you hope they do actually get promoted at some point: at the moment this is all just too cruel.

But if you see Rowett visiting the travelling community with a fistful of cash and a hopeful look on his face, you know why.

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