Book review: ‘Derby County, Champions at Last’, by David Moore

In case you’ve been in a Van Winkelian coma for the last few weeks, Christmas is coming.  And that means a flurry of products rushed to the market, competing for the seasonal spend.

No football club, it turns out every Christmas, has enough books published about it yet and this year, DB Publishing offer us David Moore’s take on the 1971-2 championship season, with the hope that Derbyshire men of a certain age will spend Christmas night with a copy of the tome propped open on their bellies, while farting out their festive over-indulgences.  ‘Tis the season!

Nostalgia is always fun and Moore has the twin advantages of a happy ending and access to thorough documentation of the time at his fingertips.  ‘Champions at Last’ is sub-titled “A Diary of the Rams’ Triumphant 1971-72 Season” and does exactly what it says on the tin.

There is a brief foreword by the reserve defender Tony Bailey, who made one league appearance that season and admits to being surprised that he was asked.  ‘After all’, he concedes, ‘I wasn’t exactly a household name.’  After that, we are given a brief recap of Derby’s history up to the Brian Clough era, before the book provides short match reports of every game of 1971-2, including the pre-season tour of Germany and the Netherlands.

Admirably thorough, ‘Champions at Last’ also includes a review of Derby’s progress in all cup competitions – and even a run through the Central League-winning reserve team’s year – plus a pen portrait of each player.

Moore sticks to solid, functional reportage, without embarking upon any flights of fancy.  But one thing that is brought home to the reader by Moore’s format is the famous names that the Rams were beating in that era.  When Manchester United come to town on the first day of the season, it’s Matt Busby’s team, starring Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best (although by this time, as Moore points out with marvellous understatement, ‘there were increasing concerns about Best’s off-field activities’).

A nice feature of Moore’s book is its reprinting of several pages of The Ram, the club’s official newspaper of the time, which provide nice little snapshots to illustrate how much the football world has changed in the last 40 years.

For example, in October 1971, when Derby hosted the Spurs of Mullery, Peters, Jennings and Chivers, Terry Hennessey was left out due to a ‘sore throat’.  Not only would no club offer this as a valid injury now, consider the fact that Clough added: “He is due to make his return to the Wales side next Wednesday and we do not wish to prejudice his chances in any way.’  It seems inconceivable that a club manager would prioritise a player’s international career in this way today.

In December, after four consecutive away defeats, Clough tells The Ram – which makes use of capital letters to highlight key points – ‘I HAVE POINTED OUT SEVERAL TIMES THAT THE LACK OF STRENGTH IN DEPTH OF THE FIRST-TEAM SQUAD AT THIS STAGE OF OUR DEVELOPMENT INTO A TOP CLASS CLUB COULD WELL BECOME A REAL DIFFICULTY.’   Clough’s son would never be so frank in the club programme today.

In January, Clough missed two consecutive games to go on scouting missions instead, leaving the team to Peter Taylor.  Again, simply inconceivable now.  It also seems highly unlikely that there will ever be a repeat of the Ian Storey-Moore fiasco – the Forest striker being presented to the Baseball Ground crowd, before the move fell through.

By the start of April, with the title a real possibility and Leeds United coming to town, the club were using The Ram – its front cover adorned with photos of a fully nude ‘Miss Derby Ram’ – to criticise the people of Derby for not turning up in sufficient numbers.  Clough and Sam Longson both described the midweek gate of 26,738 against Ipswich Town as ‘depressing’, while Roy McFarland asked, ‘Don’t they want a top team in Derby?’

These days, the club would never presume to lecture its fans in such a way, preferring to constantly reinforce their gratitude to them for showing up and reacting to disappointing gates by introducing pricing initiatives, rather than by issuing bollockings.

In the same Ram article, Stuart Webb points out that Leicester, Stoke and ‘Notts’ were all playing at home on the same night as Derby, which he claims reduced Derby’s gate by ‘3,000 plus’.  It may well be that some football fans still pick and choose which team to watch week by week, but there’s no way that a club would publicly refer to such a promiscuous habit in its programme notes today.

Before the final game of the season, the 2-0 victory over Liverpool which sealed the title, the front page of The Ram is given over to settling scores with the Derby Evening Telegraph, refuting various ‘charges against the Derby County board’ and demanding – ‘STOP TRYING TO ROCK THE BOAT’.

A lovingly crafted account of what is arguably the greatest season in the club’s history, ‘Champions at Last’ is highly recommended for anyone who was there and wants to think back to those halcyon days.  But for those of us who have to ask our dads, it’s tinged with a little sadness.

A snapshot of the table at the end of January 1972 shows Derby third, sandwiched between Manchester City and Leeds above and Manchester United and Arsenal below.  The Rams and Leeds are both a long way from those heady days now – surely both clubs should be in the top flight.

There’s added poignancy to Moore’s closing remark: –

‘Brian Clough described [winning the title in 1972] as one of the miracles of the twentieth century.  All we need now… with Nigel Clough in charge is another one.’

I once said to Tommo that I might write a history of Derby County in the noughties.  He didn’t think it would be worth it.  “Who would want to buy a book about a time when we weren’t any good?”

Not a bad point.  But there has to be a limit to the amount of accounts of the glory days that can be published.  Before the 50th anniversary of our first championship title rolls around, it’s time for new and better chapters in the club’s history to be written.

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