This season marks the 50th anniversary since Derby County became Division Two Champions under the management of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. It was the beginning of a golden era for the Rams which would see the club win two League Championships, play European football and witness many great games at the Baseball Ground.
Before the start of the 1968/69 season, Clough persuaded 33-year old Scotland legend Dave Mackay to sign for £5,000 from Tottenham Hotspur to captain the Rams in defence. However, Derby did not make a great start and failed to win any of their first five matches, losing two of them. Clough responded by buying Willie Carlin from Sheffield United for £60,000 which coincided in a change of form – the team only lost three more league games all season, winning the final nine consecutive matches to set a club record.
To commemorate the successful season, Derby produced a 48 page ‘We are the Champions’ publication priced at 2/6. It features short articles that cover the Rams’ players and management team, a summary of results and team line ups for every game, and reports on five key matches of the season. The first of these was a League Cup third round replay against First Division Chelsea on October 2, described as ‘one of the finest ever seen at the Baseball Ground’. The Rams had already knocked out Chesterfield in the first round and Stockport County in the previous round, with Alan Hinton scoring four goals in a 5-1 home win. The first tie at Stamford Bridge had ended 0-0.
Chelsea took the lead in the 26th minute, Houseman cut inside Webster and evaded a tackle by Carlin, then slipped the ball to Birchenall who hit a 30 yard shot into the corner with Les Green unable to get near it. Derby responded by attacking and Webb had to stop a Hinton screamer on the line and Hector had a great shot blocked a yard out. At half-time it was still 0-1 but the breakthrough came in the 77th minute. Carlin raced through the middle and backheeled the ball to Mackay, who hit a 30 yard shot which dipped and landed inside the far post. Headers by Jim Walker and John O’Hare were forced away, then in the 83rd minute Walker accelerated down the left and pulled back a cross from the by-line for Alan Durban to run onto and head into the net. The crowd went mad and almost willed the Rams to a third goal in the 87th minute. John Robson crossed from the left, O’Hare glanced the ball on and Kevin Hector forced a close range shot past Peter Bonetti to give the Rams a famous 3-1 victory.
After three days preparing at Bisham Abbey and a night in a London hotel, the Rams played second in the table Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park in ‘watery mud’ on 30 November without Brian Clough, who was at home due to illness. Despite O’Hare pulling the Palace defence to pieces in the first half, Carlin had to block a fierce shot from Taylor just before half time to prevent Derby going behind. The Rams kept Palace penned back for long spells before taking the lead in the 59th minute. As Alan Hinton prepared to take a corner, Walker darted towards the corner flag and dragged two defenders with him. The corner dropped in the goalmouth for Carlin to score with Palace still wondering what was going on. Two minutes later Derby scored again from another Hinton corner, the ball reaching the far post for Roy McFarland to surge in to head past Jackson. McCormick headed in a Jackson free kick to pull a goal back for Palace but Derby held on to win 2-1. The victory took the Rams to the top of the table, a position they would maintain for the rest of the season.
A 3-2 win at home to Middlesbrough on Boxing Day was achieved despite poor playing conditions on the Baseball Ground pitch, with the Derby players commenting that parts of the surface were ‘more dangerous’ than other pitches which were ruled unfit for play later in the season. Derby took the lead in the 19th minute, McFarland heading in from a Hinton corner. Hickton scored a penalty to equalise for Middlesbrough, given after Mackay misjudged a bouncing ball in the area which struck his arm. Then from the kick-off, Hickton charged down a clearance from Ron Webster to score past Green after being sent clear on goal. Kinnell handled in the area to allow Hinton to equalise from the penalty spot in the 70th minute, before Derby went all out for the winner which came when Hinton headed in a Carlin cross in the 75th minute.
Derby headed to Villa Park on March 29 at the top of the table but only 4 points ahead of Crystal Palace. Villa pushed hard in the first 20 minutes, the crowd of almost 50,000 making a huge noise. Green made a brilliant reflex save from a deflected header but it soon became evident that the Rams were a class above their opponents. A minute before half-time, O’Hare won a corner and Hinton’s set-piece was met by McFarland. The ball shot across goal and O’Hare challenged Simmons for the header but the ball came off the Villa man to go in and give Derby a 1-0 lead. Villa never looked like scoring in the second half and the further the game went on, the more the Rams dominated and the thousands of Rams supporters in attendance were able to relax, sing and cheer. There was an amusing sequel to the game the following week. Villa manager and future Derby boss, Tommy Docherty, had said before the match that “all Derby would get would be a cup of tea after the game”. Instead Mr Docherty received a flood of packets of tea through the post – all sent from Derby.
The final game of the season on April 19 was a 5-0 thumping of Bristol City at the Baseball Ground. City started badly by running out while the players were still on their lap of honour with the Second Division trophy. Despite the big occasion, the Rams were relaxed and produced a great display with Durban scoring a first half hat-trick. The first goal, in the 16th minute, came from a Hinton cross which was not cleared properly and Durban headed in. Hector created the second goal in the 34th minute, heading on a long pass for Durban to shoot wide of Barry Watling. Durban completed his hat-trick a minute before half time, scoring after Carlin shaped to shoot from a low Hinton centre. McFarland could also have had a hat-trick in the first 45 minutes – he hit the bar, sent two headers just wide and another shot was charged down. The goal of the game came in the 64th minute -Mackay sent Carlin racing onto a ball which he backheeled on the left-hand edge of the penalty area to Hinton who struck a left-foot shot just inside the far post. Hinton had a penalty saved by Watling before Hector made it 5-0 two minutes from time by heading in a Hinton corner. At the final whistle, an invasion of Derby fans spilled onto the pitch as supporters celebrated the Rams’ return to the First Division.
‘We are the Champions’ contains the usual advertising of the era including for the Derbyshire Building Society on Iron Gate, Daks suits available at Sydney Bradley Ltd on East Street, and William Green’s Rowditch Garage on Uttoxeter Road (according to the advert Bob Monkhouse, Freddie Davies, Chic Murray and Frankie Howard had all called in to purchase a reliable new car). Derby County and Borough Constabulary were looking for men and women constables to ‘combine an active, outdoor life with interesting, absorbing and satisfying work’. Pay was £805 for men at 19; £915 at 22 or over and £725 for women; £825 at 22 or over. Men had to be at least 5 ft. 8in. tall and aged between 19 and 30, women 5 ft. 4 in. and over and aged between 19 and 35. A very different advertisement to one that would be seen today!