It took Derby until three years into the 1980s to win an FA Cup match – and what a memorable encounter that one was. We’ll come to it soon, however, as their first two attempts to progress in the competition during the decade both ended at the hands of the same opponent.
By the 1979/80 season, such was the Rams’ decline that the glory days of the ’70s were fast becoming a distant memory, even though they weren’t actually too far in the past. The first half of the campaign had produced just six victories in the First Division with the most recent one being a 4-1 demolition of European champions Nottingham Forest, who were on the way to defending that title. Prior to that, Colin Addison’s men had beaten Bristol City 2-0 at Ashton Gate – repeating that feat would also be their challenge in the third round of the FA Cup. They managed part of the job by scoring twice again, through Gerry Daly and Roger Davies, but the hosts ran in six of their own and sent Derby heading back to the Baseball Ground to concentrate on their survival bid.
The Rams weren’t able to survive and finished second from bottom in the table, meaning that they were back in the second tier just five years after winning the First Division. They were joined in the bottom three by Bristol City, who finished a point and a place above them – and then, amazingly, the two teams met at the same stage of the competition a year later. A goalless draw at the Baseball Ground sent the teams back to Ashton Gate for a replay and once again the Robins were triumphant, this time with a more routine 2-0 scoreline. Derby had been in decent enough form heading into the tie, and they weren’t too bad after it either as they went on to finish sixth. This was in the days before the play-offs and too many draws – 15 in total – left Derby a frustrating five points off the top three. Bristol City, for their part, continued to plummet and suffered the second of three successive relegations as they fell from the First Division to the Fourth in the shortest possible time.
Bolton Wanderers had been the third team to drop out of the First Division in 1980 and they were the Rams’ opponents in the 1981/82 third round. Both teams were struggling for consistency as January dawned and they met at Burden Park where, despite Barry Powell’s goal, Derby went down 3-1 to extend their winless run in the FA Cup – not since the fourth round of 1978 had they been victorious in a tie, and they went on to finish 16th in the Second Division. Addison didn’t make it to the end of the month and was replaced as manager by John Newman.
But that long sequence without a victory in the world’s oldest and best cup competition came to a thrilling end in the third round of 1982/83 as Nottingham Forest were put to the sword at the Baseball Ground. Simply saying that Derby saw off their great rivals 2-0 just doesn’t do any justice to the full story of this tie. Forest, while beyond their peak of winning the First Division followed by successive European Cups, were still a force in the top-flight under Brian Clough. Second Division Derby were managed by Clough’s long-time assistant, Peter Taylor, who had retired from his City Ground job at the end of the previous season only to then pitch up in the hotseat at the Baseball Ground after taking over from Newman. That move caused a considerable breakdown in the relationship between Clough and Taylor, adding further needle to this encounter – not that any was needed. Taylor had also brought Archie Gemmill back to the Baseball Ground. Gemmill had been an inspirational figure in Derby’s two league titles in 1972 and 1975 before moving on to Forest two years later. He spent two years with Forest before moving on to Birmingham City, then Jacksonville Tea Men in America, and became player-coach at Derby after a short spell with Wigan Athletic. Also in the home line-up was Gary Mills, who was on loan from Seattle Sounders and had played in Forest’s 1980 European Cup Final victory over Hamburg. Forest, for their part, had Rams legend Colin Todd in their squad, but he didn’t feature in the tie.
All signs pointed towards a victory for the men in red but in the end, it was those in white who progressed after a performance of bravery, grit, and quality when it counted. They opened the scoring on 65 minutes with a delightful curling free kick from Gemmill and then they clinched their place in the next round late on thanks to a close-range finish from Ilkeston-born forward Andy Hill. A lengthy highlights package from this victory can be seen here.
Derby’s reward for beating Forest was a home tie against Chelsea, who were then a standard Second Division side rather than the money-rich outfit we know today. A brace from Kevin Wilson was enough to secure a 2-1 win for Taylor’s team – and for good measure they then went to Stamford Bridge and won 3-1 in the league a few days later.
Manchester United visited the Baseball Ground in the last 16 and ended Derby’s hopes of progressing with a 1-0 victory on their way to winning the competition thanks to a replay victory over Brighton & Hove Albion in the final.
But despite the FA Cup dramatics, Derby’s place in the Second Division was under real threat and they faced the prospect of dropping down to the third tier for only the second time in their history. That victory away to Chelsea came in the second match of an unbeaten run which would ultimately stretch to 15 and put the Rams in the driving seat for survival. They went into their final game of the season, at home to promotion-chasing Fulham, needing a win to guarantee their place in the Second Division – and they got it through Bobby Davison’s goal, although it was a controversial afternoon as the crowd surrounded the edge of the Baseball Ground pitch and invaded in celebration late on thinking that the final whistle had been blown. It hadn’t, so the referee took the players off amid chaotic scenes. In the sanctuary of the dressing rooms he decided to call a halt to play anyway despite there still being some time left on the clock. Derby were delighted; Fulham weren’t and protested but to no avail. The result stood and Taylor’s team had completed the great escape.
The Rams’ FA Cup journey in 1983/84 combined drama, a giantkilling, a huge missed opportunity – and very nearly going out of business altogether. Peter Taylor was still in charge after the previous season’s miracle escape but once again he found his team deep in relegation trouble as the campaign went along. What made matters worse was that the club’s off-field situation was perilous, so much so that there was a very real possibility of Derby County becoming extinct.
Let’s start with the third round of the competition, where the Rams went to Cambridge United and won 3-0 with goals from Kevin Wilson, Calvin Plummer and John McAlle. They had already beaten Cambridge 1-0 at the Abbey Stadium earlier in the campaign, and their next FA Cup tie was to prove far less straightforward despite it coming against non-league opposition.
Telford United, of the Alliance Premier – the National League in today’s money – had already beaten three Football League sides on their way to the fourth round. And they gave Derby a real scare at the Baseball Ground, equalising at 1-1 and then hitting the post after Bobby Davison’s opener. Davison scored twice to put his side seemingly in command but Telford got one back and then had a late penalty appeal rejected. There are some highlights available here.
Telford’s performance had been a brave one but it was Derby who then found themselves in the last 16 despite some pretty awful form in the Second Division. The Rams had not taken maximum points since beating Shrewsbury Town at home on 17 December, but they overcame the odds against top-flight opposition in the shape of Norwich City. Taylor’s decision to give a debut to 17-year-old striker Andy Garner was a surprise, as was the end result as the Rams went through with a 2-1 win. Archie Gemmill opened the scoring nine minutes into the second half with a penalty and when Davison netted with 15 to go, it looked like their path to the quarter-finals would be a comfortable one. Norwich pulled a goal back with five minutes left but a vociferous Baseball Ground crowd of more than 25,000 roared their team through. Highlights of this match can be viewed here.
But despite reaching the quarter-finals while looking well set for relegation to the third tier, a great on-field achievement was played out against the backdrop of serious off-field issues. Derby’s finances were in such a poor state that delays in paying the appropriate shares of gate receipts to Telford and Norwich almost resulted in the Rams being kicked out of the competition by the FA. Going on such a good run at least put some money into the coffers but the club was unsustainable and was facing a High Court appearance, with being wound up and dissolved an entirely likely outcome. So the directors must have been rubbing their hands together when the draw for the quarter-final sent Derby to Plymouth Argyle – the only side remaining in the competition who were ranked lower than the Rams. Argyle were struggling in the bottom half of the Third Division and Derby, despite their struggles, were the favourites to reach the last four and earn another money-spinning fixture.
They got away with a 0-0 draw at Home Park and then welcomed Plymouth to the Baseball Ground knowing that a semi-final against First Division Watford was lying in wait for the winners. Not that the Rams would have definitely been able to take up their place in the last four even if they had got past Plymouth. Wednesday, 14 March 1984 was D-Day in terms of Derby’s hopes of staying in business, with the authorities debating a rescue package on offer from businessman Robert Maxwell. Director Stuart Webb had been at the High Court in London rather than at the Baseball Ground that day, hopeful that a deal would be agreed, but when Maxwell’s offer was thrown out Webb headed home fearing the worst. His pessimism was further added to when he found out what had happened in the replay – the Rams had bowed out 1-0 after an in-swinging corner had deceived goalkeeper Steve Cherry and found the back of the net. It was the most disappointing of ways to let slip a great opportunity for the players, while for the club as a whole there was now a very real scenario of Derby County going out of business. Highlights of the original match can be seen here, the goal from the replay can be found here, and there’s a much longer package from the replay here.
The team continued to struggle in the Second Division, although they had at least ended their winless run by beating Cambridge 1-0 at the Baseball Ground a week before the Plymouth tie. But a 5-1 defeat at Barnsley to end March proved to be Taylor’s last game in charge and he departed with the side third from bottom in the table. Roy McFarland was promoted from being Taylor’s assistant and was handed the task of saving the team on the pitch in the final nine games. Off the pitch, the club was eventually saved from going under with Maxwell heavily involved. But despite McFarland overseeing four wins and a draw from those nine matches, he couldn’t get the team out of trouble and Derby went down after finishing third from bottom, five points adrift of safety. The Third Division beckoned just nine years after the Rams had been crowned champions of England. But at least there would still be a Derby County in 1984/85. Relegation to the third tier and almost going out of business had been a horrendous way for the club to mark its centenary year.
The mess left over from the tumultuous 1983/84 campaign meant that new manager Arthur Cox had quite the job on his hands. Derby’s board had enticed Cox down from Newcastle United, who he had just led to promotion to the First Division, and set him the challenge of steadying the Baseball Ground ship. He eventually did that and then some, although his first FA Cup campaign in charge was over in the blink of an eyelid. Derby entered the competition at the first-round stage for the first time since the 1956/57 season – and they exited there for the first time since 1924/25. Back in those days, the ‘proper’ rounds didn’t start until January so the Rams at least hadn’t suffered the ignominy of elimination before the turn of the year, as they did in 1984/85. A Steve Buckley penalty had them on the scoreboard away to Hartlepool United, who had been beaten 6-1 on aggregate by Cox’s men in the League Cup earlier in the season. This time, however, Pools – then of the Fourth Division – took the spoils with a 2-1 success at Victoria Park. Derby did at least stop the rot in terms of their league slide but in finishing seventh they never mounted a serious tilt at going straight back up to the Second Division.
However, in 1985/86 they did turn things around, both in terms of the FA Cup success and their form in the league. The FA Cup got off to a routine start with a 5-1 win at home to Fourth Division Crewe Alexandra in the first round. Bobby Davison and Trevor Christie both scored twice, with Jeff Chandler also on target.
In round two they came up once more against Telford United, who had pushed them all the way two seasons previously and were on another good run in the competition. This time, however, the Rams were in no mood to give the non-leaguers any hope and saw them off with a 6-1 victory thanks to Chandler’s hat-trick, a brace from Gary Micklewhite, and one from John Gregory.
That took Cox’s men into the third round and a meeting with fellow Third Division side Gillingham at their Priestfields home. A 1-1 draw earned with Andy Garner on target produced a replay, which was won 3-1 at the Baseball Ground thanks to Garner, Micklewhite and Christie.
This all came in the midst of an excellent run of league results and Derby carried on their momentum in the fourth round away to Sheffield United, of the Second Division, with Rob Hindmarch’s goal giving them a 1-0 win.
The last 16 proved a bridge too far, however, as the Rams couldn’t get past a Sheffield Wednesday side destined to finish fifth in the First Division. The Owls were held 1-1 at the Baseball Ground, Davison scoring, but a 2-0 defeat in the replay at Hillsborough left Derby to focus on their promotion bid. It was an ultimately successful one as Cox’s men went up in third place, wrapping up their return to the second tier on a dramatic and tense May night at the Baseball Ground against Rotherham United thanks to Christie’s ‘cool as custard’ penalty, in the words of Graham Richards.
A little side-note on Telford United, the Rams’ opponents twice in the space of three FA Cup seasons during the 1980s. The now-defunct Bucks made a name for themselves with some tremendous runs in the competition in that period. Prior to defeat at the Baseball Ground in the fourth round of 1983/84 they had already knocked out league opposition in Stockport County, Northampton Town and Rochdale. They beat Stockport again in 1985/86 to set up a return to Derby, and in between times they reached the fifth round in 1984/85 by beating Lincoln City, Preston North End, Bradford City and Darlington, before going down to top-flight Everton in the last 16. Throughout all of this they had in their side a former Derby youth-teamer by the name of Eddie Hogan, who featured in both of those games against his old club. Hogan had been brought to the Baseball Ground under Brian Clough but didn’t quite make the grade before going on to enjoy a long and successful career in the non-league game. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Hogan prior to the Rams’ fifth-round tie at Brighton & Hove Albion in 2019 as his son, also Eddie, a Derby fan living in Brighton, is a good friend of my mate Chris, who I had attended the game with. Hogan Snr was, it’s fair to say, a great character and highly entertaining even during a short conversation outside the AMEX Stadium. Given the occasion, he took great delight in asking which ones of us had played in the fifth round of the FA Cup – before reminding us, again, that he had done! A cracking bloke, and rightly proud what he had experienced during his playing days.
So with Derby back in the second tier for 1986/87 they were at least granted an exemption on entering the FA Cup until the third-round stage after two years of competing from round one. Not that they were able to take advantage of this straight away and Sheffield Wednesday, for the second successive season, put them out of the competition, this time winning 1-0 at Hillsborough in the third round. The original game was due to be played on 10 January but was postponed and played on 26 January.
By that stage of the campaign, however, Derby had marked themselves down as serious promotion contenders and were looking in great shape to go on and win back a place in the First Division. A 13-game unbeaten run, which started the week before the tie against the Owls, set them up to get the job done and when beating Leeds United in their first match of May, they wrapped up a second successive promotion and a swift return to the top flight. The championship was confirmed with victory at home to Plymouth Argyle on the final day and Arthur Cox had achieved what so many had thought was unlikely just three years after taking over.
Cox’s Derby were always going to be up against it back in the First Division for 1987/88 but they looked to be making a good fist of things until a poor run in December sent them tumbling down the table. They had just lost six in a row – five in the league, and one in the old Simod Cup – prior to welcoming Chelsea to the Baseball Ground in the third round of the FA Cup. A 3-1 defeat with David Penney on target that day did little to quell any fears of an immediate return to the Second Division, and neither did extending the losing run to ten in the weeks afterwards.
But Cox’s team tightened up and an unbeaten run of seven got them back on track, and they eventually secured their survival by finishing 15th with 43 points from their 40 games – the season being played out with 21 teams in the First Division during a period of re-structuring. Their tally left them one point clear of third-bottom Chelsea, albeit with a far superior goal difference. The Londoners became one of the few teams to be relegated under the original play-off system.
And while Derby improved greatly in the First Division for 1988/89 – peaking at fourth not long before Christmas – their FA Cup form was, once again, not much to write home about. In the third round they welcomed Southampton to the Baseball Ground but could only draw 1-1 with Trevor Hebberd equalising late on. View the goals here.
In the replay at The Dell, Ted McMinn opened the scoring but the Saints equalised quickly and had the better of things, only to find Peter Shilton in inspired and defiant form. Several top-class saves were enough to take the tie to extra time, where Nigel Callaghan fired in from distance to send Derby through. You can see a highlights package here.
The brief run came to an end in the fourth round, however, as Derby slipped up away to Second Division Watford and went down 2-1 despite Gary Micklewhite levelling things up with 15 minutes left. The action from that tie is available here.
So it was a disappointing way for the Rams to end their FA Cup ties in the 1980s, although with a strong second half of the league season they managed to finish fifth in the First Division. It was their best final position since ending up fourth under Dave Mackay in 1975/76 and suggested that, after a decade of ups, downs and near oblivion, the good times were starting to come back to the Baseball Ground.