Derby County’s first game of the delayed 2020-2021 season will be at home to Barrow in the Carabao Cup first round on Saturday 5 September. Barrow were promoted as National League champions back to the English Football League after 48 years away following the curtailment of their 2019/20 season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cumbrian side were four points clear when the season was suspended in March but a vote by National League clubs decided to determine the season on a points-per-game basis. The League Cup game will be the Rams’ first competitive meeting against Barrow since a Third Division North fixture at the Baseball Ground, in January 1957. In the first part of this article, Moz Curtin reviews Derby’s two seasons in the Third Division North, in particular the many distinctive away programmes from that era.
In 1955 Derby County were relegated to the Third Division North for the first time in their history. They had an awful run in at the end of the 1954-55 season. After beating Port Vale on 5 February 1955 Derby did not win again until the last game of the season, a run of 15 games when they only picked up 3 points. They deservedly finished bottom on 28 points, 5 points behind second from bottom Bradford Park Avenue. There was some optimism when the new season started however, and many Rams supporters who were around at the time say that the two seasons in the Third Division North were the most enjoyable they have experienced following the club.
Certainly Derby played many teams they had not played before. From a programme collecting perspective those two seasons from 65 years ago present a real challenge with obscure names such as Gateshead, Accrington Stanley, Southport and Barrow particularly hard to get hold of. But despite the lowly position of the clubs, many produced distinctive programmes with attractive covers.
In those days, clubs did not play a range of pre-season friendlies as they do today. The first chance most fans had of seeing their team was in the annual ‘Probables v Possibles’ games which saw a mix of the first team and reserve team play against each other. On 12 August 1955 this game took place at the Baseball Ground as ‘Whites v Blues’. Single sheet issues were produced for some of these friendlies in the 1950s but I have never seen one for this game.
The first competitive game was at home to Mansfield Town. 24,159 saw Derby win 4-0. The programme was the same as the previous season, a dull grey issue with the Rams’ club badge in the centre of the cover. The programme remained the same for the remainder of the 1950s. What a shame that the club ditched the vibrant ‘Ram’s head on a player’ style of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Three days later Derby went to Haig Avenue, the home of Southport, the first trip of many to grounds where they had not played previously. The programme from the game is a four page issue, and is one of a number of away programmes from this season that are hard to obtain. A 5-2 win meant the Rams got off to a satisfactory start, but that came to a halt the following Saturday at Wrexham when a penalty from Jack Parry was Derby’s only reply in a 3-1 defeat. The Wrexham programme consists of 8 pages with a photo of the ground on the cover.
After two home wins over Southport and Halifax, Derby travelled to Gresty Road, Crewe on Monday 5 September for a 6.15pm kick off which saw Crewe come out 2-1 winners. The Crewe programme is another which has now become hard to find. The same cannot be said for the game away at Bradford City the following Saturday. An 8 page programme which I think has a particularly attractive cover depicting a player in City colours with plenty of red and yellow on the cover. The Bradford City and Bradford Park Avenue programmes from these two seasons are some of the easier ones to pick up.
September 1955, in which they played 8 games, proved a difficult month for the Rams. After losing 2-1 at Bradford City, Derby drew their next two home games, before losing away at Hartlepools United on 19 September. Another four page issue, and another rare programme.
Derby followed that with a draw at Boundary Park, Oldham. An 8 page issue and typical of many programmes from this era, at all levels, they had a distinctive headline banner on the front cover.
After two home games the Rams made their first ever visit to Redheugh Park to play Gateshead, where they won 4-2. Gateshead were one of a number of clubs Derby faced in 1955-57 who hit financial problems in the 1960s after the regional divisions were scrapped in favour of Divisions 3 and 4. They failed to get re-elected and went out of the Football League at the end of the 1959-60 season, being replaced by Peterborough United after they failed in the re-election process. The programme is another distinctive issue with a colourful cover. The 8 pages contained mainly adverts with team line ups and one article.
A home win against Bradford Park Avenue was their third win on the trot and lifted the Rams to 4th place. On 29 October they travelled to more familiar surroundings of Blundell Park, Grimsby. Like the Rams, Grimsby had been playing at the highest level, if only for a few brief years either side of the Second World War, and had met Derby a number of occasions during that period. Grimsby were to be the leading team in the division all that season and they proved too strong on the day beating the Rams 2-1 in front of a crowd of 19,989. The programme was a typical Grimsby issue of the era with a picture of the Grimsby Dock Tower on the cover. They had a similar cover throughout the 1950s and 1960s with an image that became closely associated with Grimsby Town.
On 7th November Derby played a floodlit friendly at the Baseball Ground against an All Stars XI. This was a benefit game to raise money for the widow of Chick Musson. The former Rams’ player, who was a member of the FA Cup winning team, had sadly died in his mid-30s. The programme was a four page issue with the distinctive cover that was used for all Derby’s floodlit games around this time.
For the first time since 1924 Derby entered the FA Cup at the first round stage. Only clubs in the top two divisions of the Football League had the status of Full Members of the League. Clubs in the Third North and Third South Divisions, and later the Fourth Division, only had the status of Associate Members and entered at the first round. The Rams were drawn away to play Crook Town of the Northern Football League. The programme from the game is a four page issue and is quite hard to find now. Apart from brief notes the majority of the programme is made up of adverts.
Despite the Rams taking a 2-0 lead, Crook scored twice to draw level and take the game to a replay. At the time only friendly games were permitted under floodlights so the replay took place at the Baseball Ground on the Wednesday afternoon on 23 November and Derby were comfortable 5-1 winners.
The Rams returned to league duties with another trip to unfamiliar territory – Peel Park to play Accrington Stanley on 26 November. Back in 1888 a team from Accrington had been one of the original League Members. They had played at The Cricket Field in Accrington, and Derby County had played there on five occasions in the first few years of the Football League. That Accrington side went out of existence in 1896. A new team – Accrington Stanley – were formed and entered the Third Division North in 1921. They were playing at the same level in 1955, but by the mid-1950s were enjoying the most successful period in their history and during Derby’s two seasons at this level, Stanley were one of the main rivals for promotion. The programme is a 12 page issue, and Accrington Stanley won 2-0.
Derby’s 2nd round FA Cup tie has become one of our more embarrassing days, and probably one of the lowest points in our history. We were drawn at home against Midland League Boston United. 23,757 fans saw a Boston team containing six former Derby players win easily 6-1, a record away win for a non-league team against a league side.
Out of the FA Cup before Christmas, the Rams returned to league duties with a draw at Mansfield Town. Christmas games saw us play Stockport County, away on Boxing Day and at home on 27 December. The Stockport programme is a large sized 8 page issue. Its size means most copies are folded or creased, and my copy is no exception.
On the final day of 1955 (a day after I was born!) we drew 2-2 away at Halifax Town. The programme is a 12 page issue with a neat drawing of a player with a stand in the background on the cover.
On 7 January Derby were due to play Barrow at home but, unlike the Rams, they were still in the FA Cup. While Barrow lost 5-0 to Sheffield United, Derby travelled to Brighton to play a friendly. A four page programme was issued for the game.
Derby won four games on the trot in January, beating Bradford Park Avenue, Scunthorpe Rochdale and Workington, scoring 15 goals and conceding one to get their promotion push back on track. Once again both the Rochdale and Workington programmes had distinctive drawings of players on the covers. Personally I much prefer these to the bland covers with player photos on programmes today, but I accept that I am an old fart and probably in a minority.
By the time we travelled to our Derbyshire neighbours at Saltergate, Chesterfield, only two points separated the top four teams. Grimsby were still top on goal average with 41 points, ahead of Accrington Stanley and Southport, also on 41, with the Rams in fourth on 40 points. Not for the first time the Spireites got the better of us winning 2-0. The programme is a typical Chesterfield issue of the 1950s and 1960s with a drawing of the main stand. The cover image of a goalkeeper saving a shot (or header?) appeared in a number of programmes, mainly non-league and Scottish, around this time.
The season was back on track with wins at home to Gateshead and away at Bradford Park Avenue. By March 10 Derby County were top of the table, and with a home game against nearest rivals Grimsby Town they were looking good for a quick return to the Second Division. 33,330 attended the game at the Baseball Ground hoping to see the Rams reinforce their position at the top of the table. The game did not go to plan and Grimsby ran out 3-1 winners to reclaim top spot, a position they would retain until the end of the season.
On 17 March 1956 Derby made another trip to a new ground at Holker Street, Barrow, and without doubt the rarest Derby programme since the end of World War Two. Throughout this period Barrow normally produced a full programme with a blue cover. For a handful of games in 1955 and 1956 they only produced single sheet issues and this was the case for the Derby game. The game was played on a Saturday, rather than in mid-week, so I do not know quite why they only produced a single sheet programme for what would have been probably the most attractive fixture of their season. Whatever the reason, the fact that it was a single sheet and probably less attractive to hang on to, combined with very low attendance of 6,074, meant that very few copies of this programme have survived. The programme had a ‘News and views from Holker Street’ on the cover, and on the back has a few notes on the Derby team and the team line ups.
On Good Friday, 30 March 1956, Derby travelled to play Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park, Birkenhead, another ground where the Rams had previously never played before. Before the game they were top of the Third Division North with only six games to play as they entered the busy Easter period. However, their nearest rivals, Grimsby Town, were only a point behind with two games in hand and with only one team promoted in those days, the Rams still had a lot to do to achieve their ambition of an immediate return to Division Two. A Geoff Barrowcliffe penalty gave the Rams a 1-0 win. The programme is an 8-page issue with a distinctive drawing of a goalkeeper gathering a cross on the cover.
The following day, Derby played away at Carlisle United and won comfortably 3-0 to keep their promotion ambitions alive. The programme was another 8-page issue. It was also another new ground and interestingly Carlisle did not expect to see the Rams back again soon as their ‘Club Notes’ started with ‘Today we entertain for the first and perhaps the last time Derby County, one of the original members of the Football League.’ Subsequent results meant Derby would visit Brunton Park again the following year.
Two days later on Easter Monday was the return game against mid table Tranmere. Can you imagine the uproar from managers today if they had to play 3 games in 4 days?! 24,879 fans saw the Rams draw 0-0.
The following Saturday Derby beat Accrington Stanley 6-2 at home to keep their promotion hopes alive, South African Alf Ackerman scoring four of the goals. Meanwhile, Grimsby continued their impressive run with a 2-0 win up the road at Mansfield Town. The Rams were still top of the league but the lead had been cut down to one point and ominously Grimsby still had the two games in hand.
Any chances of promotion suffered a huge setback when Derby lost their next game 1-0 away at Darlington. The programme was a typical Darlington issue from the 1950s, with the ‘Club Jottings’ on a pink coloured cover. There are 12 pages almost entirely consisting of adverts.
By the time Derby played Rochdale at home on 21 April they were two points behind Grimsby Town who still had a game in hand. A 2-0 win kept hopes alive, but they were dwindling fast. That day Grimsby drew 0-0 away at Workington. That was one of only a few points lost in an impressive run in which saw Grimsby win 13 of their final 15 games.
Derby’s final away match of 1955-56 season was at Bootham Crescent, York. A disappointing 1-0 defeat ended any feint hopes of promotion. The programme was a simple 8-page issue entitled ‘The Citizen’. Club notes appear on the cover.
By the time the Rams faced Hartlepools United on the final day of the season, Grimsby were already champions. 10,794 fans saw Derby win 3-2.
Despite the disappointing end to the season, Derby broke a number of records. The total of 63 points was the highest ever. It was matched again the following season, and then would be enough for them to take top spot. That points total would remain unbeaten until 3 points for a win was introduced in 1981. However, those 63 points were achieved from 46 games. The points total of 63 was matched under Brian Clough in the promotion winning 1968-69 season, this time from only 42 games. The goals scored was a very impressive 110, a club record at the time and the first time the team had scored over 100 goals in a season. Jack Parry was top scorer with 24. Derby’s average home league attendance of 19,688 was the highest in the division. All of these statistics would be beaten or matched the following season when the Rams managed to finish top of the Third Division North and return to the Second Division after an absence of two years.
This article first appeared Derby County Memories magazine. Individual copies can be purchased on eBay for £1.99 post-free. A near complete collection of issues 2-21 can be purchased for £19.99 plus postage. For further details, see the About section.