Harry Storer managed Derby County for seven seasons starting in the summer of 1955 through to the end of the 1961-62 campaign. His achievements, considering the chaos at the Baseball Ground when he arrived, were quite extraordinary. Storer, a tough tackling wing-half for the Rams back in the 1920s and talented enough to win a couple of England caps (and a fine cricketer for Derbyshire too), had already enjoyed considerable success as a manager at Coventry and Birmingham. He arrived at the Baseball Ground with the reputation as a strict disciplinarian and was widely regarded, even in those days, as one of the ‘old school’ of managers. No doubt his style would be regarded today as almost prehistoric, but it was highly effective at the time.
Anyone who was going to flourish under Storer had to be able to play – that almost goes without saying – but ability alone was nowhere near enough. What he demanded above all were bravery, guts and character. Stories about Storer have become part of Derby’s folklore and a couple are often quoted. Such as the time Joe Mercer complained to Storer that five of his side had spent the whole match kicking lumps out of his players. ‘Tell me who they are’ said Storer ‘and I’ll give the other six a rollicking’. On another occasion, he marched one poor unsuspecting player out of the dressing room on to the pitch after a match. ‘Where is it then?’ asked the manager. ‘Where’s what boss?’ replied the player. ‘That bloody hole you’ve been hiding in all afternoon’.
The Rams had dropped from the higher reaches of the First Division right down to the bottom tier of English League football – better known as Division 3 (North) – in less than a decade by the time Storer took over from the frustrated Jack Barker in the summer of 1955. But although morale across the whole club was at rock bottom, there remained a handful of players who had graced the top flight, notably long-serving winger Tommy Powell along with the likes of goalkeeper Terry Webster, full-back Geoff Barrowcliffe (Ian Hall once included him in his ‘best’ Rams X1), wing halves Jack Parry, Frank Upton and Albert Mays and also centre-forward Ray Straw, most of them local boys. One thing that was needed was leadership on the pitch and Storer wasted no time in persuading West Brom midfielder Reg (Paddy) Ryan to join him at the Baseball Ground, immediately appointing him captain. What an acquisition he turned out to be. Although Dave Mackay later became, without doubt, Derby’s greatest skipper in living memory, other than the great Scot only Rob Hindmarch and Robbie van der Laan can compare with Ryan as a natural leader on the pitch. Storer was also well aware how important it was to have a commanding central defender in his line-up and in came ex-paratrooper Martin McDonnell from Coventry; exactly the sort of man he needed with his never-say-die attitude and ferocious tackling. Later, although he could call on the classy Ray Young to wear the number 5 shirt, he usually preferred to place his trust in the combative part time professional Les Moore who he snapped up from non-league Worksop for just £1,000.
In those days with only the club finishing first in Divisions North and South being promoted, achieving a quick return to Division 2 was bound to be extremely difficult. After an impressive run of results the Rams were riding high at the top of Division 3 (North) in March 1956 when second placed Grimsby Town arrived in town. I remember it well. In fact, no one who was at the Baseball Ground that afternoon (33,300 packed into the old stadium) will ever forget what happened that afternoon. Looking back now, I suppose even a draw would have been a reasonable result but, sadly, after an eventful 90 minutes in all sorts of ways, the visitors returned home with the two vital points. Not only that, they had contrived to put top scorer Jack Parry out of action for the rest of the season thanks to a particularly crude challenge from the notorious de Gruchy. Although Derby bounced back with six wins and a draw from the next seven games, in the end they had to settle for second place behind the Mariners and therefore at least one more year in the third tier. Rather like Portsmouth today, their reputation and attacking style of play had generated enormous crowds, both at home and also on their travels where they were a big attraction.
The following season was crucial but this time Storer’s men went one better by finishing top of the League. Memorable games were plentiful but one that will always stand out is the 7-1 hammering of Chesterfield on Easter Monday. Considering the state of the club when he took over, winning promotion so quickly represented a tremendous achievement by the manager. Goals had been streaming in all season, an astonishing 111 in the League, one more than a year before, with centre-forward Ray Straw equalling Jack Barker’s record of 37 in a season League games, many of them headers from pin-point crosses from wingers Tommy Powell and Dennis Woodhead.
Storer showed his ruthless streak early in the following season by off-loading Straw who was proving to be less effective at the higher level with the pace of the game not entirely to his liking. After a difficult start Derby went on an impressive run at home and eventually finished the campaign in 16th place. At least they had survived in the second tier. Although Storer demanded bravery and hard work from his players he wasn’t afraid to bring in skilful players blessed with flair either. Rather like Peter Taylor later, he was an outstanding judge of a footballer. A good example was inside forward George Darwin whose dribbling ability hadn’t been seen by the Rams faithful since the days of Johnny Morris and Billy Steel. His link-up play with Parry in the 1958-59 season was one of the main reasons why Storer’s revitalised side finished a creditable seventh and were even flirting with promotion at one stage. Then there were the likes of the versatile Johnny Hannigan and winger Dave Cargill too, both of them adding something different to his attack and by then Glyn Davies, a fiery Welsh left-back cum wing-half, had taken over from Ryan as skipper – another master stroke by Storer. The following season was a disappointing one and when goals continued to be scarce early on in the 1960-61 campaign, Storer persuaded a parsimonious board to fork out a hefty £12,000 to bring in Geordie Bill Curry, the prolific ex-England Under 23 centre-forward, from Brighton. An inspired signing, he was soon banging in the goals, ending the campaign with an impressive 19 from 30 League games and by the end of his third season with the club had netted 67 goals in just 123 appearances. To describe him as a firm favourite with fans would be an understatement. Other shrewd signings such as Hutchinson and Havenhand were finding the back of the net regularly too. In the meantime the manager had been showing that he wasn’t afraid to give opportunities to promising young players, notably local boys Ron Webster and Mick Hopkinson. Webster of course went on to have a distinguished career with the Rams after switching from midfield to full-back, eventually winning First Division champions honours.
By the time he called it a day in 1962 Storer had consolidated the club’s position in the Second Division in extremely difficult circumstances. Not only had he got the best out of the players he had inherited, he had performed exceptionally well in the transfer market, hardly putting a foot wrong. Derby were always strapped for cash in those days so reducing the £60,000 overdraft by two thirds was a remarkable achievement too. Looking back, he probably stayed a couple of seasons too long, rather like Arthur Cox and even Jim Smith. Just five years later in 1967 Harry Storer passed away. It was such a shame that he was unable to enjoy the success brought about by the man who had always rated him so highly and had learned so much, Brian Clough.
David Moore is a former master brewer who wrote over 550 articles for Derby County’s official programme, The Ram, over a 20 year period. This article first appeared in issue 19 of Derby County Memories magazine in December 2017.