Life as Derby County’s programme editor by Gareth Davis

Life as Derby County’s programme editor by Gareth Davis

Back in my days editing The Ram between 2008/09 and 2010/11, it often felt like it was just deadline after deadline because of how a programme production week was structured. And to a certain extent that’s because it was, as we had to do a section each day in order to stick to print schedules. Tuesday and Wednesday were when we completed the vast majority of each edition, and that’s where you’re reliant on other departments for ensuring that their contributions are sent to you in good time.

But there was one challenge that cropped up on many an occasion ‑ the midweek away game! Midweek matches meant the page plan had to be shuffled around anyway, so the Tuesday night action could be included in the section scheduled to print on the Wednesday, but if Derby were on the road on a Tuesday then it became more difficult. I was covering games for the club website and I remember fondly staying over after a draw at Swansea City one Tuesday then getting up and driving back to the office on the Wednesday morning to crack on with the programme for the weekend’s home game with Cardiff City. But the worst instance was in April 2009 and the re-arranged visit to Cardiff on a Wednesday night. Because it was a Wednesday we couldn’t stay over as we had to be back to finish the final programme pages on the Thursday morning ahead of the Easter Monday game with Wolverhampton Wanderers, so following the delights of a 4-1 defeat we then headed home and got back at some ridiculous hour, not helped by big roadworks on the M4!

And that was just my first season in the hot-seat. My second and third seasons had an altogether different challenge. I left the club’s media department in the summer of 2009 and took up a role with Ignition Publishing which meant that I would continue to edit The Ram,  and also look after The Mag, Notts County’s matchday programme. It meant looking after two clubs at the same time ‑ double the deadlines, especially if they were both at home on the same day! That happened on the opening weekend of 2009/10 and there were some very late nights to get everything done, although that was down to my bad planning more than anything else. Complications always came whenever there was a Saturday-Tuesday sequence for one or both of the clubs. In the spring of 2010 Derby had four home games in the space of 11 days, while Notts were also at home during that period, and I just didn’t see my friends and family at all until the editions were signed off!

The following season brought more of the same and I have to confess that it got to the point where I was praying for away draws in the cups, especially the 2010/11 FA Cup third round. Both teams had been at home on the same Saturday for three straight weeks, the Christmas period was always a squeeze anyway, and then the FA Cup was the first weekend of 2011 so the monumental slog would have continued for another week. Notts had got through and they were drawn at Premier League Sunderland, a tie they won, while Derby headed to non-league Crawley Town ‑ and we don’t need reminding about how that one turned out. Thankfully the contributors didn’t let me down often and that made my weeks a whole lot easier, even giving me enough time to get over to Moor Farm or Meadow Lane regularly to carry out face-to-face interviews.

And being able to work while mobile meant that when Darren Wassall once left me right up against deadline before sending me his Academy notes, I had to dip out of a traffic jam on Duffield Road and pull into the Broadway car park to sub-edit his words and get them over to Ignition from the comfort of my car!

It was stressful at times and there was a hell of a lot of work to do, but editing football club programmes is a highly rewarding role and I feel very fortunate to have had the experiences I have. I grew up a Derby fan and when I joined the media department in 2005 I always had my sights on taking over The Ram. I class it as a privilege to have done so and to have carried on the excellent work of my colleagues and predecessors. Nothing gave me more pride in the job than sitting in my seat on matchday and looking around as people intently read their copies.

I started doing the main player feature interviews in December 2007 and then became editor for the 2008/09, 2009/10 and 2010/11 seasons, a period in which we had some interesting characters at the club. If I had to pick out one player as the best to interview I would have to go with Shaun Barker. I interviewed Shaun a handful of times after he joined from Blackpool in the summer of 2009 and on each occasion, I always found myself completely engrossed in what he had to say. There are some people you come across in football who, when they talk you listen to every single word they utter, and Shaun is one of those individuals. Shaun never once said no to an interview request, was always engaging and courteous, and I always maintain that ten minutes with him was as valuable as 20 minutes with anyone else. There’s a picture of me looking bored and staring at my watch while interviewing Shaun, but that snapshot couldn’t have been further from the truth of how it was actually going! Shaun always struck me as a genuine and honest human being and how he has recovered from a horrific knee injury is a great testament to him as a person.

A word, too, for Shaun’s former centre-back partner ‑ and replacement that night against Forest ‑ Jake Buxton. I interviewed Jake when he first joined from Burton Albion at the end of the 2008/09 season and I can’t recall anyone speaking with as much passion and pride as he did on that day. You often hear footballers say things when you know they don’t entirely mean them, but in Jake’s case every single syllable was delivered direct from the heart. And it was the same whenever I interviewed him for the programme over the next two years, even when he was out injured for long periods of time ‑ his head never dropped, he always spoke honestly and openly, and I always came away knowing I had some great content to write up.

Robbie Savage was also good to work with, in his own unique way. I found him a bit challenging at first, probably because I was a bit intimidated by having such a big character around the place and I was a little unsure as to how to deal with him. It wasn’t until he was brought back into the fold by Nigel Clough that I found him less of a challenge, and over time I warmed to him a lot more. The key with Sav was to engage in a bit of banter with him and stand your ground, which I eventually managed to do. He used to claim when I was up at the training ground that I had “trousers like Simon Cowell” because I apparently wore them higher up my body than a normal person, not that I ever agreed with that assessment! Greenie was laughing hysterically but Sav clearly wasn’t expecting it so he just stood there, silenced! After that, we had a great working relationship. He was always happy to talk, even if sometimes he would decide that it was his turn to be interviewed when I was intending on speaking to someone else, and he was nothing but a gentleman to work with. I interviewed Sav at length for a feature in the final home programme of 2010/11, which was to be his final Pride Park appearance before retirement. What struck me was how humble he was about the career he had enjoyed. He had certainly mellowed as a character and he came across as feeling privileged to have done what he had done in football. He also spoke candidly about the influence his father, Colin, had been on his life and his career, and how walking out on to the pitch with him one last time ‑ Colin was, by that point, suffering from Pick’s disease ‑ would give him as much pride as anything else he had done. It was a moving conversation to be a part of.

Then there was a chat with Mile Sterjovski, the Australian international who joined us in the January 2008 transfer window. Mile was a lovely bloke to deal with but the interview wasn’t turning into anything remarkable until I asked him what sort of research he’d had to do on Derby County before signing up. He told me that his older brother, Nick, was actually a Rams fan having chosen the club in the late 1980s and followed us ever since! Metaphorically speaking, I was rubbing my hands at this development and we had a brilliant chat about what Nick had passed on to Mile, and about Nick’s experiences of life supporting Derby County on the other side of the world. Nick eventually came over the following year to see a few matches, including Mile scoring against Wolverhampton Wanderers, and it was a pleasure to sit down to talk to him for the programme.

As a one-off interview, however, I think my favourite would have to be another one of our less-remembered players ‑ Danny Mills, who was on loan from Manchester City in January 2008. We sat down at Moor Farm a few days after a 3-1 defeat at Portsmouth, when Danny had gone off after half an hour or so with a knee injury. That turned out to be the end of his professional career, although we didn’t know it at the time, and we spoke for about 45 minutes about a whole manner of topics. Danny was, at that point, the highest-profile player I had interviewed, having gone to the World Cup quarter-finals with England in 2002, the UEFA Cup semi-finals with Leeds in 2000 and then the last four of the Champions League the following year, along with his many seasons in the Premier League. But there was nothing big-time about him at all. He was down-to-earth, open, entertaining, interesting, honest; everything you want from a footballer you’re interviewing. Even though the interview took place over a decade ago, I still have the audio of it on my computer. It really was a fascinating experience.

I did a lot of work with the Academy when it came to programme features, especially on talking to the under-18 scholars. They needed that experience of being interviewed as part of their education programme and it also provided me with some good content and insights about people who wouldn’t otherwise be featured. Mark O’Brien stands out as the pick of that particular bunch. I had interviewed him as a 16-year-old schoolboy and I was struck straight away by just how comfortable he was, then he did the post-match media rounds after his professional debut at the end of the 2008/09 campaign with all the ease of a seasoned professional. I always wonder what sort of career he would have had with Derby had he not been hit by injury and health problems but even when he was on the comeback from that heart operation, he spoke with a maturity a long way beyond his years.

Later on, the club announced plans to place a statue of the great Brian Clough and Peter Taylor outside Pride Park Stadium so in the build-up to the big unveil, we carried a series of interviews in The Ram with many of the players who had been a part of their successes in the 1960s and ’70s. This was a wonderful assignment for me as I had the privilege of talking to some of the biggest legends in the club’s history. And they were all, to a man, absolutely happy to talk over the telephone about their time with Clough and Taylor, to share some stories, and to speak in glowing terms about why the statue was such a fantastic idea. Dave Mackay, John McGovern, Alan Durban, Archie Gemmill ‑ big name after big name had their say, and as a Derby fan it was an honour to have contact with such icons. Just like when the phone rang one night, followed by an opening line that will never be topped: “Hi Gareth, it’s Roy McFarland here.”

I’m a bit of a perfectionist so any time there was something not 100 per cent right in the programme I would get annoyed. It was normally the small things, like an incorrect spelling creeping through the net, and there were times when returning loan players were not then added back on to the squad list on the back page. There was no reason for this to happen other than me simply forgetting to restore them to where they had been before they left temporarily. Most of the time that didn’t really impact the programme too much as often loan players weren’t likely to feature much at first-team level, although for accuracy purposes I still wanted them there. But there was one instance where someone came back from a loan, started unexpectedly and put in a man-of-the-match performance in a massive game, and yet there was no mention of him in that night’s edition! Andy Todd came back from a spell at Northampton Town at the start of January 2009 having not actually appeared for the Rams since the end of the 2007/08 Premier League season. His Pride Park career looked like it was an end but a defensive injury crisis meant he was thrown straight back into the starting line-up ‑ for the first leg of the League Cup semi-final against the defending Premier League, European and World Club Cup champions Manchester United. So, it was a case of in at the deepest of deep ends for Todd yet he was superb against the likes of Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and more as the Rams earned a 1-0 lead to take to Old Trafford. But as soon as I was handed the team sheet for that first leg and saw his name on there I realised my mistake and just said to myself: “Oh, ****!”

It didn’t happen too often but there were occasions where something would develop after the programme had gone to print ‑ which meant, of course, that it couldn’t be included. The one that springs to mind immediately surrounds the first leg of the 2009 League Cup semi-final against Manchester United. It had been a troubled few weeks for the club with some poor results on the field, culminating in Paul Jewell resigning as manager after a home defeat to Ipswich Town on 28 December. His assistant, Chris Hutchings, was placed in temporary charge and oversaw the near-embarrassment at non-league side Forest Green Rovers in the third round of the FA Cup, four days before the United tie. Because it was only the second time in the club’s history that the League Cup semi-final had been reached ‑ and the first since 1968 ‑ and because of United’s status at the time, we decided to go all-out and produce a 100-page special edition of the programme. As well as the usual array of player features and interviews, plus all the regular club content and external contributions, we carried a lot of material looking back on that team of 1968 and the events of the two legs against Leeds United. Coming, as it did, after two home games in the space of eight days either side of Christmas along with a long road trip to Preston North End on Boxing Day and then that journey to deepest Gloucestershire for the Forest Green classic, a huge amount of work was put in to get the programme ready.

I remember signing off the final pages and feeling very pleased with my efforts and the quality of the content. I couldn’t wait to finally get the special edition in my hands, but then came the development that took a lot of the gloss away for me, although there was no way it could have been helped. After a lot of speculation over who would be replacing Jewell as manager, it was announced on the day before the United game that Nigel Clough would be taking over, albeit not until the day after Sir Alex Ferguson’s men were in town. It was also announced that youth team coach David Lowe would be leading the team at United with Chris Hutchings having left the club altogether. Except that the programme had already gone to print and, spread across pages four and five, were Chris Hutchings’ notes for the night!

Fortunately, I never had to touch the manager’s notes during my time as programme editor. I say ‘fortunately’ because I know it was quite the thankless task to make sure that everything was satisfactory for the man in the hot-seat and that the message was correct, not least in Billy Davies’s days. The notes were always handled by our programme editor in my early years at the club, although that all changed when Paul Jewell arrived during the Premier League season. Jewell brought with him his old press officer from Wigan Athletic, and he then sorted out the notes with the boss before supplying them to us in the media department. That same process continued when Nigel Clough was appointed to replace Jewell in January 2009, so as it happened the manager’s notes page was probably the least of my headaches. Just to show that it’s not just managers who get on the merry-go-round, after Jewell and his press officer joined, Steve Bruce took over at Wigan and was accompanied by his media man from Birmingham City. Then, for good measure, our former programme editor ‑ who had left Pride Park shortly after Jewell’s appointment – although those moves weren’t connected ‑ joined Birmingham a couple of months later!

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Gareth Davis is a freelance proofreader and copywriter, and author of Derby County Greatest Games: The Rams’ Fifty Finest Matches, and Derby’s Days: The Rams’ Rivalry with Nottingham Forest. He can be contacted at gareth@gtn.media.

This article was first printed in issue 20 of Derby County Memories in March 2018.  See the About section for further details.


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