1988-89 revisited by Gareth Davis

1988-89 revisited by Gareth Davis

It remains a stark fact that the 1988/89 season represents the high point of the last 45 years for Derby County. Finishing fifth in the old First Division was the Rams’ best position since ending up fourth under Dave Mackay in 1975/76. Only twice since 1989 have they even finished in the top ten of the top flight – Jim Smith’s exciting teams coming ninth and then eighth in the Premier League 1998 and 1999 respectively. Arthur Cox’s side, including the star trio of Mark Wright, Dean Saunders and Peter Shilton, looked like they were getting Derby back among the top flight’s contenders again as the 1980s headed towards a close. That 1988/89 campaign also marked my introduction to life as a Derby supporter and will always hold fond personal memories for me. I have a very vague recollection of watching the 1988 FA Cup Final at my grandparents’ house, and Liverpool were the country’s top team at the time, but I was always going to grow up a Rams fan. My dad made sure of that.

My earliest Derby County memories come from the autumn of 1988 and particularly the excitement surrounding the million-pound signing of Dean Saunders, although I was a goalkeeper back in my youth so Peter Shilton was my first hero. So imagine my excitement one September evening when Dad came home from work and told me to get ready because we were going to see Derby against Liverpool that night.  I had been asking to go to a game for weeks but this was it – this was my first chance to head to the Baseball Ground and see the team play, and not only that but it would be against the mighty Liverpool. Shilton v Ian Rush, Wright v Peter Beardsley, wow.

Fast forward to a few minutes before kick-off and the teams came out on to the pitch. There was a big crowd and a good atmosphere, including one buzzing eight-year-old sat with his dad in the middle tier of the Osmaston End. Then something started to trouble me. “Dad,” I mused. “That’s not Peter Shilton.” Only at that point did Dad let me in on the news that we were watching the reserves rather than the first team, and that Martin Taylor was in goal rather than Peter Shilton! I don’t remember a lot from the night other than the score, a 3-0 defeat, although I was probably a bit disappointed at not watching a first-team game.

The signing of Saunders came a few weeks later and his explosive start, scoring twice in a 4-1 win at home to Wimbledon to mark his debut, only heightened my desire to be in the crowd for real. Matches came and went but I had to wait until Dad finally relented just after the turn of the year – 14 January 1989 to be precise – to finally get to see a First Division game. Dad came home from work with the tickets on the Friday evening and I barely slept that night as I waited impatiently for the time to pass. West Ham United were the opponents and as we took our seats in the Co-op Stand (before Toyota took over the sponsorship) I knew that this was definitely it. This was what I had been waiting for. I remember ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark blaring out loudly as I got to my seat for the first time. It’s funny how you recall these things. ‘Black Eyed Boy’ by Texas was the first song I heard at Pride Park, for the record. Anyway. Out came the teams, up went the roar, and once again I found myself asking my dad about Derby’s goalkeeper. “Dad,” I asked, “What has Peter Shilton just put in the goal?” “Ah,” came the response, my old man quickly thinking on his feet. “That’s his copy of the Derby Evening Telegraph to read in case he gets bored.” Hook, line and sinker! Amazingly I swallowed that one but I later discovered it was actually his glove bag, so of course I had to have one for myself.

Back to the game and a minute in the Rams were in front through a Saunders header. Surely football isn’t always this good, I thought. I soon discovered that it wasn’t as with the clock reading 19 minutes we were 2-1 down, and that’s how it stayed. A losing start to my Derby County career.

We went to a handful of other home games that season. Our next visit came in March to see Derby take on Tottenham Hotspur, and this time we were stood on the Pop Side. An introduction for me to the ‘proper’ Baseball Ground experience. That match was a relatively unremarkable 1-1 draw, although it did give me a first opportunity to watch the new star of English football – Paul Gascoigne. Even as a kid I was aware of the hype around him, although we couldn’t of course have known just how much of an icon Gazza would become in the years to follow. As it happens, I’m actually wearing my England Italia ’90 replica shirt – complete with the number 19 on the back – while writing this piece.

Derby had kept themselves in touch with the top six for near enough the entire season and that point against Spurs left them sixth in the table. They had really marked themselves out as a team to be reckoned with a couple of weeks prior to this match after coming out on the right side of a 3-2 thriller against Everton. The Toffees had been champions in 1985 and again in 1987, as well as winning the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup earlier in the decade, and while they were just beyond their peak they were still a very strong side. But the Rams came out on top in what was an exciting encounter, aided by two goals from Paul Goddard – one of which was a delightful chip over Neville Southall and was pretty much all me and my mates talked about at school on the Monday.

Memories of those games I wasn’t present for in 1988/89 are a bit patchy if I’m being completely honest. While I have watched the season review video from that campaign numerous times, Andy Ellis’s excellent Complete Record book has been brilliant in filling the gaps for me. Go back to the week after my debut against West Ham and Derby won 1-0 at Queens Park Rangers thanks to a goal from Geraint Williams. That’s one I do remember and I can recall listening to it on Radio Derby. A home win against Southampton and an away defeat at Norwich City followed, prior to the Everton game. I don’t recall either of those two at all. Between Everton and Spurs came a 4-0 pasting at Wimbledon. Weirdly, I do remember that one happening. A win at Middlesbrough followed the Spurs match, then defeats at home to Nottingham Forest and away to Liverpool, all of which are complete blanks but lead me in to my next BBG occasion.

Coventry City were the visitors on 1 April and once again Dad and I took our places on the Pop Side terracing, me standing on a milk crate while leaning against one of the metal crush barriers to help my view. The afternoon itself ended 1-0 to Cox’s team, giving me my first taste of victory at the third attempt. And the goal – it came in the last minute, from a fair way out, via the right boot of defender Paul Blades. It’s on YouTube and is one I often take a look at when it pops up, just to remind myself of the moment. I actually fell off my milk crate, such was the celebration, but my fellow Pop Siders were quick to help me back to my feet.

It was an important result as Derby had only won two of their previous seven fixtures and were in danger of slipping away from the business end of the First Division table. They moved back up to eighth as a result of the three points, and then went seventh the following week with a draw at West Ham. Then came another of those matches I wasn’t at but do remember vividly – a 2-0 win at Manchester United. Although the date, 15 April, probably has as much as anything to do with my recollections of the day. Just 50 miles away from the joy at Old Trafford came the horrors of the Hillsborough disaster, which played out as Goddard and Gary Micklewhite put the mid-table Red Devils to the sword. The details of what happened at Hillsborough don’t need to be covered here but it’s certainly one of those days where you can remember exactly what you were doing when you heard the news. I do. I was playing in a five-a-side tournament for 1st Horsley & Kilburn Cubs up at Ripley Leisure Centre. The first reports started to come through from people who had taken their personal radios with them – no mobile phones in those days, of course.

By the end of the afternoon it was apparent that a major tragedy had occurred. Later on, when Dad and I went to the village butcher’s shop, it was the only topic of conversation. I was still a couple of months away from my ninth birthday but I had quickly got my head around the story and it is one I have followed intently ever since. Dad and I actually had tickets for that semi-final at Hillsborough. He was pretty well connected with the Derbyshire FA so had managed to lay his hands on a couple. Mum, however, said that we couldn’t go because it was going to be far too big a crowd for me to be around. We wouldn’t have been anywhere near the Leppings Lane End but even still, just being in the ground on that terrible afternoon doesn’t bear thinking about. The disaster had a profound impact on English football, both in the immediacy and the game’s long-term future.

Liverpool took some time off but fixtures continued elsewhere and a week later, Dean Saunders was on target at the Baseball Ground as Derby beat Sheffield Wednesday 1-0 to make it three wins and a draw from four matches. It pushed Derby up to sixth and is one I have a very, very vague recollection of happening. The following week’s 3-0 defeat at Luton Town brings nothing up in my mind but the Rams did get back to form in their first outing of May. Aston Villa were in town and had their young midfielder David Platt running things but despite Platt scoring, their survival hopes suffered a blow thanks to goals from Saunders and Trevor Hebberd. And I was there! Dad and I were once again in the Pop Side for what was a sunny afternoon and Derby’s final home match of 1988/89. It was the day I was also introduced to the season-ending festivities such as the big reveal of the winner of the Jack Stamps Trophy. The supporters had voted Mark Wright as their player of the year, although I was a bit put out as Saunders and Shilton were my heroes. This was only my fourth match, of course, so my opinion didn’t really count for much.

Wait – that’s not quite right. There was another visit, for a friendly against Russian side Dinamo Moscow. This one has just come into my head now. If I remember rightly, we had an allocation of tickets sent to Kilburn Junior School and we had to write a letter to the head, explaining why we were deserving of attending the game. That might sound strange but I’m as certain as I can be that it’s how things went down at the time! I may need to ask around about that one and see if anyone else can remember it. There’s a match programme up on eBay at the moment, although the listing tells me nothing more than the date – Friday, 3 March.

But back to the First Division, and that victory over Aston Villa had left the Rams sixth in the table with three matches to play. The first of that trio was a 3-0 humbling at Charlton Athletic, but a week later came arguably the result of the season. Dean Saunders did the damage with a penalty and a truly wonderful volley in a memorable 2-1 victory at leaders Arsenal. It’s another one you will be able to find easily on YouTube, and it moved Cox’s men up to fifth in the table – their highest position since going fourth after a December win at Coventry City.

And we had no way of knowing at the time, of course, but the result contributed to what remains in my opinion the greatest finish to an English top-flight season in all of my years watching football. More on that later, but Derby wrapped up their season two days further into May with a 1-0 Monday-night defeat at Everton. That’s another one I do remember, and will the name of the goalscorer mean anything to you? Ian Wilson was the man on target that night. He would later join Derby on loan during the 1990/91 season.

Derby stayed fifth despite that loss at Goodison and despite there still being a handful of First Division fixtures to play owing to re-arrangements following Hillsborough. Liverpool lifted the FA Cup on 20 May with a 3-2 win over city rivals Everton in the final at Wembley. I can strongly remember sitting at home and watching that one with Dad. While I think I may have seen the 1988 showpiece, this is the game I consider to be my first FA Cup Final. What a game it was, and what an emotional occasion it was too on the back of what had happened at Hillsborough. It was fitting that Liverpool should lift the trophy, and it was also fitting that Everton should be their opponents. Hillsborough had been more than just a football disaster; it had been a disaster for the city of Liverpool and saw fans of both clubs united in their grief. The success meant that Liverpool were two matches away from winning a second double of the decade and after beating West Ham 5-1 three days after Wembley, they had one hurdle left to overcome.  Arsenal, at Anfield, on 26 May. Top v second and one of the most iconic moments in the entire history of English football. The Gunners needed an unlikely 2-0 win to pip Liverpool to the title on goals scored. That they did so remains remarkable; that they did it with almost the last kick of the last game of the season – all other fixtures had been completed by this point – was almost unthinkable.

Derby’s fifth-place finish would have been enough to have earned them a place in the UEFA Cup for the first time since 1976/77 had it not been for the ban on English clubs in Europe because of the Heysel stadium disaster of 1985. That was just a minor disappointment to me; I was hooked. I had seen my team have a good season, I had seen a thrilling FA Cup Final, and there had been an even more thrilling end to the title race. I had just turned nine by the time of Liverpool v Arsenal and with my naive outlook I expected football to always be that exciting. I soon discovered the truth. But I wanted to go to games every week and I must have been persistent as Dad and I moved to the lower tier of the Normanton End for the next couple of years with me a member of the old Key Club, before getting season tickets in the Toyota Stand from 1991/92 onwards.

If I’m being honest, I wasn’t old enough to really appreciate just how good that 1988/89 team was. Dean Saunders scored the goals, Mark Wright was the main man at the back and Peter Shilton was Peter Shilton so they were the stars for me but the likes of Trevor Hebberd and Paul Goddard were just as important. And then there was Ted McMinn. I was aware of how popular he was among the BBG faithful, although I didn’t really grasp fully the reasons why. It was only after his serious knee injury in the following season that I realised just what the Tin Man meant to Rams fans.

I have been fortunate to have met or interviewed many of that squad over the years since, and I spent a lot of time in Ted’s company when our working paths crossed. What a great character. I often find myself looking back and wondering just what the Rams could have achieved had we been able to kick on from that platform we had but, for so many well-documented reasons, we weren’t able to. But 1988/89 will always be when my love of Derby County started and for that reason alone, it’s a great season to reminisce about.

A version of this article first appeared in issue 21 of 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.

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