I was a little surprised to note that the 25th anniversary of Derby County’s promotion in the 1995/96 season is upon us. A whole quarter of a century since that great day against Crystal Palace – time genuinely flies.
The previous few years had marked a period of change for the club following relegation from the old First Division under Arthur Cox in 1991. The Robert Maxwell era had come to an end, Cox and then Roy McFarland had both tried and failed to take the Rams back up – to what had become the Premier League – and the big-money signings were starting to move on as Lionel Pickering cut back on the spending. The appointment of Jim Smith in the summer of 1995, Derby enticing him to the Baseball Ground from his desk job with the League Managers’ Association, was met with an underwhelmed reaction among supporters. He was busy in the transfer market but a slow start to the campaign left the team closer to the relegation zone than the promotion race after a couple of months and only served to amplify those concerns. But the arrival of Igor Štimac was the catalyst for a huge turnaround in Derby’s fortunes and sparked a 20-match unbeaten stretch from November to March, breaking a club record run within a single season and setting up the promotion charge.
Smith’s team hit the top two in December and looked certainties for the title at one stage, only to stutter after their run came to an end at Sunderland – who went on to finish at the summit. But the Rams maintained their hold on an automatic promotion place despite mounting pressure and they had the chance to wrap it all up on 20 April, only for a 1-1 draw at home to Birmingham City coupled with Palace winning 2-0 at Wolverhampton Wanderers to keep the race for second alive.
What those results also meant was that Derby’s home clash with Palace eight days later was effectively a shootout for the runners-up position. A victory for the Rams would take them four points clear of the Eagles and secure promotion with one game of the season still to go. A draw would keep the gap at one point going into the final day, with Derby at West Bromwich Albion and Palace hosting Norwich City. Defeat for Smith’s men, unthinkable for those of a black and white persuasion after only one home First Division reverse all season, would surrender the upper hand to Palace. What followed was a tense few days for supporters, eagerly anticipating arguably the Baseball Ground’s biggest occasion since Cox’s team returned to the top flight in 1987.
The build-up started early on and continued through the week, although on a personal level I had a nice interruption and escape from it all on the Wednesday night. It was my dad’s birthday so he sorted himself out a sensible present – tickets for us to go and see England take on Croatia at Wembley in a friendly ahead of Euro ’96. It was my first full England international, but I was more excited about the chance to see Igor gracing the hallowed turf of the national stadium. He did so with his usual assurance against a forward line of Teddy Sheringham and Robbie Fowler, and as an aside he was also up against former Rams favourite Mark Wright, who had forced his way back into the England reckoning after injury. Ironically, that injury had come when he was reported to have been on the verge of a return to Derby on loan earlier in 1995/96. Had that happened, would the Rams have even ended up signing Igor? That was a hypothetical point, but what was very real was the sight of Igor hobbling off in the second half with what looked like an ankle problem. Thoughts turned immediately to the game against Palace. Would Igor be fit? How would Derby adapt if he wasn’t? Was his absence going to ruin our promotion chances?
It was a nervous wait for news and very little was said in the next couple of days, so we awoke on the Sunday morning ahead of the Palace game still desperate for an update. Then, on BBC Radio Derby, came the headline I feared – Rams dealt major injury blow. That was it. Igor was out and the day was done before it had really started. Except that Igor wasn’t the absentee, as we were soon to discover. Instead came the revelation that Dean Yates, a mainstay of the defence that season alongside Igor and a young Gary Rowett, would be missing because of a knee injury. It was especially unfortunate for Yates after 42 consecutive appearances, one of the longest unbroken runs of his injury-hit career, as in the same report he was also named as the winner of the Jack Stamps Trophy as the supporters’ player of the year.
For me, Igor was The Man in that team. I think I’ve already made that pretty clear. But Dean Yates was a classy operator in his own right and was fully deserving of the award. His number five shirt would be filled against Palace by Matt Carbon, making his full debut having signed from Lincoln City earlier in the spring as a centre-half or forward of some potential. All of this was known before we had even departed for the Baseball Ground, and nerves were jangling the longer the day went on.
Supporters were urged to wear black and white on the day, to “roar ’til you’re raw!” and go all out to create a real big-game atmosphere at the famous old stadium. I can’t remember the clothing I had on but I can recall the last words I said to my mum before we left to go and catch the bus: “See you when we’re in the Premier League.”
We congregated at the bus stop – me, Dad, my mate Mark and his granddad Albert – all sharing the same feelings of nervousness and excitement about what lay in wait for us. One by one all of the bus regulars filed on, everybody wearing that same slightly stressed expression knowing that we were readying ourselves for a great occasion or a huge let-down.
The atmosphere as we arrived at the Baseball Ground was already electric on a sunny afternoon. Fans of both sides were making plenty of noise outside the stadium with everyone knowing exactly what was at stake. There was black and white everywhere you looked – banners, t-shirts, flags, posters, even supporters with their faces painted. Anything that could be made black or white for the day was given the necessary treatment.
Inside the ground was a wonderful sight. For the most part the stands were a sea of the Rams’ colours, punctuated only by the occasional red-and-white-checked Croatia shirt in honour of Igor, and the claret-and-blue-clad Palace fans behind one goal. The Baseball Ground could always be relied upon to create an atmosphere worthy of the occasion and this day was certainly no different, not least because it also marked the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Derby winning the FA Cup in 1946. Sparkling, spine-tingling, hair-raising – pick whatever adjective you like; they were all appropriate as the kick-off drew nearer.
The players knew what they had to do after the first whistle blew and for Derby it was the most perfect of starts, capitalising on the sense of occasion generated by the home faithful. Just two minutes had passed when Igor intercepted, Paul Simpson intelligently hooked the ball on, and Dean Sturridge raced clear to beat Nigel Martyn and net the 19th goal of his breakthrough season. The Baseball Ground erupted with noise but was soon silenced as Palace equalised, Kenny Brown volleying home from a Bruce Dyer cross and celebrating joyously in front of the travelling fans in the lower tier of the Osmaston End.
How the game played out from there is something that I can’t really remember. Perhaps I’ve seen the goals and highlights so many times that they’ve pushed the rest of the match out of my mind. Outside of an innocuous Paul Trollope shot which bobbled wide of the post in the first half, I can recall almost nothing. I’ve had to consult an archive match report to check on the details and while I’m delighted to note that I hadn’t dreamed up the Trollope effort, there actually wasn’t a great deal else to say as the opening 45 rumbled on. Derby were nervous, understandably, and Palace were the better team without looking like they could take advantage. Chances were rare at both ends of the pitch.
Half-time came and went with the break doing little to ease the nerves of the 17,041 inside the ground that day. A draw wouldn’t have been a disaster for the Rams but it would also have felt like a bit of an anti-climax given the reward on offer for a victory. The second half was more of the same so Jim Smith switched things around shortly after the hour, throwing on Ron Willems in place of Marco Gabbiadini to join Sturridge and Simpson in the three-pronged attack. Willems was quickly into the action and won a corner on the right, swung in by Simpson to the far post, where Robin van Der Laan was left unmarked by the Palace defence. It was a critical error as the Dutchman, Smith’s captain and first signing, met the ball with a perfectly placed header and Derby were back in front. Once again, the Baseball Ground erupted. I leapt up and screamed out too, partly in celebration and partly in pain. The tension of the occasion had been so great that the longer I had been sat nervously in my Toyota Stand seat, the more the muscles in my body had tightened up. As I got up to celebrate, it felt like my legs were just about to explode. Derby were half an hour away from promotion; I was in agony and seemingly moments from what wouldn’t have been my first visit to the first aid room at the BBG.
If I was struggling so much in the stand then I hate to think what it must have been like for the players, but those in that iconic Puma shirt did their jobs to perfection as time ticked on. Carbon, chosen at the back ahead of the more experienced Darren Wassall, more than repaid Smith’s faith in him. Trollope, in the heart of midfield with Darryl Powell also injured, proved a very able deputy for the original Football Genius. Igor was Igor, and long-haired skipper van der Laan was everywhere, his number seven shirt covering every inch of the pitch at least once. It was fitting that his intervention would turn out to be the crucial one.
Derby didn’t look likely to add a third goal and settle any nerves, but Palace were equally toothless as they sought an equaliser with the final whistle edging closer. The Baseball Ground’s clocks reached 90 minutes and most supporters inside the ground were making progress further and further down their fingernails. The end was almost in sight. What we didn’t know was how much stoppage time would be played – this was in the days prior to the amount to be added on being revealed to the fans. We knew that the crowning moment was just around the corner but it felt like forever as we kept on checking our watches to see how far beyond the 90 the game had gone.
Two or three minutes in – I honestly have no idea – the ball was inside the Palace box and was claimed by Martyn, who pumped it forward in one last, desperate attempt to salvage something for his side. And then the whistle went. Derby County were in the Premier League.
From our vantage point in the upper tier of the Toyota Stand we had the perfect view as the players hugged each other in celebration before being quickly swamped by the thousands of supporters who had ran on to the pitch in an outpouring of joy. Would I have joined them if I had been at a lower level? Maybe, although I don’t know that my legs would have held up enough for me to have got over the barriers and on to the grass. No matter. It was still a sight to behold as fans were soaking up a piece of club history, either on the pitch with their heroes or in the stands with their friends and family. Even the Palace followers, to their credit, stayed in their seats for long enough to acknowledge both their team’s effort and the Rams’ achievement. The pitch was cleared to facilitate the celebratory lap of honour, allowing the players to show their appreciation for the backing they had received to help get them over the line.
This was back in the days before mobile phones and cameras in your hands at all times but fortunately my memories of the celebrations are pretty vivid, aided by regularly watching the match highlights video on YouTube which can be seen here.
I can recall standing proud as the Rams achieved something for the first time in my years as a fan. I watched as Jim Smith waved a scarf around in the air and donned a black and white wig. I allowed my thoughts to drift towards the great names who would be on the Baseball Ground pitch for the following season – Shearer, Cantona, Bergkamp et al.
And then Dad rightly pointed out that we needed to make a move as we had been told in no uncertain terms by Pop, our bus driver, that the bus would be leaving half an hour after the final whistle regardless of the outcome, and anyone not on board by then would have to make their own way home! We were back in time – although I think Pop would surely have allowed some leeway – and as we took our seats I was able to relax for the first time all day, reflecting on what had just happened and what was still to come.
The summer of 1996 was an important one for me. I turned 16 in May, finished off my GCSE exams, and got my first job before later starting my A Levels at South East Derbyshire College. It was a period of progressing towards adulthood and independence, of meeting new people and enjoying new experiences; life-developing moments were coming thick and fast.
Football, too, was rarely far from the mind. We had the excitement of the Premier League fixtures being released – Leeds United at home first up, and Manchester United the second visitors in what would be the Baseball Ground’s final season. There was transfer link after transfer link, plus the fascination generated by new signings such as Christian Dailly, Jacob Laursen and Aljoša Asanović – Igor’s Croatia team-mate, who had also appeared at Wembley back in April.
Then there was Euro ’96 as football came home to England for a three-week festival – Gazza’s goal against Scotland, Davor Šuker’s lob for Croatia against Denmark, heartbreak on penalties once again in the semi-final against Germany. Croatia’s 3-0 victory over Denmark in the group stage, capped by that wonderful Šuker effort, came with three Derby players on the pitch as the two Croats started, while Laursen was introduced as a half-time substitute for the Danes. I was at Old Trafford for Croatia’s 2-1 defeat to Germany in the quarter-finals. Asanović shone in the middle of midfield but it wasn’t such a good display by Igor, who was sent off shortly after his team had levelled in the second half.
It’s a time in my life that I look back so fondly on. I still watch the videos, listen to the music and subscribe to podcasts reminiscing on those days. I even bought myself an early Christmas present last year in the shape of an original Croatia shirt from Euro ’96. But, great summer that it was on so many levels, Sunday, 28 April will always stand out as its high point.