Derby County’s FA Cup story of the 1990s is book-ended by home upsets – but in between came three quarter-finals, two abandonments and one of the greatest games ever seen at the Baseball Ground.
Under Arthur Cox, the Rams had looked like they were on the up at the end of the previous decade having finished fifth in the old First Division. Even as the ’90s dawned, Derby were sitting comfortably in ninth and there was little indication of what was to come. Perhaps, however, the 1989/90 FA Cup should have been seen as an early sign as Cox’s side exited at the hands of lower-division opposition in the third round. Port Vale, only promoted to the Second Division at the end of 1988/89, held the Rams to a 1-1 draw at their Staffordshire home and then overturned the odds at the Baseball Ground three days later. They needed extra time and an unfortunate Rob Hindmarch own goal to go through 3-2 in an encounter only noteworthy from a Derby perspective for the first – and only – senior goal scored by 6ft 7in striker Kevin Francis.
A year later, Derby were again drawn against a Second Division side in the shape of Newcastle United – Cox’s old club, who at the time were managed by a certain Jim Smith. The Rams’ league fate was already looking sealed as they were 18th in the top flight and already a month into their five-month winless run by the time they travelled to St James’ Park, and a 2-0 win for the home side wasn’t all that much of a shock.
By the mid-point of 1991/92, Derby were trying to stabilise after relegation and harboured hopes of getting back into the promotion race for a place in the new Premier League in the 1992/93 campaign. But autumn promise had turned to winter concerns as they had dropped to ninth ahead of a third-round visit to Burnley, who were on their way to winning the Fourth Division championship. It was a cracker at Turf Moor, Martyn Chalk and Andy Comyn netting in a 2-2 draw, then the subsequent midweek replay at the Baseball Ground was scrubbed from the record books. Derby were leading 2-0, helped by a screamer from young defender Mark Patterson, but thick fog enveloped the stadium, leaving the referee with no choice but to abandon the match. The call-off was further salt into Patterson’s already gaping wound as not long after scoring, he had been stretchered off with what turned out to be a serious knee injury.
It was 2-0 to the Rams in the replayed replay with Ian Ormondroyd and Paul Williams on target, setting up a home tie with First Division Aston Villa in the fourth round. And under the Baseball Ground floodlights – the delayed clash took place on fourth-round replay night – the 22,452 present were treated to a feast of football with Villa ultimately going through 4-3. Derby led through Phil Gee, in for the cup-tied Marco Gabbiadini, only for a Dwight Yorke brace and a Garry Parker screamer to put Villa in command before Gee’s second made it 3-2. Peter Shilton then saved a penalty from Yorke, who tucked away the rebound for 4-2 – and all of this before the half-time whistle. Shilton again denied Yorke from the spot in the second half and Derby gave themselves hope with a spectacular scissor-kick effort by Williams, but the top-flight side held on. Highlights of this thriller can be viewed here.
Great as that Villa game was, it is somewhat forgotten about given that the Rams came out on the wrong side of the result – and also because of what happened a year later. The 1992/93 FA Cup campaign got under way with a relatively routine 2-1 win at home to third-tier Stockport County, and then in round four Luton Town were seen off 5-1 at Kenilworth Road with Mark Pembridge returning to his old club and scoring a hat-trick. Bolton Wanderers, also of the third tier, were beaten 3-1 in the fifth round and Derby found themselves in the quarter-finals for the first time since 1983/84.
Premier League side Sheffield Wednesday were their opponents at the Baseball Ground, and as the tie had been switched to the Monday night for TV coverage, both teams knew that the reward on offer for the victors was a semi-final at Wembley against Sheffield United. What followed has gone down in Rams folklore and was undoubtedly one of the best games ever seen at the club’s former home. More than 22,500 fans packed in to create an electric atmosphere, which was dampened somewhat when Wednesday took the lead through John Sheridan’s 13th-minute penalty. Shortly before the half-hour, there appeared to be little on when Shane Nicholson advanced from left-back. ‘Shoot,’ yelled the crowd, so Nicholson let fly. His 30-yard effort thundered back down off the crossbar and rebounded in off the unlucky visiting goalkeeper, Chris Woods. It was technically an own goal, but Nicholson deserved the credit. Wednesday were back in front through Paul Warhurst before half-time but Derby kept plugging away and got their reward on 70 minutes when Gabbiadini levelled. And with 13 minutes to go they could smell the semi-final as Paul Kitson rose highest to head home Nicholson’s inviting cross. But their dreams were shattered late on by Warhurst, who also netted the only goal of the replay at Hillsborough to give his team a Wembley date with their cross-city rivals.
The replay came ten days before the Rams did return to the national stadium for the first time since 1975, for an ultimately unsuccessful effort against Cremonese in the Anglo-Italian Cup Final. Had things played out differently, Derby could have headed to Wembley at least four times in the closing weeks of the season. Alongside that Cremonese game was a potential FA Cup semi-final and replay, maybe a final and a replay, plus a play-off final. As it was, they finished eighth in the table and missed out on the play-offs. Wednesday, meanwhile, reached the FA Cup Final and lost after a replay to Arsenal – who had also beaten them in the League Cup Final. Highlights of the first game with the Owls can be found here.
Derby then lost to Premier League opposition in the third round of the FA Cup in each of the following three seasons. Tommy Johnson put them in front at Oldham Athletic in January 1994 only for the Latics to turn things around. By that point, Roy McFarland had replaced Arthur Cox in the manager’s seat and did guide the team to Wembley at the end of that campaign, where they suffered play-off final heartbreak in defeat to Leicester City.
A 1-0 defeat at Everton followed in 1994/95 and then came another action-packed encounter the following season, with Leeds United the visitors to the Baseball Ground. Derby had stagnated under McFarland and his contract wasn’t renewed at the end of 1994/95 so the directors turned to Jim Smith, plucking the Bald Eagle from semi-retirement and an office job with the League Managers’ Association. By the time Leeds headed to the Baseball Ground for the third time in recent months – a pre-season friendly had then been followed by the Yorkshire side winning 1-0 in the League Cup third round – Smith’s side had stormed their way to the top of the First Division. A return to the top-flight and a place in the Premier League was on the cards, so the visit of Leeds would be a real test of their credentials.
Losing the reliable Gary Rowett to a red card and the inspirational Igor Stimac to injury during the first half could have destabilised Derby, but they dealt with the double blow and by the 50th minute they led 2-0 thanks to a pair of quick goals from Gabbiadini and Paul Simpson. Goals coming in quick succession were the order of the afternoon as Gary Speed and Brian Deane then brought Leeds back on terms just before the hour. The chances of a shock appeared to be over but Derby at least looked to have done enough to earn a replay as the clock ticked on, only for that to be snatched away from them by Gary McAllister and Brian Deane in stoppage time. But Smith’s team bounced back and continued their unbeaten First Division run to March, eventually overcoming a couple of April wobbles to win promotion as runners-up on a memorable afternoon against Crystal Palace. It was almost inevitable that they would then host Leeds on the opening day of the new Premier League season, and this time they were the beneficiaries of late drama to clinch a 3-3 draw. You can view highlights of the FA Cup game against Leeds here.
The 1996/97 campaign saw Derby comfortably retain their Premier League status and they also reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup once again. Not that their run got off to a straightforward start with a twice-delayed third-round tie against Second Division – the third tier in the still fairly new league structure – Gillingham. A bad winter through ’96 and into ’97 meant a postponement on the first weekend of January, leading to a re-arrangement which would ultimately be abandoned just after the hour because of a frozen pitch at Priestfields. Derby did eventually put the Kent club out at the third attempt thanks to goals from Ron Willems and Robin van der Laan, although that then only gave them four days to prepare for their fourth-round meeting with Aston Villa at the Baseball Ground.
Jim Smith’s squad was already stretched by injuries and when defender Jacob Laursen went down during the warm-up, an announcement was put out around the stadium for Wayne Sutton and Marino Rahmberg to make their way to the dressing room so that the Rams could make up their matchday 14. Yes, 14 – at this time only three substitutes were named for FA Cup ties, despite five being in place for the Premier League. Rahmberg was added to the bench and when the Rams lost Gary Rowett less than 20 minutes in, they looked like they were really going to be up against it. But van der Laan and Dean Sturridge struck before half-time, and Willems clinched things before Villa scored what was nothing more than a consolation.
The draw for the fifth round then provided no answers with Derby coming out of the hat against Coventry City, Woking or Blackburn Rovers. At the same time that the Rams were seeing off Villa in the fourth round, the Sky Blues were drawing 1-1 at home to non-league Woking in their delayed third-round tie. They edged through after a replay and then won at Blackburn on fifth-round day to set up a visit to the Baseball Ground 11 days later – although the weather almost put paid to that one. A day of torrential rain in Derby left the game in major doubt, and in the end the kick-off was delayed to allow the groundstaff more time to get the pitch playable. Not that it helped the Rams, who found themselves two down after 13 minutes only for a quick Ashley Ward reply to spark them into life, and they were level through van der Laan before half-time. From there it was anyone’s game but with the prospect of a replay looming large, Sturridge got on the end of Paul Trollope’s low cross two minutes from time to send his team into the last eight. You can view highlights of that night’s action here.
Derby already knew that the prize for beating Coventry would be a home quarter-final with Middlesbrough, and they would have been encouraged by having beaten Boro in the league the previous November. But their form had been inconsistent since then, and the Teessiders, boasting the likes of Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli in their squad, could take anyone apart on their day. That was never more evident than three days before the quarter-final, when Ravanelli smashed home a hat-trick and Juninho ran the show in a 6-1 win at the Riverside Stadium – against Derby. So Smith opted to shake up his squad, including dropping goalkeeper Russell Hoult for Martin Taylor, who was making his first Rams appearance since breaking his leg in October 1994. Taylor had been back on the bench in the early part of the Premier League campaign before getting some on-field action during a loan spell with Crewe Alexandra. Hoult’s poor form meant that Taylor was recalled for what would also be the final FA Cup tie to be staged at the Baseball Ground, with the Rams due to move to the purpose-built Pride Park Stadium in the summer of 1997.
But hopes of marking the occasion by Derby reaching the semi-finals for the first time since 1976 were dashed as Boro eased to a 2-0 victory with Taylor unable to keep out Juninho late in the first half and Ravanelli late in the second. For many fans, myself included, this run still feels very much like ‘the one that got away’. Losing a home FA Cup quarter-final with a limp performance against a side you had already beaten once and were more than capable of beating again was tough enough to swallow, but what came next only made things worse.
Middlesbrough’s reward for beating the Rams was a semi-final at Old Trafford against Chesterfield, the Derbyshire side having confounded all expectations by reaching the last four despite playing their football in the third tier. That they had done so by also beating Nottingham Forest – then of the Premier League – in the fourth round had really captured the attention of the Derby faithful. Boro found themselves down to ten men and trailing 2-0 after an hour against the Spireites and the impossible dream was on as ex-Ram John Duncan’s side eyed a place in the FA Cup Final. Bryan Robson’s Boro got one back before Chesterfield had a third controversially ruled out, and then it was soon all square so an already epic encounter headed to extra time. Boro took the lead with ten to go but Chesterfield kept battling and made it 3-3 with seconds remaining to earn a replay, although fate wasn’t in their favour at Hillsborough and they went down 3-0.
We can of course never know whether the semi-final draw would have been so kind to Derby had they got through – Chelsea beat Wimbledon in the other fixture. But even missing out on the chance to possibly face Chesterfield for a place in the FA Cup Final remains an annoyance to this day. Boro then lost 2-0 in the final to Chelsea, having already been controversially relegated from the Premier League after having three points deducted for failing to fulfil a fixture, claiming they couldn’t field a team owing to illness sweeping through their squad. They eventually went down by just two points, while Derby did at least finish a steady 12th to ensure that they would still be in the top-flight ready for the move to Pride Park.
Jim Smith’s team had yet to lose a Premier League game at their new home as 1997 became 1998 and they were sitting sixth in the table, with qualifying for Europe a real possibility for a team playing some exciting football through the likes of Stefano Eranio, Francesco Baiano and Paulo Wanchope. They also had high hopes of doing well again in the FA Cup and had no problems in seeing off Southampton in the third round thanks to goals from Baiano and Chris Powell. But the fourth round proved their undoing as they never got going at Highfield Road and went down 2-0 to Coventry, and an inconsistent last couple of months of the season saw Derby finish a slightly disappointing ninth in the table.
They hadn’t quite hit their peak by the time the 1998/99 FA Cup came around and a third-round trip to fourth-tier Plymouth Argyle could have proved tricky. However, Deon Burton was on target twice and Eranio added the third to ensure a pretty comfortable passage to round four, where Swansea City – also of the bottom level – gave them a tough afternoon. In the end, a late Kevin Harper header was enough for a win at the Vetch Field and to earn a place in the fifth round against Huddersfield Town. The First Division side had their eyes on an upset when they led at half-time, only for Burton and Tony Dorigo to turn things around just before the hour. But an equaliser took the tie to a replay and once again the Terriers took the lead, only to be pegged back by Dorigo, then Baiano netted twice inside the final 20 minutes to take Derby into a quarter-final away at Arsenal.
By the time that came around, the Rams were back inside the Premier League’s top eight and were confident of another push for Europe. Their trip to Highbury was an unremarkable one and that suited Smith well as his side edged closer and closer to a replay, only for Nwankwo Kanu to steal it for the Gunners in stoppage time. Derby finished eighth in the Premier League and again didn’t quite do enough to earn a place in the UEFA Cup. They haven’t reached those heights since. The following season marked the start of the Rams’ decline in the Premier League, culminating in relegation in 2002, and that defeat at Highbury remains their most recent appearance in the quarter-final of the FA Cup at the time of writing, in January 2021. Arsenal, for their part, went on to lose out in their semi-final to Manchester United after a replay and two titanic tussles, topped by Ryan Giggs’s tie-winning wonder goal. That result sent United on their way to an unprecedented treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League. How the course of footballing history could have been different had it been the Rams they faced in the last four, and not the Gunners.
A strange quirk of the 1999/2000 season meant that it saw Derby exit the FA Cup before the turn of the year for the first time since 1984/85, when they were a third-tier club. The competition was moved forwards to allow Manchester United to spend January 2000 competing in the Club World Cup and still fulfil their domestic commitments, although they declined to defend their FA Cup anyway. And Derby, already in the Premier League’s relegation zone, found themselves up against third-tier Burnley – who left Pride Park with a 1-0 victory and a major scalp to their name. So a decade of FA Cup football that had started with the Rams suffering a humbling home defeat had ended in the same way, but the intervening years had certainly produced some great memories and brilliant stories.