It took until the second year of the new millennium for Derby County to play an FA Cup tie. They had actually been the first side in English football to score a goal in the year 2000 when Branko Strupar netted in a Premier League fixture against Watford. But they were already out of the 1999/2000 FA Cup having been beaten at home to Second Division side Burnley just a few weeks previously.
So it wasn’t until January 2001 that the Rams took to the field in the competition again, when they hosted First Division West Bromwich Albion at Pride Park Stadium. The two sides had already met in the second round of the League Cup in September 2000, the Baggies winning 2-1 at Pride Park in the first leg but Derby going through via a 4-2 success in the return at The Hawthorns. Two goals from Malcolm Christie and one from Stefano Eranio had Jim Smith’s team in command with quarter of an hour left but a quickfire double from the visitors then had the Rams sweating late on. But they saw it out to earn themselves a tie at Blackburn Rovers, also in the second tier at the time, and this one continued a very strange trend.
In 1999/2000, Derby had been eliminated from both domestic cups by lower-division teams beginning with B – as well as Burnley, Bolton Wanderers had overturned them in the League Cup. So when an injury-stretched squad headed to Ewood Park in the fourth round, there were fears that the run might continue. Derby’s bench included Simo Valakari, who hadn’t played for two months, Paul Boertien with just seven senior appearances for the club to his name, and three others who were yet to make their bows – goalkeeper Andy Oakes, defender Lewis Hunt and midfielder Adam Bolder. Despite that, the Rams stood firm and earned a deserved 0-0 draw. But it was an altogether different story in the replay at Pride Park.
Oakes had performed well on his Premier League debut a few days previously, keeping a clean sheet in a vital win over Sunderland, and kept his place against Blackburn. Boertien also started and senior players including Eranio, Craig Burley and Taribo West returned from their own absences.
Chris Riggott opened the scoring three minutes in and Derby held their advantage until half-time but within 20 minutes of the second half starting, they were 3-1 down. Eranio closed the deficit on 70 but seven minutes later it was 5-2 and a chastening defeat was being handed out by Rovers, who did go on to win promotion back to the top-flight at the end of the season.
Derby had started their Premier League season slowly and didn’t collect three points until the second half of November, but they did enough to scrap their way to 17th come May and with an eight-point cushion over the relegation zone. But by January 2002 the die had been cast. They were 18th, having spent just one week outside of the relegation zone since September 2001, and the Jim Smith era had come to an end. Smith was offered the chance to move ‘upstairs’ into a director of football role but declined and instead resigned as manager in October. His assistant, Colin Todd, had been an icon of the glory days at the Baseball Ground in the 1970s and was promoted to replace the Bald Eagle. Todd had struggled to arrest the slide, although a home FA Cup third round tie against Third Division Bristol Rovers at least provided the chance to bring about a little respite.
Todd fielded a strong side against the fourth-tier outfit but it was to prove a bad afternoon on all counts and another defeat to a team beginning with B. Nathan Ellington, Rovers’ highly rated young striker, shot to the nation’s attention with a hat-trick by the 62nd minute to virtually win the tie for his side on his own. Derby had been poor, even by their recent standards, and had only Fabrizio Ravanelli’s late header to show for their efforts. This fixture went down in the record books as the first occurrence of a bottom-tier club winning away to Premier League opposition in the FA Cup since the divisions were re-structured in 1992. Rovers had been relegated to the Third Division at the end of the previous season and actually ended up finishing second from bottom in the entire Football League in 2001/02. Derby, for their part, dropped to 19th in the Premier League the following week and remained there for the rest of the campaign.
Todd was only in charge for two more weeks, the axe coming after a particularly bad defeat at home to fellow strugglers Ipswich Town. His replacement was John Gregory, another former Derby player, but the ex-Aston Villa manager couldn’t prevent the inevitable relegation. Gregory’s task was to guide the Rams back to the top-flight at the first attempt but an opening-day 3-0 win over Reading was as good as it got and by January they were down in 15th. Their opponents in the FA Cup third round were Brentford, of the Second Division. A lower-division team beginning with B.
Gregory fielded a young side with six academy graduates and only one player, Warren Barton, over the age of 23. A seventh from the ranks, winger Lee Holmes, had become the youngest player in the club’s history when appearing on Boxing Day, and was introduced with 11 minutes to play at Griffin Park – the youngest player to appear in the ‘proper’ rounds of the FA Cup at that time. Brentford were down to ten men by that point but they had also been holding on doggedly to the lead given to them in the 36th minute, and they saw the job through to complete the upset. The curse of the Bs?
John Gregory remained in his post until March, when he was sacked for alleged misconduct, but after a lengthy legal battle he eventually won around £1m in compensation for unfair dismissal. The board of directors turned to former Ipswich Town manager George Burley as Gregory’s replacement and with a second successive relegation looking like a real possibility. Burley steadied the ship with three wins from his first four matches and Derby ultimately finished 18th, but the 2003/04 campaign was very much the same and Burley’s team were in the thick of the relegation battle for the entire campaign.
Off the field, the club had also been struggling financially for some time, with the after-effects of relegation and the collapse of the ITV Digital broadcast deal taking hold, and was placed briefly into receivership as part of a takeover in October 2003. At a cost of just £3, a consortium of chief executive Jeremy Keith, chairman John Sleightholme and director Steve Harding found themselves at the helm of the ailing Rams.
The FA Cup draw sent Burley back to his old Portman Road home in the third round, with his new employers 22nd in the table after a five-game winless run that had started in early December with a 2-1 defeat at the same venue. Spanish striker Manel made his debut for the Rams in the cup tie but once again Ipswich proved too strong, earning their progress with three second-half goals. Burley took Derby out of the relegation zone with a victory over Bradford City at Easter and two more wins from their final four matches secured their survival with a week to spare.
But some smart signings in the summer of 2004 – Watford forward Tommy Smith, Danish winger Morten Bisgaard, Spanish midfielder Inigo Idiakez, and Polish striker Grzegorz Rasiak in the early weeks of the new campaign – meant that 2004/05 took on a whole different direction. A strong winter had Derby on the edge of the play-off race and after winning 2-1 on Boxing Day away to eventual runners-up Wigan Athletic, they turned the Latics over by the same scoreline at Pride Park in the third round of the FA Cup. They had trailed in the first half despite a good performance, and eventually won through thanks to a trademark free kick from Idiakez and a close-range finish from Brazilian striker Junior.
That was enough to set up a home tie with Premier League side Fulham in the fourth round and when Marcus Tudgay opened the scoring 11 minutes into the second half, an upset was on the cards. Collins John equalised 20 minutes from time for the visitors, who also included ex-Rams midfielder Mark Pembridge and future coach Liam Rosenior in their line-up, meaning a replay at Craven Cottage would be required.
That season’s replays all took place two weekends further on rather than on the usual midweek dates, but even though it was a Saturday afternoon the second attempt to settle the tie was met with bitterly cold conditions in west London. Rasiak had Derby in front after four minutes but goals either side of half-time looked to have put Fulham in control. However, Burley’s men kept on going and they were rewarded four minutes from the end of the 90 when Paul Peschisolido tapped in after another Idiakez free kick had been saved. That took the action into extra-time but the Rams eventually ran out of steam, not helped by a couple of injuries, and they exited 4-2 despite a brave effort.
Burley was able to concentrate on the Championship and took his side into the play-off places by the end of the month. They remained in them until the end of the season, eventually finishing fourth before losing out to Billy Davies’s Preston North End in the semi-finals. But behind-the-scenes challenges, not least the relationship between Burley and director of football Murdo Mackay, led to the Scot resigning in the summer and being replaced by Phil Brown, Sam Allardyce’s long-term assistant at Bolton Wanderers, for his first managerial role. Brown’s start had been encouraging but things soon went south and Derby found themselves 18th in the table by the time of a home FA Cup third round tie against Burnley.
Burnley were also in the Championship so the curse of the Bs could be discounted, but it took a brace from Peschisolido to earn a 2-1 win and line up a trip to League 1 side Colchester United in the fourth round. Colchester were riding high in the third tier and were looking well set to take their tight Layer Road ground into the Championship for the first time in their history. Derby’s form had been infuriating after beating Burnley – a 5-1 home win at home to Crewe Alexandra was followed by a 6-1 defeat at Coventry City – and the national media were sniffing a big story in Essex. They were rewarded, and then some.
Peschisolido was Derby’s only fit striker at the time and he played from the start, despite being a doubt because of his wife Karren Brady being ill, although he only lasted for 38 minutes after collecting an injury. The Rams’ only option to replace him was Dean Holdsworth, the former Wimbledon striker, who at the age of 37 was Brown’s assistant manager and was still registered as a player. I was working for the club’s media department at the time and can strongly remember numerous national journalists laughing as Holdsworth entered the pitch, such was Derby’s desperation, and they referred to him as ‘Sleazy Deano’ throughout.
Colchester scored just before the break and added a second seven minutes after it, then wrapped up the win before the hour, rendering Tommy Smith’s late penalty an irrelevance on the outcome of the tie. It was a great occasion for Colchester, who eventually won promotion as runners-up, while Brown’s already bad afternoon took a further turn when he was harangued by an angry Rams fan while giving his post-match interview live on BBC Radio Derby. Brown was out of a job 48 hours later and was replaced by academy manager Terry Westley, who dealt with growing off-field difficulties and managed to steer the side to Championship safety with eight points to spare.
Off the field as 2005/06 progressed, the club looked like it could implode at any point with rumblings of numerous takeover bids and allegations of wrongdoing never going away. In the end, the final day of the season was heralded as a new dawn for Derby County as Messrs Keith, Sleightholme and Harding were bought out – not by hedge fund managers SISU, as had been their preference, but by a consortium of local businessmen and women. Headed by Peter Gadsby, the group put an end to the era of the trio known among fans as the ‘Three Amigos’ and quickly set about a plan to take the club back to the Premier League. Their first job was to find a new manager and they enticed Billy Davies down from Preston with a three-year schedule to reach the top flight.
By January 2007 the Rams were looking to be well ahead of the pace and having continued their excellent winter form, they were serious contenders for automatic promotion. The FA Cup gave them a home tie against League 2 Wrexham in the third round, and while a 3-1 scoreline looks fairly straightforward it had been a tougher afternoon than anticipated. Wrexham battled hard, despite Arturo Lupoli bagging twice by the 56th minute, and they got one back soon afterwards but Lupoli finished things off five minutes from time. The Italian, on loan from Arsenal, had netted Derby’s first hat-trick in any competition since Paul Simpson’s against Tranmere Rovers in April 1996.
Bristol Rovers, still in the bottom tier, were back at Pride Park for the fourth round later that month and remained in the game for long enough, despite going down to ten men, to be genuinely disappointed not to earn a replay as Paul Peschisolido sent them out eight minutes from time.
So Derby were back in the fifth round for the first time since 1999 and with his eyes on the Championship promotion race, which was really hotting up, Davies made a few changes to his side for the tie at Plymouth Argyle. They didn’t pay off as the Pilgrims went through with a 2-0 win, and Derby went on to stutter in the final weeks of the season as they missed out on automatic promotion. But they did find their form again for the play-offs and Davies’s team saw off West Bromwich Albion in the final at Wembley to earn their place in the Premier League.
What then happened doesn’t need to be reflected on in any great depth, suffice to say that after the Rams beat Newcastle United on 17 September, they were still winless in any competition by the time they faced Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup third round. And as they trailed 2-0 at Pride Park Stadium it appeared inevitable that they would be heading for an early exit, only for Kenny Miller and Giles Barnes to tie things up before half-time. That one stayed 2-2 so the teams needed a replay at Hillsborough, which was postponed from its original date because of bad weather and Wednesday again took the lead in the re-arrangement. But Miller equalised in the second half and after the remaining minutes passed with no further goals, extra time similarly came and went so a penalty shoot-out was the order of the night. Wednesday missed their first two but Derby were flawless from the spot and when Craig Fagan scored their fourth, they were able to enjoy that winning feeling again before preparing for a fourth-round tie just four days later against Preston, also of the Championship. But any hopes they may have had of capitalising on that buzz were over by half-time as the Lilywhites led 3-0. A first goal in Derby colours ten minutes into the second half for Robert Earnshaw, the club-record £3.5m capture from Norwich City the previous summer, caused nothing more than a flicker of excitement and Preston completed the scoring with a penalty in stoppage time. Billy Davies had been sacked in November 2007 and was replaced by Paul Jewell, who was unable to turn around an already hopeless situation. At least he had managed to avoid defeat to one of his old clubs in the shape of the Owls, but in the Premier League the Rams were bottom when Jewell joined and didn’t move from there, eventually going down with a record low of 11 points.
Jewell couldn’t turn things around in the Championship, despite some heavy spending, and after defeat at home to Ipswich on 28 December 2008 he resigned from his post. His assistant, Chris Hutchings, took charge and led the team for the FA Cup third round tie at Forest Green Rovers in January 2009. The National League side were in the third round of the competition for the first time in their history and if any fixture screamed ‘upset’, this one was it. It was on a Saturday at 3pm, as all big ties should be, and the sun was shining on what was a freezing cold afternoon in Gloucestershire. Perfect winter’s conditions at the New Lawn, albeit one of the goalmouths was already looking frosty as it was getting no sunlight because of the angle of the stands. Derby, already in complete turmoil, defended that end in the first half with goalkeeper Roy Carroll playing in long trousers rather than shorts – a rare sight in the modern game. Hutchings had injuries to contend with but still picked a pretty strong team, although with Carroll beaten twice inside the first 20 minutes the stopper’s trousers were clearly not helping him. Rob Hulse and Martin Albrechtsen got Derby on terms before half-time, calming the nerves of the travelling faithful, then when Forest Green took the lead again with 18 to go the shock was on once more. Paul Green quickly tied things up and a replay looked likely until Kris Commons broke through four minutes from time and was hacked down, leading to a red card for home defender Alex Lawless and Steven Davies stuck away the penalty. Derby had escaped by the skin of their teeth and when interviewed afterwards, Davies was quick to point out just how bad the conditions were in the penalty area as he stepped up to take his kick. I was there in my media capacity so took a wander into the box to see for myself. He was right. How anyone could have kept their footing on that surface, especially while running and wearing football boots, was a mystery to me.
Hutchings was due to be in charge for the midweek League Cup semi-final first leg at home to Manchester United, but the Rams’ announcement of the appointment of Nigel Clough saw him depart. Academy coach David Lowe oversaw a 1-0 win against the Premier League, European and world champions before Clough, after guiding Burton Albion to the brink of promotion to the Football League, formally took over the following day. Clough, following in the footsteps of his late father Brian by becoming Derby’s manager, knew he had a tough job to stop the team slipping into League 1. His dugout debut was a 2-0 defeat at home to Queens Park Rangers, then his second match was a 4-2 reverse at Old Trafford in the second leg of the League Cup semi. Clough’s third game was an FA Cup fourth round tie against Nottingham Forest – where he had, of course, made his name as a player under his dad. As well as the bad feeling remaining from the league encounter between the two sides the previous November, when Derby had two goals controversially ruled out in injury time of a 1-1 draw, there was yet another angle in the shape of Forest’s new manager.
Billy Davies had been appointed at the City Ground at the start of January and he returned to Pride Park Stadium for another 1-1 stalemate. Hulse had put Derby in front before half-time but Robert Earnshaw equalised after the break. Earnshaw had moved along the A52 in the summer of 2008 after Forest had won promotion from League 1, while heading in the opposite direction was Kris Commons, the Reds’ star man opting to join Derby on a free transfer at the end of his contract.
The draw for the fifth round had thrown up a home tie against Manchester United for the winners but that had to be put to the back of the players’ minds ahead of the replay. And when Forest led 2-0 with less than a quarter of an hour gone, it looked like they were going to be taking on the Red Devils in the last 16. But Derby had other ideas and after easing their way into the game, Hulse halved the deficit before the half-hour and Green levelled matters on the hour. It was anyone’s from there but the decisive moment came 18 minutes from time as Commons, having received constant abuse from the home fans all night, drifted inside and unleashed a 20-yarder which took a slight deflection on its way past Paul Smith and into the corner. The Derby supporters behind the goal went crazy as Commons celebrated in front of them, while the rest of the City Ground just looked utterly stunned. Clough’s team held firm for the remaining minutes as a shell-shocked Forest struggled to respond, and Derby had won on the turf of their biggest rivals for the first time since 1971 – when Brian Clough was in charge. The night ended with the iconic image of Robbie Savage waving a Derby scarf above his head in celebration after the final whistle, a move he repeated late in February when the Rams won 3-1 there in the Championship.
Two victories at the City Ground in the space of a month after so many decades without one – welcome to the job, Nigel Clough. A week prior to that second encounter, Derby had welcomed Manchester United to Pride Park in the fifth round of the FA Cup. United had perhaps been under-prepared for the first leg of that League Cup semi-final in January but made no mistake this time around, easing to their way to a three-goal lead by the time the second half was just three minutes old. Miles Addison got one back but United were in no mood to let anything slip and wrapped things up with a late fourth. Back in the Championship, Clough managed to get Derby’s heads above water and keep them there, eventually securing their safety in their penultimate match. Down the A38, he was replaced at Burton by former Rams player, coach and manager Roy McFarland, who saw the healthy lead Clough left the Brewers with slowly evaporate, although they just did enough to get over the line on the final day and make it to the Football League for the first time.
Clough oversaw two more Championship fixtures at the City Ground in 2011 and 2012, and it remains a curious fact as of January 2021 that no Rams boss not named Clough has won away to the club’s great rivals since George Jobey in September 1925. But it would be remiss not to close this article with a final look back at that memorable FA Cup encounter of 2009. Match highlights, plus Robbie Savage waving his scarf, can be viewed here.