Rams in the Middle East

Rams in the Middle East

Derby County’s trip to Qatar to play a friendly in February 1979 was the focus of ‘The not so Magical Mystery Tour’ in issue 45 (July/August 2015) of the retro football magazine Backpass. Some extensive research by the author, including speaking to Roy Greenwood, Roy McFarland and John Duncan, revealed only a few pieces of anecdotal evidence about the trip. Even Tommy Docherty, Rams manager at the time, claimed ‘I can’t remember going there…and my memory’s pretty good.’ A look at Docherty’s programme notes in the Ram newspaper covering the games against Liverpool and Ipswich on 24 February 1979 reveals that Derby beat the Qatar national side 2-1 in Doha on February 19 as part of the celebrations for British Week.

Winning the First Division twice, in 1972 and 1975, raised the international profile of the Rams and over the next few years Derby made several trips to the Middle East, and other nearby countries, to play friendly matches. On 15 December 1975 the Rams played an Egyptian National X1 in Cairo. An article entitled ‘Egypt: We’ve raised the flag’ in the Ram from the Derby v Aston Villa game (dated 27 December 1975) reads;

 ‘Derby County were delighted to travel to Cairo the week before Christmas to play an Egyptian National X1…because it enhanced British prestige in an area where we have been short of goodwill for some years. Derby County travelled as a result of FA representation on behalf of the Government, and we can tell you that the Egyptians both here and in their homeland could not have done more for us. They were wonderful hosts, and our players and Management enjoyed their stay in their sunny, developing country. We hope they enjoyed our team who used the break as a training spin before the domestic Christmas League programme…intent on showing the best of English club football at all facets of the game. That we lost 1-nil was irrelevant. What WAS important was that we made a host of wonderful new friends.’

A presentation plate given to the Derby party is pictured below (photo courtesy of Andy Ellis).

During 1977/78, the Rams played friendlies abroad on three different occasions during the course of the season. The first trip was to Baghdad to face an Iraq Select X1 on 6 December 1977. ‘Roy Mac’s Lament,’ in the Derby v Bristol City Ram newspaper, explains that Roy McFarland injured his hamstring during the 0-0 draw in Iraq, meaning that he missed the next game at Leicester City, and also the chance to play against Roger Davies who had signed for the Foxes the previous weekend. McFarland explained that ‘it’s the same hamstring in the same leg that has been causing me the trouble this season…it was a hard, bumpy pitch in Baghdad and I felt the leg go as I went for a ball.’

There is very little reference in the official programmes about Derby’s game in Cyprus on 1 March 1978. Tommy Docherty makes a brief comment in the Ram from the Derby v Newcastle match on 4 March, saying the trip had not been all fun as the squad worked hard on aspects of their game which had been missing.

By the time Derby travelled to Damascus, Syria in March 1978 to play an Army and Security team, fans were starting to become unhappy with the effects the long journeys were having on results in the league. Stuart Webb, then Rams General Secretary, tried to justify the financial benefits of the trips in the Birmingham City edition of the Ram (18 March 1978);

‘Many of our fans have been openly muttering that there seems little sense in taking our first team squad to places like Iraq, Cyprus and Syria, from which they returned this week. Let me say we haven’t become Globetrotters by choice, but simply because we need the finance. And the club has been paid well from the Football Associations of these countries to give what used to be called exhibition games…to enable manager Tommy Docherty to continue our policy of buying big to get to the top. We have a big name in world football because of our exploits in Europe in recent years. It has brought us these offers for prestigious matches and tours. NO WAY CAN WE LET IT GO.’

An Arabic newspaper report dated 15 March 1978 runs the headline ‘Derby County didn’t scare the Army and Security team’. The report described the Syrian team as nervous in the first half, with Charlie George starring for the Rams. After George opened the scoring on 10 minutes, Derby ‘showed off their skills, from stopping the ball with their knees by George, to excellent and perfect passes between Curran and Daly, to skilful evasiveness from the rest of the English team and the crowd enjoyed it’. The Syrian team played with more freedom in the second half and took advantage of George being substituted to equalise, the game ending 1-1.

Derby County chairman George Hardy added further explanation for the Syria trip in the Queens Park Rangers programme (27 March 1978);

“Trips like this in the season would never be undertaken by the club if we were in the running for the Championship, or in the relegation zone. I am aware they are not too popular with some players and supporters, but there is good money to be earned. We simply must be commercial when we are in mid-table and out of Europe. To compete with the big clubs on the transfer market this next few months, it is absolutely essential that we gather in every penny we can. Apart from the financial aspect we advertised ourselves in the Middle East in a country where no English side had played before. Top Continental clubs have been globetrotting for years to raise finance, and British clubs will have to do it more and more in the future. We are simply the pacemakers.”

Vice-chairman Bob Innes, senior director on the trip, praised the Syrian hosts for receiving the Rams party so hospitably. “The Syrians simply could not do enough for us. Their interest in English football is tremendous. They screen one of our League games every Friday night on their TV, and they know as much about our players as we do. We even had a colonel posted in our hotel throughout the stay to cater for all our needs. The Ministry of Interior personally handled our every need, and the hotel was superb.”

The above report from the QPR programme mentions that British Ambassador, James Craig, attended two games played by the Rams in Syria, both ending in 1-1 draws. It is not clear who the second game was against. A footnote adds that the experience of playing abroad for youngsters David Lagan, Andy Crawford, Paul Bartlett, Steve Cherry and Bob Cornish, none of whom had played in European competition, should not be underestimated.

In a separate piece in the Queens Park Rangers programme, Tommy Docherty had his say;

“Why did I allow the team to go to Cyprus and Syria for them to play like tired men when they came back? There is no way this club can pay the wages we are paying, or will have to pay to attract the couple of players we must have to attack that League Championship again next season, on gates of under 20,000. If we can pull in £20,000 from a couple of trips that is money we cannot ignore. We simply had to go to Syria. There was no way of knowing most of the lads would pick up a bug which affected our travelling vice chairman Mr. Bob Innes too, to show the bug was no respecter of persons.”

The photos below are taken from the Ram (QPR edition, 28 March 1978). If you have more information about any of these friendly matches please contact us.

This article was first printed in issue 11 of Derby County Memories (December 2015). If you enjoyed reading it, why not buy copies of the magazine? See the About section for further details.