The Arthur Cox era – time for a re-appraisal

The Arthur Cox era – time for a re-appraisal

David Moore recalls the remarkable impact made by the manager who, he believes, has never quite had the recognition he deserved for his achievement in emulating Harry Storer by quickly stabilising the club and then lifting it out of the third tier of English football the following season.

The mid-1980s saw a remarkable transformation in Third Division Derby’s fortunes under the shrewd managership of Arthur Cox. At the time I was living in a leafy village close to Chester. A brewer by profession, I had been with Bass in Burton since the early 60s but when in 1970 they offered me a position as a master brewer in their new brewery situated at Preston Brook close to Runcorn, I could hardly refuse. It would be a wrench in many ways, not least in moving 70 miles or so from the Baseball Ground at a time when the club was going from strength to strength under Brian Clough. Not that I had any intention of relinquishing my place behind the goal in the Normanton stand where I’d stood or sat for thirty years but once I got used to it the journey via Burton to pick up my dad was a relatively easy one.

As you can imagine, by 1984 the so-called bragging rights with the Liverpool, Everton and even Manchester United fans up there in the early to mid-70s were long gone. When Arthur Cox opted for Third Division Derby rather than remaining at top flight Newcastle on a point of principle, the club was still reeling from almost going out of business altogether. They had survived by the skin of their teeth but after suffering the inevitable relegation at the end of the previous campaign there were predictions that they could sink even further. A strict disciplinarian in the Harry Storer mould, within a few months Cox was fostering the sort of team spirit which hadn’t been seen at the Baseball Ground for many a year and only rarely since. He began by stabilising the situation and although on paper seventh place at the end of the 1984-85 season was the lowest in Derby’s 100 year history, it was in many ways a remarkable achievement. Not that the season started too well, and a traumatic 3-1 defeat at the hands of Hartlepool United in the first round of the FA Cup in November marked a particularly low point. It was after this match that an unfortunate incident took place that soured relationships between the manager and BBC Radio Derby’s Graham Richards to such an extent that the popular commentator found it necessary to make his opinion of the manager loud and clear over the air-waves. Money was tight of course but when Cox sanctioned the sale of striker Kevin Wilson to Chelsea for £150,000, funds were suddenly made available and there were high hopes that Cox’s side would achieve promotion at the second attempt, just as Harry Storer’s had thirty years earlier. That 1985-86 season might have had its ups and downs but eventually it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable since the First Division title winning season under Dave Mackay a decade earlier.

Not that the Rams ever looked like running away with top spot as they had done in the third tier of English football under Storer when goals had been rattling in from the likes of Ray Straw at an incredible rate. Although the club’s reputation had taken a battering since the halcyon days under Clough and Mackay they were still regarded as a major scalp by teams in the Third Division and, almost without exception, attendances at matches where the Rams were the visitors were their highest of the season. Although the outstanding Bobby Davison was never likely to match Straw’s total of 37 goals in a season (he didn’t have a Tommy Powell to lay on goals for him) he was a prolific marksman. There were some memorable victories for the fans to enjoy at the Baseball Ground such as the 5-1 thumping of Swansea in October and a 7-0 hammering of Lincoln a month later followed  by a never-to-be-forgotten 4-0 win at Molyneux just after Christmas. And to put the icing on the cake, the Rams went all the way from Round 1 to Round 5 in the FA Cup before eventually going down 2-0 to Sheffield Wednesday in a replay at Hillsborough.

Unfortunately a series of disappointing draws and unexpected defeats in the league during March and April, which had left supporters in a state of nervous exhaustion, meant that everything depended on the outcome of the home fixture with Rotherham on Friday 9th May under the Baseball Ground floodlights. It was a night that anyone who was lucky enough to be there will never forget. Strikers Phil Gee and Trevor Christie were the heroes, Gee with a wonderful strike to open the scoring and Christie with perhaps the most important penalty in the club’s history which he tucked away to secure victory after Rotherham had equalised. Derby finished third behind runaway leaders Reading and second placed Plymouth which was just sufficient for promotion. It might have been a Third Division match, but to me it is just as memorable as the legendary League Cup tie with Chelsea and the crucial victory against Liverpool in May 1972 which in the end secured the First Division title.

The following year Arthur Cox’s superb Derby side won promotion to the top flight after finishing top of the old Second Division. The big question at the end of the astonishing 1986-87 season was whether or not a squad which still contained a core of players that had been turning out against the likes of Lincoln, Bury and Newport a year earlier could compete against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool in three months’ time. In short, would the exceptional team spirit Cox had generated in his current squad be sufficient to establish their place in the top tier, or would major surgery be required?

Strikers Bobby Davison and young Phil Gee had been outstanding but were they capable of stepping up to the demands of First Division football with its extra pace and power? If not, Cox might have to persuade Robert Maxwell to fork out a substantial sum for a proven top class striker to conjure up the necessary goals and not only did they not come cheap, they weren’t too many of them around. There might have been a problem with a lack of pace in the defence too.

Maybe it was a sign of things to come during the Maxwell era but the only new player in the side for the first match of the season at the Baseball Ground against Luton Town was England international goalkeeper Peter Shilton. It might not have been the glamourous opener that some were hoping for but at least it was a winnable game. There were only four minutes on the clock when Mick Harford, the formidable Luton striker (later to join the Rams), received his marching orders for scything down Mel Sage and a John Gregory goal turned out to be just enough to secure an extremely welcome 1-0 victory.

Three days later Phil Gee was on the mark in a 1-1 draw at QPR but a 1-0 defeat at home to Wimbledon followed by a goalless draw at home to Portsmouth were an early indication of a lack of goal threat up front. Already it seemed that Cox would have to use all his experience and expertise to avoid a relegation battle. Bobby Davison was on the mark in a 2-1 win at Norwich the following Saturday but, sadly, it was to be his last goal for the Rams and off he went to Leeds – much to the dismay of his fans who thought the manager might have been too hasty in off-loading such a prolific striker. Could this possibly be Cox’s first significant mistake? By now England international centre-half Mark Wright had arrived from Southampton. Although a fine player, Wright had the reputation of being difficult to handle and had already had a bust-up with Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy. His disciplinary record on the pitch left something to be desired too. But if anyone could get the best out of Wright and keep him out of unnecessary trouble it was Arthur Cox. He did. Only on one occasion up to the beginning of December did Derby concede more than two goals in a match and that was in a 4-0 defeat at Anfield. Shilton was in tremendous form and Wright had been outstanding too once he had settled in.

Derby were handily placed in mid-table at the beginning of December but then run of eight consecutive defeats through to early February set alarm bells ringing. If ever Arthur Cox’s management skills were needed it was now. A scoreless draw at Oxford on 20th February was the turning point and after that four wins, four defeats and six draws from the last 14 games enabled the Rams to finish the season in a respectable fifteenth place, eight points clear of relegation. Considering the resources at his disposal, Cox had done an outstanding job. Although only relegated Watford had scored fewer goals than Derby’s 40, his side had conceded just 45 over the season – a fine achievement.

By now winger Ted McMinn had arrived from Seville. Derby might have been beaten 2-1 by Manchester United on his home debut in February, but the Tin Man’s sensational goal that day already marked him out as a special player. All the same, Cox was well aware that his squad needed reinforcements and during the summer in came centre-forward Paul Goddard from Newcastle along with Oxford midfielder Trevor Hebberd. Although Goddard was on the mark twice in victories against Middlesbrough and his old team Newcastle early on, by late September Derby’s tally in the League was a paltry four goals in eight games although, thanks to some exceptional defending only four had been conceded. All the same, a position sixth from bottom was a major concern.

Cox was missing for the home fixture with Charlton and it soon became apparent that he been to watch Oxford United’s striker Dean Saunders. Shortly afterwards Derby forked out £1m for the Welsh international (with the assistance of Maxwell who had previously been Oxford’s chairman) and on the last Saturday in October he was lining up alongside Goddard in Derby’s side to play Wimbledon. In the matchday programme Cox said he hoped they could work together and form an understanding similar to that of John O’Hare and Kevin Hector – a tall order. Saunders’ performance that afternoon has become part of Derby County folklore. Not only did he score two fine goals, his overall performance was electrifying as he ran the Wimbledon defence ragged. Whether he would be the new Kevin Hector, it was far too early to say, but his Baseball Ground debut certainly brought back memories of Hector’s first game at the Baseball Ground 22 years earlier. He was on the mark in the next three games too (by now he was even being compared to Bill Curry’s early days in the early 60s, at least by me) and by the end of November the four wins and a draw from five matches during which they had scored 13 goals had propelled Cox’s revitalised side from seventh from bottom up to sixth.

Well-deserved wins away at Newcastle and QPR and at home against Southampton and Everton (Goddard’s sublime chip over keeper Southall that day was later voted Derby’s goal of the season) were further indication that Cox’s men were quite capable of competing with the very best in the land. Later in the season there were famous victories at Old Trafford and then at Highbury where Saunders’ brace in the 2-1 win against Arsenal saw Cox’s rampant side complete the double of the eventual champions. Derby finished the campaign a highly creditable fifth. It was the club’s highest final position in top flight football since Dave Mackay’s side had ended the 1975-76 season fourth and has never been equalled since.  The manager had worked wonders with a small squad which still contained a nucleus of players that had been turning out in the Third Division three years earlier, although as the magnanimous Cox said, it had been a remarkable achievement by everyone involved. Unfortunately, whether Derby County could sustain it would almost certainly depend on the chairman as much as the manager.

Sadly, in my opinion Cox has never quite received the recognition he deserved. Although his nine full seasons in charge (still the longest by a Derby manager since the end of the Second World War) eventually ended in disappointment his overall record is quite extraordinary considering the circumstances.

David Moore is a retired Master Brewer with Bass, a Derby County supporter since the age of 7 and a collector of Derby County programmes. He is author of Champions at Last, about Derby’s 1971-1972 First Division wining season, and contributed over 500 articles for Derby County’s official programme and another 120 for Burton Albion.

This article was first published in issues 12 & 13 of Derby County Memories magazine (March and June 2016)

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