Derby County: The Club Who Were Great In The Wrong Era
Derby County’s victory against Stoke City was bittersweet.
An excellent strike from Max Bird might have delivered three points, but off the pitch, a far greater threat loomed for the East Midlands club.
A day earlier Derby announced it had filed notices to appoint administrators.
Efforts to find a buyer, the club explained, had been unsuccessful and, as it felt the impact of the COVID-19 on revenue, the strain on the day-to-day financial obligations had become too much to bear.
In the face of a difficult situation, Derby County attempted to rally its fans.
“We know this situation will raise concerns among our supporters,” said a club statement announcing the news.
“The club respectfully asks that our supporters continue to show their support, especially to the playing staff under Wayne Rooney and our employees who have all been outstanding during these difficult times.
“This ongoing support in turn will be instrumental as we seek to find a new owner to take the club forward.”
The worrying thing for those fans is their support looks set to be tested further.
In addition to its financial trouble, Derby faces the punishment for administration; a 12-point penalty.
This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it gives Derby, who only survived on the last day of the season, an uphill struggle to keep its place in the second tier of English soccer.
Despite potential financial difficulties having been on the horizon for some time, the prospect of both relegation and administration is tough to swallow for a club of Derby’s stature.
If it does succumb to those indignities, English soccer could be looking at the most substantial collapse in some time.
Whilst many have focused on the specifics of the situation at Derby, it’s also worth reflecting on what the struggles at one of England’s many ‘sleeping giant’ clubs tells us about the bigger picture.
What makes a ‘big club’?
Not since Leeds United infamous 2007 administration has a former English league champion found themselves in such a perilous state.
Although Derby County is no stranger to a bit of financial trouble and has spent more time outside the top flight than in it, since winning the competition twice in the early 1970s, the club’s prestige is without question.
One of the founding members of the Football League, this was the place legendary manager Brian Clough made his name.
Its Pride Park home is a Premier League-level arena and its attendances are on a par or greater than at least half the top flight.
The prospect of returning the club to its former glories has always been attractive and has snared both Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard in recent years.
As Rooney said when he was signed as a player in 2019; this is a “big club” with ambitions.
The trouble is, stature and ambition is no longer enough to catapult a famous name back to the level they belong.
England’s lower leagues are filled with clubs with storied histories and large support bases.
But the dreams of clubs like Derby have been strangled by those above them for a long time.
The death of meritocracy
When Derby County ascended to the top of English soccer in the early 1970s the game was a lot more meritocratic than it is today.
Its first league triumph in the 1971-72 season came just three years after it was promoted from the Second Division.
Back then such things were possible, in fact, they happened quite often.
A decade earlier (1963-64), Liverpool celebrated ending seven years in the second tier by winning the First Division title a season after earning promotion. It was a feat Manchester City repeated not long after(1968-69).
Nottingham Forest trumped all of those ascents to glory by winning the league in its first year back in the top division in 1977-78.
But the exciting possibility of seeing a club, who in the cases of Forest and Derby had never won the title before, suddenly leap from the second division to the best in the country has been killed by the Premier League.
In the near 30 years since the breakaway division was launched, only twice has a relative newcomer won it.
The two triumphs of Blackburn Rovers (1994-95) and Leicester City (2015-16) came nearly two decades apart, and, the way the latter was celebrated as such an extraordinary event, demonstrated just how predictable the league title has become.
Being good at the right time
Money is the reason for the calcification of the status quo over the past three decades
It has effectively created glass ceiling clubs in the lower reaches of the soccer pyramid that cannot be overcome.
Historically clubs that did well were always able to earn a bit more from games in Europe.
But when, in the same period that English clubs broke away to form the Premier League, the European Cup became the Champions League teams at the top were suddenly guaranteed a huge amount of more income than their rivals.
In the years that followed television revenue for both competitions skyrocketed sending regular participants way ahead of the pack.
The distance between top and bottom became a chasm.
So rapidly did this divide grow, that, just over a decade after the two competitions formation, the only realistic way to have a shot at disrupting the status quo was by having a Russian billionaire or Middle Eastern Sheik bankroll massive losses.
Bridging the gap
A common misconception, pushed by those not owned by oligarchs, is that English soccer’s polarisation is because of rich owners.
The ‘spend to win’ approach is bridging a gap on-field successes can not
Sustaining the sporting profile to lift commercial operations to the elite level is just too difficult.
Leicester City has finished higher than Arsenal for the past two campaigns, they are a more recent English champion than the North London club, but still, it is the Gunners who are looking to poach Leicester players, not the other way round.
Neither club has competed in the Champions League for five years, but Arsenal’s turnover ($467.5 million) is more than double Leicester’s ($206 million).
Arsenal’s superiority is almost entirely from sponsorship revenue, which at $195.3 million is almost as much as the Foxes total.
So whilst Leicester might have been more successful in recent years, Arsenal’s position at the summit of English soccer when polarisation began has put it far enough ahead to protect the club long term.
If that much of a gap exists for Leicester City who’ve consistently performed better than any aspiring team can realistically expect to, what hope does anyone else have?
It makes you wonder: had the Premier League breakaway happen in 1973 rather than 1993 where would Derby County be now?