Remembering Derby's 2007/08: the Premier League's worst ever season, told by the men who were there
A silence descended over Pride Park as Stiliyan Petrov set his sights from near the halfway line, sending a shot high into the air. Winless since September, relegated by March and already 2-0 down to Aston Villa after half an hour, this was the final insult for Derby County. Goalkeeper Roy Carroll’s woeful clearance had landed straight on Petrov’s chest, and everyone in the stadium knew where the Bulgarian’s effort was going to drop. Right in the top corner.
“It was his weaker foot too,” Darren Moore says of the strike now, the memories still raw for the ex-Rams defender. “When it screamed into the net I thought, ‘Goodness me, it just ain’t happening for us’.”
“Martin O’Neill said to me, ‘Well he’s never done that before,’” Paul Jewell tells FourFourTwo. “Managers used to say that a lot during the season. If anything could go wrong, it did.”
Derby would lose 6-0 on that April afternoon. They would collect only 11 points in 2007/08, a Premier League record that doesn’t look like being beaten any time soon. The records didn’t stop there: fewest wins (one), most defeats (29), fewest goals scored (20), most goals conceded in a 38-game season (89), longest run without victory (32 matches), earliest relegation (March 29), furthest adrift of 19th place (24 points)... the list goes on and on. It is a campaign that will forever be burned into the psyche of every Derby supporter who witnessed it.
“We still wonder how that ever happened,” comments Simon Kirk, a season-ticket holder during that fateful campaign a decade ago. “How could we have been quite that bad?”
FFT takes a deep breath and dials the number. If we’re being honest, we’re not sure how this phone call is going to go. We’re attempting to speak to Billy Davies, a man who has steadily gained a reputation as one of football’s feistiest characters, about one of the most difficult times of his managerial career.
But we needn’t have worried. “It was a happy time, an extremely happy time,” he interjects, as we delicately try to explain why we’re calling him. It’s quickly clear Davies is actually glad we have phoned: he wants his say about a period he believes has been misrepresented.
The happy time he’s referring to is not the Premier League season, of course, but his time at Derby as a whole, during which he guided them to promotion against all expectations. The Scot arrived in the summer of 2006, shortly after local businessman Peter Gadsby had completed his takeover of a club who had been in financial trouble. “The club had just avoided relegation,” Davies explains. “I’d signed a three-year contract and the agenda was clear: year one mid-table, year two top 10, year three promotion. At no point at the beginning of that season did anyone consider promotion to be on the agenda.”
And yet by February they were six points clear at the top of the Championship. “We had a wonderful group of players who were all happy to listen to the advice of the manager and the staff,” Davies continues. “We had organisation, discipline, spirit and togetherness.”
West Brom, Wembley... and rows
Those latter two qualities would be tested by the first of several problems over the next 15 months: a row over bonuses. If the club secured promotion, players signed that season would not be due the same bonus as the other squad members.“If you’ve got a team, then you can’t have any bonus issues – it’s got to be a rule for one and all,” says Davies. “Unfortunately there were discrepancies between the new players and the old players. It caused a great deal of grief.”
With Davies making his feelings clear behind the scenes, his relationship with the managing director, Mike Horton, became increasingly tense. The Professional Footballers’ Association was then called in to try to resolve the bonus dispute, but Derby would slide to third place by the end of the season. Despite that, the Rams dug deep in the play-offs, seeing off Gareth Bale’s Southampton after a penalty shootout before narrowly overcoming West Brom at Wembley to secure promotion. Stephen Pearson’s strike gave them their 13th 1-0 win of the campaign.
“We weren’t the better team on the day but we just stuck together,” says Craig Fagan, in the starting line-up that afternoon. “As a team we kept grinding out results.”
“I remember feeling absolutely joyous,” reveals defender Moore, of the moment the final whistle blew. “At 33, I was relishing the chance to play against the Ronaldos and the Rooneys again. I was so proud.”
There was no apprehension at that moment: only happiness. “In my 35 years of watching Derby County, it was the greatest feeling ever,” supporter Carl Walker tells FFT.
The euphoria wouldn’t last too long, though. Just minutes after the final whistle, Davies was non-committal when asked about his future. The interview made the headlines. “This is where misrepresentation kicked in,” he insists. “Sections of the press claimed I had made it the Davies Show. They asked me a question about next season, but what they didn’t know was I’d had a call when I was sitting in the hotel in Southampton, the day before the first leg of the play-off semi-final.”
The call came from a contact, telling him that a takeover of the club may be afoot, and his position as manager appeared to be in jeopardy as a result. “I immediately called a meeting with the staff,” he says. “I told them that no matter what happens, it looks as if we’re going to be out of the door come the summer. After the play-off final, what I said was, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be here next season.’ The press never clarified with me why I said that. I was trying to say that something’s going on. They tried to make it out that it was the Davies Show, but it wasn’t – Davies had a knife in his back.”
To this day, he still feels the prospect of a takeover badly hampered his attempts to strengthen the squad that summer. “Peter Gadsby was excellent and told me what was happening – that they were going to become an outgoing board,” he says, stressing that he retained a good relationship with the County chairman. “Unfortunately, because of that, the agenda changed and that’s when things went wrong. It was pretty clear that we weren’t going to be spending any proper money that summer to compete.
“We’d achieved something that was unthinkable – promotion after just 11 months, two years too early. But we had an ageing, mid-table Championship team. I gave the board options for new signings and the board decided they would pick the cheaper options. We were chasing guys such as Matthew Etherington and Carlton Cole in their heyday, and yet we weren’t getting them in. If I say that there are six or seven options, and options one to four are players who’ll help to make Derby a competitive Premier League club, but the owners opt to bring in options five, six and seven, they can’t complain too much about the outcome. You can’t spend only £10 million in the Premier League and expect to compete.”
The local paper had a billboard saying, ‘Rams sign international’ – it was Eddie Lewis from Leeds. It wasn’t inspiring
Supporters were frustrated, too – although many felt the funds available could still have been used better. “It wasn’t so much that we weren’t spending the money, it was what was coming in,” says Stewart Smith, who wrote the book Bad Worse Worst about the disastrous 2007/08 campaign under the pseudonym Edgar Smith. “Rob Earnshaw for £3.5m, Claude Davis, Kenny Miller, Tyrone Mears, Andy Todd, Andy Griffin, a young American called Benny Feilhaber who barely played. The local paper had a billboard saying, ‘Rams sign international’ – it was Eddie Lewis from Leeds. It wasn’t inspiring.”