'People no longer fear for their jobs' – inside the great Derby County rebuild
From the depths of despair and teetering towards the abyss, Derby County are reborn and back on the rise.
After nine excruciating months of administration, points deductions and player sales, the rebuilding job is well under way since lifelong fan David Clowes’s rescue mission in July.
Derby face West Ham in the FA Cup on Monday night having gone 19 games unbeaten, including six consecutive wins under head coach Paul Warne, a promotion specialist in League One.
Warne [described as the division’s Pep Guardiola by Derby’s supporters] has revitalised the club with his unique brand of management, and this newly assembled squad are fully on board for the journey.
Over 20,000 season tickets have been snapped up by fans who feared their club - one of the Football League’s founder members - was slipping towards extinction.
Away ends have been sold out up and down the country: over 6,700 fans were at Milton Keynes Dons and 5,600 travelled to Anfield for the Carabao Cup tie against Liverpool in November.
The mood is transformed on and off the field, and there is nobody better placed to talk about the turnaround than Curtis Davies, the captain.
Davies has been a hugely significant figure in the club’s recent history: an experienced leader who was named Player of the Year for his performances during a campaign of crisis.
One photo, two 𝗹𝗲𝗴𝗲𝗻𝗱𝘀 🖤🤍
The first Jack Stamps Player of the Year presented this season's winner, @TheCurtisDavies, with the award ahead of kick-off yesterday 🏆🐏#DCFC pic.twitter.com/bGmOTP9DYl
— Derby County (@dcfcofficial) May 8, 2022
Finally, he can sense better times ahead.
“The feel around the place is totally different and there’s now stability. People aren’t looking over their shoulders any more,” he told Telegraph Sport.
“The laundry staff, kitchen staff and scouts aren’t hedging their bets and thinking ‘am I going to be the next to go’?
“It’s a much better feeling and it’s given us a platform to rebuild and to be competitive again.”
Davies, 37, has seen a lot throughout his career but last season was a nightmare crammed with setback after setback.
After administration was confirmed, Derby were then hit with two separate points deductions by the English Football League, totalling 21, after breaching financial rules.
Players were sold to provide cash-flow and academy youngsters were thrown in at the deep end as the club battled to survive. Staff were made redundant while others feared for their futures.
Amid all the negativity, Derby’s players put up a fight under manager Wayne Rooney but relegation from the Championship was confirmed in April.
“We were on a hiding to nothing,” says Davies. “After the first points deduction we thought we could overcome it, but the extra 12 points were the killer.
“We tried to prove people wrong and it would have been a miracle if we’d survived but we fell just short. If we’d not had the points deducted we’d have finished 17th in the table.
“We did everything we could and ultimately it was the powers above who failed us.”
Following months of broken promises and missed deadlines by bungling administrators Quantuma, it was finally Clowes, a local businessman, who completed his takeover on July 1. Clowes quickly moved to rebuild a club that was crumbling.
Fifteen new players arrived over the summer, while huge debts owed to HMRC and American loan company MSD Holdings were repaid.
Derby are operating under a strict EFL business plan of £8 million for the next two years. No transfers can be paid, and only free agents and loans are allowed.
The maximum wage is £12,000 a week, which includes bonuses and National Insurance.
These will be eye-watering figures to other clubs in their division, such as Burton Albion and Morecambe, but Derby are determined to ensure overexuberance is never an issue again.
Derby’s infrastructure is also gradually improving, with a new head of recruitment, Mark Thomas, arriving from Oxford United next month. A head of performance will be appointed soon.
Warne’s arrival in September has also recharged the club. Derby raided Championship club Rotherham to appoint the 49 year old and his staff, paying hefty compensation of around £600,000, and it has proved a masterstroke.
The dramatic 2-1 victory at Port Vale on Tuesday night keeps Derby in the play-off places and still dreaming, albeit faintly, of automatic promotion.
Monday’s visit of Premier League strugglers West Ham to Pride Park offers another opportunity to extend the feelgood factor.
“The owner is a very good guy and doesn’t want to be too involved but he did this to save his football club,” says Davies.
“He’s got a manager in Paul Warne who is family-orientated and is all about the group. His mantra is that if you’re all together you can get that extra 5 per cent.
“The togetherness inside the dressing room hasn’t changed. We signed a lot of new players in the summer but there’s still a collectiveness.
“We’re coming back strong and the future looks bright.”