The gamble that didn’t pay off. Derby County: From the Championship play-off final to administration

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Derby County – a football club not so fashionable or successful these days but with an impressive history for a club born out of East Midlands industry. Founder members of the Football League, former Champions of England, FA Cup winners and semi-finalists of the European Cup.  Under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, the club achieved its most credible honours. All a long time ago, but it seems even longer ago now. As of last Friday (17th September) evening, shockingly, it was announced that the club was on the verge of appointing administrators, a sad day for everyone involved with Derby.

When we consider more recent success – labelled ‘success’ loosely given that ultimately, and using outgoing chairman Mel Morris’s term, has ended in ‘failure’. The capitulation from play-off final in the summer of 2019 to the current state of affairs is unforgivable. Mel Morris, the man at the helm, laid out a plan to invest or spend (call it what you will) to achieve promotion to the promised land of the Premier League – it has ended in failure.

Administration, though expected in many quarters, has still come as an almighty shock. Will this be the end of Derby County as we know it? It certainly could be, given the horrific debts the club has racked up over recent years. Administration brings with it uncertainty as well as despair. The coming months will determine the fate of the club as it spirals out of control towards financial abyss, which could see the club edge towards liquidation and thrown out of the league system completely.

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Appearing in the Championship play-off final doesn’t seem that long ago. Derby boasted a team of Mason Mount, who two years later has now appeared in a successful Champions League winning team at Chelsea, plus a European Championship final playing for England. Fikayo Tomori, who later played for Chelsea’s first team and subsequently transferred to Italian giant’s AC Milan is another example, as is Harry Wilson, another star of the future from Liverpool but now at Fulham. Herein lies the problem. These three ‘stars’ signed on big money and were ultimately only at the club on loan. Frank Lampard, the then Derby manager, also on big money, led the team and the fans hearts for that 2019/20 season.  Despite it being very enjoyable at times, it eventually ended in failure. Looking back now, does that season represent anything more than a reckless gamble from Derby owner Mel Morris?

The club, always the heartbeat of the city of Derby, has a meaning to so many Rams supporters, but in truth, the club has been slipping towards disaster for some time. Communication has seized up. Lampard gone, Philip Cocu in. Struggling and then sacked, what has followed is the bizarre situation of Wayne Rooney having to step up from player to first team manager. Brought into the club under Cocu, the Hollywood era after the play-off final continued. Yet communication has fallen to such a bad standard that even now after the recent match against Stoke City, who the team beat impressively, Wayne Rooney admitted that he himself had learnt of the intention to appoint administrators via Sky Sports, the night before the match and at the same time as the supporters. The timing awful, the communication dire, the potential ramifications massive.

Fans crying at the game and fans venting their anger, the disconnect between fan and club has never felt so great. The worlds of many supporters have come crashing down, but there was not much time to absorb this emotional hit. Saturday, the following morning, dawned and the fans have come together and stood firm. Rather than protest they’ve galvanised. A crowd of over 20,000 turned out to cheer the side on to an unexpected yet impressive victory against promotion hopefuls Stoke City. Max Bird crashed a first half rocket into the top corner temporarily lifting the dark cloud hanging above Pride Park as fans chanted gleefully “the Rams are staying up”. The fans remain united.

After the match, the dust had yet settled on uncertain turf. Wayne Rooney expressed his sorrow, his helplessness is obvious, his regret to those who will inevitably lose their jobs. Mel Morris, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen. Until, out of the blue, an interview aired this week, with BBC Radio Derby. In it, Morris, frustrated fans with talk of Covid woes and his two-year battle with the EFL. Was he in denial? Was he stubborn? Had he just had enough? Fans labelled him insincere, for not seemingly taking responsibility and apologising until well into 40 minutes of excuses. Was it even an apology at all? The stark reality however, was like the DNA of the football club itself – black and white. Reportedly the club owe HMRC £26m, have a loan from MSD Holdings (Michael Dell’s company) of £17.5m, owe ex-manager Philip Cocu and his staff a pay off of around £8m and Richard Keogh, the sacked former captain, is still hoping for £2.3m in compensation for wrongful dismissal.

The financial side of the club is now stark. The ramifications on the pitch and the league table are just as worrying. With talk of points deductions rumbling on from last season when Derby County narrowly avoided relegation on final day, this season’s hopes of remaining in the Championship now look bleak. An immediate points deduction of -12 is set to be applied after the club formally enters administration, with the decision to be ratified by major creditor MSD. On top of that a further points deduction of -9 could well follow with the club failing FFP regulations after subsequently resubmitting their accounts for the periods 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18 following on from the clubs ongoing battle with the EFL over unorthodox accounting practices relating to amortisation. Also, a further points deduction of -3 points (suspended) awaits the club should the players be failed to be paid.

While the figures and complications for the club look very clear, how the club got to this point will remain a mystery to many. What is clear to many Derby fans though is the period between 2014-19 saw a considerable overspend that was taken over the edge due to the onset of the pandemic. This period may have seen the team competing in the play-offs four out of those six seasons, two of those seasons wielding final appearances and a day out to Wembley for the fans, but being so close, feels no further away from failure than mid-table. Given the lavish spending it took the team to get to two play-off finals, was it worth it? For Mel Morris, the gamble was taken, and it has not payed off.

The signs of mismanagement and financial ill health have been there for a while. The Club has been subjected to protracted Takeover bids from Abu Dhabi-based group Bin Zayed International (BZI) headed up by Sheikh Khaled, cousin to Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Spanish businessman Erik Alonso. Rumours of takeover interest in the US and plans of putting a retractable roof on the club’s Pride Park stadium, hosting events from boxing fights to pop concerts, seems fanciful. Whether the club can now tempt a buyer, post-administration, is key to the long term future of the club.

With the club now going into the hands of administrators, no one really wins. Mel Morris will lose, by his own admission circa £200m. While staff behind the scenes will lose their jobs, players will likely be sold, and the club’s championship status ripped from its grasp for the first time since 1985. Is this the legacy Mel Morris wants to leave behind at Derby? He could’ve been a hero, but now he has turned into and will likely be remembered as the villain. The biggest losers of course, are the fans. Wembley heartache, all of a sudden, feels like a triumph in fear of what is to become.

The time has come to put some pride into Pride Park. Derby fans will be needed to defeat the possible humiliation of the club achieving the lowest Championship points total ever recorded, to go along with their meagre tally of 11 points during that fateful season in the Premier league, the lowest ever recorded in history.

The club though will forever remain in the hearts of its supporters, it’s in their DNA.

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