Derby County 0 Swansea City 0
Saturday 10 August 2019
In the words of Crowded House, “You’ll never see the end of the road while travelling with me.” I’m not sure if they ever went to Mansfield, but this was certainly true today. We were already running late en route to Morecambe’s game at Field Mill by the time we hit heavy traffic on the A50 near Uttoxeter. After half an hour inching forward in queues, passing and re-passing the same vehicles with the same bored occupants, we began to think we might not make it. And seeing a sign saying “Derby 17” we decided to settle for the none too shabby alternative of seeing Phillip Cocu’s first home game as manager of the Rams.
It’s 35 years since I first went to the Baseball Ground. John and Kieran never had that pleasure, but all three of us are Pride Park veterans – in fact John visited as a Villa fan during its opening season, a belief-beggaring two decades ago. So between us we had a decent folk memory of how to get there and where to park and so forth, and we arrived at the ground in plenty of time to snaffle up some of the last available tickets. That small detail dealt with, it was simply a case of heading for the nearest pub before the formality of watching as the Dutch maestro’s totaalvoetbal put the visiting Welsh mediocrities to the sword.
Many vanished grounds have an aura in hindsight they didn’t always enjoy in reality. The past is another country and all that. And of those we have lost, Derby’s Baseball Ground has the most and the longest-enduring legends. These include Seventies players wading through ankle-deep mud, groundsmen repainting penalty spots mid-match, Franny Lee falling out with Norman Hunter, tall stands and weird angles, fans so close to the pitch that they might as well have been on it, and one notable occasion when they actually were. Throw in a Lineker hat-trick ruled out because someone threw a plank of wood at a non-League goalkeeper, and you begin to understand that in this case nostalgia tells only part of the story.
Derby were in steady decline for two decades until Brian Clough and Peter Taylor arrived from Hartlepools in 1967. If taking the Rams out of the Second Division in 1969 was a major achievement, turning them into League champions just three years later was off the scale. Arguably denied a European Cup final appearance in 1973 by the questionable bookings of Archie Gemmill and Roy McFarland against Juventus in Turin, a tempestuous five season spell was over later that year as Clough and Taylor took their leave following the latest in a series of highly public spats with Derby’s abrasive chairman, Sam Longson.
FA Cup 4th Round ,1st February 1984, The Baseball Ground, Derby
Derby bounced back under Clough’s erstwhile skipper Dave Mackay, winning the title in 1975 and flirting with the Double the following season. But they slumped after Mackay was sacked in November 1976, and the appointments of first Colin Murphy, and then Tommy Docherty – recently removed from Old Trafford following the scandal of an affair with the physio’s wife – were ill-conceived. Within four years the Rams found themselves back in the Second Division. When we went there in 1984 they were once more managed by Taylor, who had been persuaded to break up his partnership with Clough at Nottingham Forest and move to the Baseball Ground twelve months previously. Their friendship never recovered from what Clough saw as a betrayal. Now the team were heading for Division Three, and this did little to relieve the grimness of the area and the swaying menace of a substantial 22,000 crowd. The darkness, the snow, the cold and the sea of faces put this among the most atmospheric games I have ever seen.
The Baseball Ground started life, unsurprisingly, as a baseball ground. This rather un-English pastime was played by workers at the adjacent Ley’s Foundry, and the sports field was also owned by Sir Francis Ley. It became Derby County’s home in 1895 and they bought the stadium outright in 1924. The site’s footprint never quite lined up with football touchlines, creating an oddly lopsided feel, and the stands followed these awkward sightlines. The Main Stand was a Leitch design built in 1926 and the Osmaston and Normanton end stands went up in 1933 and 1935 respectively. The Osmaston End was tall and thin, with two seating tiers and a substantial terrace. The Normanton End, also a double-decker, had a much smaller terrace.
The remaining side was known as the Ley Stand. This symbolised Derby’s renaissance. Opened in 1969, it owed its existence to Clough. He wanted a new stand here to replace the previous shabby terrace, and involved himself in negotiations to buy the necessary land from Leys. It was a steep seated tier with a terrace below. The standing area retained its label as the Pop, or Popular Side. It was home to the loudest home fans, who for a time shared it with visiting supporters. Getting there via the Osmaston turnstiles was an intimidating experience for the latter, who were obliged to queue on one side of a wood and corrugated iron segregation barrier with Derby fans pounding on the other side and throwing missiles over the top. After the game they were funnelled via an equally unappealing alley at the back of the houses on Colombo Street.
By the time I got there the Baseball Ground was like a fortress. This followed a celebrated incident on the final day of 1982-83, when Derby went into their game at home to Fulham needing a win to be sure of avoiding relegation. Fulham, a good side who had led the table for much of the season, were chasing the last promotion slot. They needed to win and hope Leicester didn’t. After Bobby Davison gave Derby a late lead, the final ten minutes of the match were played out with thousands of home supporters gradually encroaching onto the playing surface. The unfortunate Robert Wilson was kicked by a fan as he ran along one touchline, and when the throng mistook a free kick for the final whistle and invaded the pitch the referee decided enough was enough. To Fulham’s chagrin Leicester had only drawn, but – in a decision that rankles to this day – the League refused to replay the game and the result stood.
Following all this malarkey visitors were moved from their unpleasant Popside pen, into which a sheep’s head had memorably been hurled during the Fulham game, and relocated into the terrace behind the goal. This meant they had two tiers of home fans above and behind them and the likely lads of C Stand to their right, so things were hardly much better. The first Fulham invasion had started from C Stand, and its five or six rows of seating now had the biggest fence of all. On the night of the Telford game this didn’t stop the nascent DLF celebrating Derby’s second goal by dismantling an iron drainpipe and launching it at us.
I’ll leave the litany of bad behaviour in 1985, when non-League Burton Albion switched a Cup tie against Leicester to the Baseball Ground amid fears their Eton Park home wasn’t adequate to stage a game of such intensity. In the event this well-meaning move simply invited most of Derby to the party, and an afternoon of chaos ensued during which Burton goalkeeper Paul Evans was poleaxed by a wooden seat thrown from the Ossie End. When the dust settled the FA were appealed to, a 6-1 Leicester win and a Lineker hat-trick were removed from the record books and the game was restaged at an empty Highfield Road. This match can justifiably claim to be the start of the feud between Lineker and Neil Warnock, at that time a professional chiropodist and Burton’s part-time manager.
Easier than Mansfield, which itself shouldn’t have been tricky. We once more inflicted ourselves on the elderly citizens of Keele, but due to Kieran driving the Midlands contingent and being young and keen he asked me for the postcode, and being old and clueless I gave him the wrong one. As a result of this he and John had a slightly fraught SatNav tour of Longton and the the housing estate that used to be the Victoria Ground. I blame Stoke City Council for allowing two roads to have the same name.
You’d expect Derby to have changed a bit in forty-odd years, but really it hasn’t. There’s a bit more open space and a few more retail parks (including of course the one Pride Park is on), which back in the day would either have been industrial or post-industrial. But the overall ambience is much as it was in 1984, and so is the traffic and the interminable ring road. Back in the day this combination had been enough to create intolerable pressure on youthful beer-filled bladders, kicking off a lively disagreement with a driver who objected to empty bottles being filled with urine and flung out of the roof windows.
Coaches used to park on Osmaston Road and the industrial estate nearby, leaving away fans with a long walk along Colombo Street (it often felt longer after the game). The experience for those who came by train was even more fraught. Cambridge Street, leading from the Arboretum down to the Baseball Ground, was a notorious gauntlet to run – the classic one way in and one way out that characterised some of the nastier grounds in those days. For Derby supporters a location among terraced streets and factories was part of the charm. Occasional visitors were less sure.
Pride Park is basically the Riverside, but surrounded by shops and without a river. The main stand is slightly bigger and taller than the other three. These form a single tier and join the main stand at each end, and in order to get everything under one cover the roofs behind both goals slope downwards across the corner flag. One of these corner sections holds a kind of building with balconies on it. Such quirks save the ground from the monotonous bowl effect that mars Leicester and Southampton’s 1990s efforts, making it arguably the best of the Sky-era new builds.
The location is fine too. Handy for the station – in fact far closer than the old days. Near the city centre, easy enough to walk to, places to park and (if you like chain restaurants) to eat. Lots of car showrooms and hotels to admire as you sit in gridlocked traffic after the game. I have a theory that football grounds simply mirror social demographics, and that the leisure complexes of today are the spiritual successors of old-fashioned grounds surrounded by factories and workers’ houses. That being the case it’s specious to compare the two. And the Baseball Ground’s front entrance, lovingly transplanted to a corner of the West Stand, is a bridge of sorts.
Before heading off we went to look at the site of the old place. The walk along Cambridge Street still sends a shiver down the spine, but round the corner at the bottom – where the childrens’ playground has survived – there’s a sprawl of new housing. Although Shaftesbury Crescent has been cut in two and the houses that faced Leitch’s stand are gone, you can follow its curve as you stand on what was the Osmaston/C Stand corner. Vulcan Street is there, without the houses and the pub. The Leys site is industrial to this day, but not on the scale of the monster that loomed here in the glory days of Clough and Taylor.
One wall remains – the foundry perimeter that used to be on your right as you came out of the away end and headed up Colombo Street. As doors in the wall, its bricked-up entrances aren’t on the level of H.G.Wells’ famous study on romance and practicality. But they’re as near to that question as most of us will ever get.
Flesh and wine
The days of the Baseball Hotel are long gone. This massive Victorian boozer, memorably described by one Palace fan as “full of hard Northerners drinking tar”, stood opposite one corner of the Baseball Ground. Other local favourites were the Grange and the Cambridge. Today we settled for the nearest pub we could find, the Merlin. This isn’t named after a wizard but a Rolls-Royce engine, built in Derby and used on Spitfires. It’s one of those Harvester-ish places full of kids and young men with really big beards, and families trying to order a meal and wondering why the place is so crowded. It was OK in a bland sort of way and we spent a pleasant hour nursing pints near the slide and the swings, surrounded by groups of middle-aged Derby supporters who looked as though they could tell you a few stories.
The food in the ground is reasonable, but by the time I’d parted with £4 for a pie (the dirty thieving bastards) I was so ravenous I could have eaten pretty much anything. So I also had a pork roll from a van on the way out, and that was pretty nice as well. (Always worth going to a food van after the game. They want to get rid of their stuff so you end up with bigger rations. I walked off with the best part of a pig and my own weight in stuffing.)
Although both teams had won their opening matches, this stalemate suggested that neither will particularly trouble the top or bottom of the table. Derby were the more adventurous of the two and it seemed they’d got their noses in front when they won a penalty shortly before half-time. But Martin Waghorn hit his shot straight at Freddie Woodman, and that summed up the game. Other shots were saved or missed as time went on, with Waghorn again the most wasteful and Borja, Dyer and Surridge also snatching at chances. The likely lads behind us decamped to the bar and only reappeared at closing time. It was hard to blame them.
Teams and goals
Derby: Roos, Bogle (Lowe 54), Keogh, Clarke, Malone, Dowell, Huddlestone, Evans (Paterson 45), Jozefzoon (Marriott 80), Waghorn, Lawrence. Unused subs: Shinnie, Hamer, Bennett, Davies.
Swansea: Woodman, Roberts, van der Hoorn, Rodon, Bidwell, Fulton, Grimes, Dyer (Peterson 62), Celina, Kalulu (Dhanda 62), Baston (Surridge 68). Unused subs: Nordfeldt, Wilmot, Naughton, Byers.