A Club Marked For Death: Derby County's Battle For Survival Being Fought On And Off The Pitch
After a chaotic final day of the 2020-21 EFL Championship campaign — during which Derby County was relegated, safe, relegated, then finally safe again, all within the space of 90 minutes — the Rams had secured their status as a Championship side.
At least that's what the final table said. The club still awaited judgment from the EFL regarding serious breaches of financial fair play regulations. In the end, the Rams were spared a points deduction and stayed in the second tier.
22nd place Wycombe Wanderers, who nearly pulled off a remarkable escape of their own, were incensed, as a Derby point deduction would have sent down the Rams and saved Wycombe. Derby avoided relegation, but the EFL's rulings over the next few months made League One seem like the only possible destination at the end of the campaign.
In July, the EFL handed Derby a transfer embargo, leaving the club with just nine first-team players under contract. These restrictions were later loosened to allow the club to sign free agents but only with strict wage limits.
Then in September came the bombshell: the club was going into administration over unpaid debts and would be deducted 12 points in the 2021-22 Championship table. Two months later, the Rams received a further nine-point deduction for what was described as "accounting breaches" as well as a suspended three-point deduction.
The club was left bottom of the table with negative three points more than a third of the way through the season, a full 18 points away from safety.
Owner Mel Morris looked to sell the club to someone who could absorb the debt, but a revolving door of suitors always ended just short of an actual purchase, leaving Rams fans to dream about a financially solvent club.
The Derby squad was a collection of misfits reeling from a couple of key departures from an already mediocre team. It was a sparse roster made up of veteran free agents, unproven youth squad players and a handful of experienced first-teamers who had weathered a rough couple of years together.
Despite the noticeable lack of talent, manager Wayne Rooney was adamant that the club would not be relegated.
Tasked with arguably the hardest managerial job in England this year, Rooney affirmed his loyalty to Derby County, saying: "I am committed to this football club. I grew up on a council estate in Liverpool. I know how tough life can be. What kind of person would I be if I went and laid on a beach for a few weeks?"
The former England international turned down an offer from boyhood club Everton and even paid for training equipment and travel accommodations when money was tight for the club.
His determination has resonated with players and fans alike through Derby County's darkest days.
"It shows right from the top what an attitude he has," midfielder Graeme Shinnie said, "It rubs off on the players, the fans, and the club. It’s been really heartwarming to see everyone fighting. Us players will continue to do the best we can and keep the pride in the club."
The season started slowly, with just one win in the club's first seven matches, but that opening stretch also included four draws — a sign of the Rams' resiliency. Derby slogged along, augmenting a season full of draws with the occasional win.
The club drew four straight in October, defeated league leaders Bournemouth in November, then rattled off three consecutive victories in December.
"We have to be realistic,” Rooney said after the upset victory over Bournemouth. “It’s a small chance [of survival], but for as long as there’s an opportunity, we will be giving it a try. There’s a chance we can perform a miracle, which I feel it would be if we stay up. I have never doubted the players in terms of character, attitude, and energy, and when we are on it, we can compete with any team in this league."
Supporters easily could have discounted the club, instead, they came to matches unequivocally both at home and on the road, and now Derby ranks fourth in the league in attendance.
Finally, in mid-January, a sign of their progress became visible: the club was out of last place.
The Rams rallied from two goals down after 85 minutes to draw against relegation rivals Reading to begin 2022, then did the same later in the month against Birmingham, erasing a late-game two-goal deficit to earn a draw thanks to Krystian Bielik's acrobatic 96th-minute equalizer.
— Derby County (@dcfcofficial) February 5, 2022
What was once blind hope was now becoming a palpable fervor.
A resounding 3-1 victory over Hull City on Tuesday saw over 22,000 fans come out to Pride Park — a remarkable figure for a weeknight game.
The first goal came in the 19th minute via a thumping header by fullback Craig Forsyth, an overlooked squad player who has been with the Rams since 2013. The Scotsman now has two goals this season — his first in the league since 2016-17.
Later in the first half, the lead was doubled by Tom Lawrence, who poked home a loose ball in the penalty area. Lawrence has been an indispensable fulcrum for Derby County for the last half-decade and his nine goals and four assists have almost carried the Rams at times this season.
Then came the match-sealer from 19-year-old Republic of Ireland youth product Festy Ebosele. The speedy winger — who terrorized the Hull backline all night — latched onto a through ball and finished at the far post.
Most importantly, the result saw Derby move within four points of 21st-place Reading (albeit with an extra game played), a scuttling side that is winless in its last nine matches.
If there's one thing working in the Rams' favor, it is the meager form of the club's around them. None of the other clubs in the bottom four have won a match in the new year, and they have combined for just two wins in the last three months. During this stretch, Derby has won six times, going from 18 points adrift to just four points away from safety. Derby's superior goal difference (at least 23 goals better than its other relegation rivals) also puts the Rams in a favorable situation should a tie-breaker become necessary.
With more than a third of the season remaining, Championship safety is becoming a possibility rather than a dream — that is, assuming the club is still financially solvent come the end of the season.
Derby County originally had until February 1 to show proof of funding for the rest of the season, and with no buyer of the club forthcoming, there were serious fears that the club would be unable to finish out the campaign.
"The fact remains that the Club is suffering from critical legacy debt issues that reach into tens of millions," the EFL said in a recent statement, "all of which need to be resolved if a solution is to be found."
The club has been given a "stay of execution," with this deadline being extended by a month thanks to the January sale of multiple players (including the aforementioned Graeme Shinnie).
As explained by Derby County beat writer Elias Burke over at The Athletic: "The administrator funded the club until January through various methods. It also recruited help to provide soft loans to support the club until the new year."
Now they must "source outside funding to sustain the club until the end of the season."
A short-term source of outside funding is possible, but the most realistic solution for lasting solvency is a new owner willing to inject cash into the club. There is no shortage of bidders, but possible suitors have come and gone like transfer rumors on deadline day.
The club is also facing suits from Wycombe and Middlesbrough, as both suffered as a result of Derby's breaches of financial fair play over the past couple of years. Wycombe is suing for the amount it lost through relegation last year via Derby's 21st-place finish, while Middlesbrough is seeking litigation over the prize money it missed out on after the club lost out on playoff spot to Derby in 2018-19.
These suits have been one of the biggest hurdles for potential bidders for the club, as new owners have been unwilling to move forward until these cases are settled.
Perhaps Burke put it best when he said: "Wayne Rooney, the players, and fans are doing their bit for Derby. Now it’s up to the suits."
Derby County has a chance to pull off the impossible, that is if the club doesn't go under before then.