Craig Fagan on Derby’s 11-point season: We lost team spirit under Paul Jewell
Derby County finished 25 points adrift of safety in their infamous 2007-08 Premier League campaign – but Craig Fagan believes they would have made more of a fist of it had the club not sacked Billy Davies.
No club has ever finished a Premier League season with as few points as Derby’s 11 from 38 games. Their relegation was rubberstamped at the end of March, with six matches still to play, but their fate had been clear for months.
Winning promotion through the play-offs is a double-edged sword. It gives everyone connected with the club a riotous occasion at Wembley, full of noise, colour and joyful scenes, but much less time to prepare for the season ahead, where the standard of opposition is so much higher than before. In Derby’s case, punishingly so.
By beating West Bromwich Albion 1-0 in the play-off final, they were back in the top division after five years away. While Sunderland and Birmingham City, who had gone up automatically, had already started strengthening their squads for the challenge ahead, Derby had to quickly re-evaluate their options.
Promotion almost caught them by surprise. They had finished 20th in the Championship the season before and were not expecting such a rapid transformation.
Craig Fagan had joined in January to boost their promotion charge. He will never forget how it felt to win at Wembley but wonders if they were ready for what was to come.
“Was it maybe a step too soon for the club? I think Billy Davies has said that in the past,” Fagan says. “It was maybe a year too early, but it was an amazing day, going to Wembley and winning.
“The club haven’t managed to do it again as yet. It was an amazing day for everyone involved because you know how hard everybody works each season to try and get that end goal of being promoted.”
Finding a balance
Once the initial excitement had subsided, Derby set about recruiting players who could cope with the rigours of the Premier League. It wasn’t an easy task with the budget Davies was given. Ten players were recruited at a combined cost of just over £10million. In comparison, Sunderland spent almost as much on goalkeeper Craig Gordon.
Striking the right balance between risk and reward in the transfer market is notoriously difficult. There are no guarantees that spending more will produce better results, but there is a well-established correlation between a team’s wage budget and where they come in the table. Derby were expected to finish bottom and duly did.
“It’s a tough one,” Fagan says. “Some clubs that have been in the Premier League and tried to spend loads of money on it are now in League One or League Two and have never been able to get back up. Would you say the club (Derby) is stable now? Yeah, to a certain degree. It’s a lot more stable than some other clubs.
“So, in the long term it might have been the right decision. But, shorter-term, do you take that gamble? Only the owners will know the answer to that. Obviously, the fans want to stay in the Premier League, but to sustain the club and keep it stable, I’m sure they wouldn’t want it to be in any sort of trouble.”
There was little sign of the desperate struggle to come when Derby drew 2-2 with Portsmouth on the opening day of the season. Davies named five debutants in the starting line-up and his team held their own in front of a sell-out crowd at Pride Park.
One of the new boys, Andy Todd, scored a late equaliser less than a minute after Pompey had taken the lead. It would be one of just nine occasions when the Rams would avoid defeat.
Four consecutive losses followed as they sank to the bottom of the table, a position that would become wearyingly familiar in the months to come. Most chastening of all was a 6-0 thrashing at Anfield. Derby were on the back foot from the start and leaked goals with alarming ease in the second half. Liverpool’s expensive summer signings Ryan Babel and Fernando Torres were both on target.
“The elite of the elite at the top level are so much quicker and faster,” Fagan says. “Not just in terms of running, but their speed of thought, the way they move the football. They’re just elite athletes and they’re there for a reason. They’re obviously more used to having the pressure of playing in the Premier League and the exposure.
“If we had our time again, I’m sure everybody in that squad would do a hell of a lot better. There was the odd bit of experience in there, but I think pretty much everyone was new to that league, which made it a bit difficult. It was disappointing, but I think everybody in that squad learned something from it.”
‘A kick in the teeth’
After the international break, Derby recovered to claim their one and only win of the season at home to Newcastle United. Kenny Miller scored the decisive goal on his debut, firing in spectacularly from 30 yards out.
But it wasn’t the catalyst that supporters hoped it would be. Two points from the next eight games was a poor return and Davies went on November 26, shortly after a promising showing, even in defeat.
“I think we gave our best team performance against Chelsea, and in the next couple of days Billy Davies was told that he was no longer needed,” Fagan says. “I think that was a kick in the teeth again. I thought we were just starting to perform a little bit better and could maybe have picked up some more points, but we went down a different path with Paul Jewell.”
Davies could be a prickly character, but he was well-liked by his players, who felt he deserved more time. There’s a sense that Derby’s fate was sealed when he left.
“I enjoyed playing under Billy,” Fagan says. “He was very intense. He was organised. His training was always set up. I thought he tried to keep the squad together. Even if you weren’t involved, you were always a part of it.
“He wanted to win. That’s what I liked about him. He wanted people to give their all, and he tried to drive people on. The rest is history, in a sense. As players, we didn’t do enough to keep him at the club. It was disappointing when he got the sack.”
However, the decision wasn’t a complete surprise. Following the 2-0 loss to Chelsea, Davies criticised chairman Adam Pearson in his post-match press conference. He suggested that Pearson was elusive and that more investment was needed as the players he had weren’t good enough to keep Derby up. Within a couple of days, Davies was out.
It was a curiously public exchange of bitterness and frustration. Pearson had only recently taken over as chairman from Peter Gadsby, who had stepped down after supporter complaints about the board’s parsimony. The club’s united front was crumbling. The positive mood engendered by promotion had soon evaporated.
Jewell, Davies’ replacement, had taken Wigan Athletic to the Premier League and kept them there, bringing an end to his six-year spell as manager after surviving relegation on the final day of the previous season. Refreshed by his break from the game, he eagerly set about an even tougher challenge.
“He had a different way of doing things,” Fagan says. “He had some different ideas. Some different ideas on players. Quite a lot changed with the squad that was there.
“We still got relegated and didn’t pick up any more points than Billy Davies did. Was there any need for change? In my eyes, I’m not so sure. There wasn’t a great deal of difference. It maybe changed the team spirit a little bit. I don’t think there was as much togetherness as when Davies was there.”
A couple of months into Jewell’s reign and Derby were well adrift at the bottom of the table, having taken two points from his first 10 games in charge. Many of their defeats were by a single goal, but it didn’t make any difference.
Relegation was inevitable and the changes Davies made during the January transfer window had little effect. Danny Mills, Robbie Savage and Alan Stubbs arrived with a wealth of Premier League experience between them but could do nothing to arrest Derby’s slide. Morale dropped even lower.
“You do doubt yourself slightly, but I think you just have to keep going,” Fagan says. “We were coming in; we were training hard. We weren’t sulking about it.
“Obviously, it’s not great for fans. There’s disappointment, but the lads aren’t going out to lose games. We’re not going out there to not pick up points, but the quality of the Premier League is so high.
“Derby is a big club, and the fans do show their frustration, rightly or wrongly. They’d been in the Premier League before. I think they’re just desperate to get back there and they’re not shy to let you know when you’re not doing well and not picking up results.”
Jewell had no qualms about criticising his players either. In February, a 2-0 loss away to his former club Wigan was termed ‘a disgrace’. He railed against Derby’s lack of fight as they succumbed to a 20th league defeat of the season. Fagan felt that such comments went too far and only served to undermine the squad by implying that they didn’t care.
“No one has got that total of points, so it’s embarrassing to a certain degree, but the lads were together and just wanted to prove people wrong,” he says. “You get doubted. Everyone who was playing us was expecting to get three points. It did hurt. I’m not sure people would understand that.
“As players, of course it hurts us. It hurts us as much as it does the fans. I’m not so sure that was portrayed at times by some of the interviews that were given after games. By the press and Paul Jewell at times. The lads were hurting, definitely.”
Relegation was confirmed after a 2-2 draw with Fulham, a game once more played in front of a packed home crowd. It was to be Derby’s last point of the season as results deteriorated even further. They conceded six goals in losses to Aston Villa and Arsenal, then ended a miserable campaign with a 4-0 defeat to Reading, who joined them in being relegated.
Life after Derby
Regardless of how it panned out, simply reaching the Premier League was a huge achievement for Fagan. He’d had a brief taste of the top division when coming through the ranks at Birmingham City before deciding that he needed to move on and play more regularly. He dropped down to the third tier with Colchester United and gradually built his way back up.
After the doubt and disappointment that he experienced at Derby, Fagan wanted to put things right with Hull City. No longer part of Paul Jewell’s plans, he rejoined his former club on loan in March 2008 and once more went up through the play-offs, while the Rams returned to the Championship. He signed permanently that summer and took the lessons of a dispiriting relegation with him as Hull survived.
“I felt like I proved a lot of people wrong because I managed to cope with that league a lot better the second time,” Fagan says. “Maybe having a year or however many months’ experience of playing in the Premier League served me better for the second season. Playing in it the second time around was a lot more enjoyable because we picked up a lot more wins.”
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Painful as it was to endure, that year at Derby also benefited Fagan in his new career as a coach. He’s currently in charge of Southend United’s Under-23s team and has been linked with the vacant manager’s job since Sol Campbell’s departure.
“You take on stuff that you’ve learned from when you were playing,” he says. “The atmosphere, and dealing with it. Being able to change the squad’s mentality, or aura, after a loss. You pick up loads of little things.
“For the players who were part of it and are now going into coaching – the likes of Darren Moore, Michael Johnson and myself – we’ve all picked up little things from that season without a doubt.
“You try to pick the best things that you’ve learned, and add it to how you coach. When you’re losing games, you’re trying to get rid of that atmosphere after games and not let the lads fall into those same patterns as maybe we did that season.”
By Sean Cole