New owner and lifelong fan David Clowes has made quite the impression at Derby County. At the start of July, the club were in real danger of not even being able to start the League One season. Now, the Rams are preparing to take on Premier League side West Ham United in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for a club that had a bleak future under Mel Morris. By the time the summer came, the club had been in administration for nine months, been relegated from the Championship after a 21-point deduction and had just five contracted players for the 2022-23 season. Their financial issues were so severe that they were teetering on the brink of complete extinction.
Then Clowes saved the day, first purchasing Pride Park, then providing the club with a loan to keep it going, before the boyhood fan became owner after a long and drawn-out process.
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“Everything has changed to be honest,” Author of Derby County books, ‘Pride’ and ‘Groundwork’, Ryan Hills tells The Sportsman. “We were really a matter of days, if not hours, from going out of business until David Clowes' takeover went through. It left us with a pretty small amount of time to get a squad together, and as we are still limited by being unable to buy players and we have a wage cap imposed, we could only rely on free agents and loanees.
“Liam Rosenior - who did a really, really good job of building a side over the summer - didn't quite get things right early in the season on the pitch, but Paul Warne has. I think he's only lost something crazy like one or two matches, and we're 15 unbeaten now - 20+ if you don't include a penalty loss at Liverpool. So everything has changed here, because it had to change. We're a real football club again, without the circus, without the threat of going under, without the panic.”
As Hills touched upon, the summer rebuild was huge. Wayne Rooney left just two weeks before the takeover and Rosenior was tasked with building a squad from scratch. Seemingly every player out of contract was linked with the Rams, but they managed to sign some serious quality. Conor Hourinhane, David McGoldrick, James Chester, Korey Smith and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing all joined as a completely new squad was built.
“They've paid off big time,” Hills adds. “McGoldrick isn't a young guy, but he has something about him that few others in the entire EFL have. He's so calm on the ball, he thinks in a different way to anybody else I've seen in this league and he's leading the line perfectly. Around him, Mendez-Laing has been superb and really shouldn't be at this level, whilst Tom Barkhuizen on the other side is beginning to look really good.
“Hourihane took a bit of time to bed in, but he'll be in double figures for goals soon enough, and again is another one whose class is really showing now. Joe Wildsmith was a signing who went under the radar, but he's proven himself to be our steadiest keeper in years. And with some of the youngsters who we managed to keep hold of (Eiran Cashin, Jason Knight, Max Bird) we've got a really, really good squad.”
Resolute manager Wayne Rooney had finally called it quits just two weeks before the takeover and the decision to poach Warne from Rotherham has paid off emphatically. He’s elevated Derby from hopefuls into contenders and they are currently on the second longest unbeaten run in England - only behind Sheffield Wednesday.
“The mood hasn't been this good since the 2013/14 season under Steve McClaren,” Hills continues. “We are loving the fact we win more games than we lose, and that there are so many new teams to play, new stadiums to visit. Relegation for some clubs is a massive issue, but we were in the Championship for 14 years in the end. I've not known the club to be this happy in a long time. And we're still getting huge attendances as well. I don't think we've fallen below 25k all season, last week we had 30k at home to Bolton, we're taking thousands away from home. Life is fun at the club at the minute.”
The East Midlands outfit show no sign of slowing down and are now just eight points off the automatic places, but they’ll take centre stage in the FA Cup against West Ham on Monday night. It’ll give the Rams a chance to lock horns with Premier League opposition, and test their mettle against one of the country's elite sides.
From almost heading out of business to playing against West Ham in front of a full Pride Park with promotion on the cards, Clowes couldn’t have dreamed for a better first season. They still can’t spend any money on transfer fees, but it’s a long way away from worrying whether they can play at all.
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