Derby County had looked promotion in the eyes 2 seasons earlier, but unfortunately Roy McFarland’s Rams were beaten by close rivals Leicester City in the playoff final despite striker Tommy Johnson giving the Rams an early lead.
The following season The Rams could only manage a 9th place finish and McFarland’s contract was not renewed by owner Lionel Pickering. The chairman was desperate for promotion to the Premiership and a return on his investment in to the club. He turned to Veteran manager Jim Smith.
The Bald Eagle as he was famously named had overseen promotion with Colchester, Birmingham, and Oxford in the late 70’s early 80’s, could he be the answer?
Smith brought in former Derby County player Steve McClaren to be his first team coach.
The start to the season was rather slow as they only managed to pick up 4 wins in their opening 15 games and their league position did not look like that off a team wanting promotion. They were also knocked out of both the FA and League cup competitions by Leeds United. Smith brought in Dutch players Robin Van Der Laan who would captain the side and Ron Willems, but his premier signing was Croatian centre back Igor Stimac from Hajduk Split for a fee of £1.5 million
Stimac’s first game for Derby was against Tranmere Rovers. It was a game which would be seen as the turning point in the Rams season and their promotion push. Despite being hammered 5-1 Stimac scored on his debut.
With the big Croatian coming in Derby moved to a 352 formation, this was a formation that at the time was very rarely used, especially in England. The shift worked though as the Rams then marched on managing to go 20 games unbeaten 13 wins and 7 draws.
Strikers Marco Gabbiadini and Rams academy graduate Dean Sturridge had formed a great partnership. The latter finished the season as top scorer with 20 goals.
Everything was clicking nicely into place. Their unbeaten run came to an abrupt halt as they were well beaten 3-0 away to eventually champions Sunderland.
Their next 10 games saw them lose only twice and they got payback on Tranmere Rovers as they beat them 6-2 at the Baseball Ground. Winger Paul Simpson scored a hat trick.
28th April 1996 a day that Derby County fans will never forget. Crystal Palace were the visitors to the Baseball Ground on that warm sunny afternoon.
Palace knew victory would take the automatic promotion chase down to the final day and Derby knew a win for them would seal the deal.
There was a huge buzz about the place, scarves and flags waved above fans heads, children’s faces were decorated with black and white face paint, there was an air of confidence amongst the home faithful. The Popside was singing loud and proud, chants of Derby! Derby! Derby! Could be heard ringing around the Baseball Ground.
The stadium went into raptures with 3 minutes on the clock, Igor Stimac lofted a long ball up field to Simpson, who played in Dean Sturridge, his electric pace took him through the defenders before coolly curling it around goalkeeper Nigel Martyn and into the far corner 1-0 Derby.
The good feeling did not last two long as minutes later Bruce Dyer took on his man down the left and delivered a wonderful cross for Kenny Brown to volley home past Russel Hoult to give the visitors an equalizer.
The scores remained level at half time with neither team able to create any clear-cut chances. It was Derby who started the second half on the front foot but struggled to pressure Nigel Martyn in the Palace goal.
The air of confidence that was amongst Rams fans had changed to a more nervous disposition. A draw would mean they would have to beat West Brom away in their final game of the season.
With 65 minutes on the clock The Rams won a corner. Paul Simpson whipped it in deep to the back post and picked out an unmarked Robin Van Der Laan and the skipper headed low and hard into the back of the net to give the Rams the lead. He ran away before dropping to his knees with his arms aloft in celebration before being joined by Matt Carbon and creating one of the most memorable images of that day.
The Baseball Ground exploded into scenes of joy and celebration. Was that the goal that would finally take the Rams to the Premiership? After an agonizing 25 minutes the final whistle blew, Derby had done it. Fans rushed on to the pitch to celebrate with the players and coaching staff.
A week later Derby travelled to the Hawthorns to face West Brom in an enthralling encounter. Despite coming from behind twice with goals from Dean Sturridge and Ashley Ward, Derby’s season ended in defeat, as West Brom ran out 3-2 winners.
It did not matter though; Derby were finally in the big time. The Baseball Ground only saw one season in the Premiership. Due to new regulations all stadiums had to be all-seaters and there were also concerns regarding the majority of the ground being made of wood. There were plans to turn the Baseball Ground in to a 26000 all-seater stadium but instead Derby moved to their more modern 33000-seater home Pride Park in the summer of 1997.
The Rams would spend 5 years in the top flight before being relegated back down to the renamed Championship. Derby fans would see famous victories against top flight sides such as Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United.
Jim Smith sadly passed away on 10th December 2019, but he will always go down as a legend for the club. He transformed them from a division one side with ambitions to a top half Premiership side. He brought in players that will live long in the memories of fans. Players like, Stefano Eranio, Paulo Wanchope, Mart Poom and Igor Stimac.
By Simon Long from the Ramswriter Podcast