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The East Midlands Rivalry: How Have We Got Here?  

Derby County ground before a match
Matthew Boyd

One of the fiercest and most historic rivalries in English football, Derby County and Nottingham Forest do not know when they will next face each other. Relegation from the Championship last season means that Derby are now battling it out in League One for the first time in thirty-six years, and for only the fifth season in their 138-year history. Nottingham Forest’s promotion through the playoffs means that they are now back in the Premier League for the first time in 18 years. Matthew Boyd charts the history of the rivalry, from its nineteenth-century roots to the present day. 

Before I begin I feel as though a disclaimer is necessary. I am a Derby fan. However, I have lived in Nottingham for the past 18 months, and therefore feel well placed to explore this intriguing rivalry as we enter a new stage where both clubs find themselves in very different positions.  

Both clubs are steeped in history. Derby County was one of twelve founding clubs of the Football League in 1888, and one of ten clubs to have competed in every single season of the Football League. Nottingham Forest officially claim that they are the oldest club in the Football League, with the founding date on their original badge stating 1863.  

1898 was a pivotal year for the development of the rivalry. The two sides were due to play each other in the FA Cup Final, having met in the league five days prior, when Derby ran out 5-0 winners. The final, however, was a different story. Nottingham Forest’s Willie Wragg scored the opener, before the great Steve Bloomer of Derby equalised. However, Forest went on to win 3-1, a huge upset at the time.  

In their recent relegation season, three of the five highest attendances in the Championship were at Derby’s Pride Park, which has a capacity of approximately 33,000

Between 1926-1953, Derby County resided in the old First Division (1st tier), before dropping predominantly into the Second Division until 1969. Forest competed predominantly in the Second Division between 1911 and 1957. So where does the idea of both clubs ‘belonging’ in the top flight arise from? Is this because of their significant fan bases? After all, in their recent relegation season, three of the five highest attendances in the Championship were at Derby’s Pride Park, which has a capacity of approximately 33,000. Though Nottingham Forest’s City Ground holds less, closer to 30,000, it was consistently sold out for the majority of last season and into their present Premier League campaign. However, the legacy and success of both clubs is defined through one man: Brian Clough.  

Clough, along with his trusted assistant Peter Taylor, arrived at Derby County in 1967. At this point, Derby had been underperforming in the second and third tiers for 14 years. Tearing up the foundations of the squad allowed Clough and Taylor to introduce their own players, ideas, and philosophy, with only four of the original group remaining.  

After an underwhelming first campaign, Clough’s second season in charge ended in promotion to the First Division, with Derby winning the league and achieving a club record unbeaten run of 22 wins in the process. They came 4th in their first season back in the topflight, but unfortunately missed out on the opportunity to compete in Europe due to financial ‘irregularities’.  

Two years later the turnaround was complete, with Derby winning the First Division for the first time in their history. In their final season in charge (1972-73), Clough and Taylor got Derby to the semi-final of the European Cup in their first time competing, with this journey including a famous 3-0 aggregate victory against Eusebio’s Benfica.  

Clough was outspoken and controversial, criticising the FA, club directors, and even his own fans while at Derby. After Derby were knocked out of the European Cup by Juventus, Clough refused to talk to Italian journalists, describing them as ‘cheating b*stards’, and going as far as questioning the Italian war effort. Following these increasingly impulsive outbursts, Clough fell out with the club’s chairman Sam Longson and was forced to resign.  

After failed stints at Brighton Hove Albion and Leeds United, Clough returned to the East Midlands in 1975, at the helm of Nottingham Forest. Taylor would rejoin him a year later. In their first full season together, they won the Anglo-Scottish Cup and achieved promotion to the First Division. Forest were promoted with the fifth lowest point tally of any team in history.  

Forest won the European Cup in back-to-back seasons in 1979-80 – this was truly remarkable.

Amazingly, Forest won the First Division the following season. Clough became the third of four managers to win the English Football League with two different clubs. Clough and Taylor then eclipsed what they had achieved at Derby. Forest won the European Cup in back-to-back seasons in 1979-80 – this was truly remarkable. While Clough stayed at Forest until 1993, he could not repeat the feats of his first few seasons. Taylor and Clough fell out in 1982, with Taylor then returning to manage Derby his second tenure at Derby a failure.  

While Clough’s charisma meant that he was undoubtedly the ‘frontman’ wherever he was, perhaps the two could not manage without each other. The role and influence of the more understated Peter Taylor must not be forgotten. A hero to both cities, Brian Clough’s legacy will last forever. Both clubs sing his name and both cities have statues of him. Clough’s presence will not be forgotten, as Nottingham Forest and Derby County now compete for the ‘Brian Clough Trophy’.  

Unfortunately for Nottingham Forest, the heights of the Clough and Taylor era have not been reached since. Since 2004 they have been positioned primarily in the Championship. A new low was reached in 2005, when Forest became the first ever European Cup winners to be relegated to the third tier.  

However, the club is finally on the up, with this season being their first in the Premier League since 2004. With Chris Hughton in charge at the beginning of last season, the club found themselves bottom of the league with one point after seven games. Hughton was subsequently replaced by the highly rated Steve Cooper. Cooper had been relatively successful at Swansea, and also led England U17’s to victory in their World Cup campaign of 2017. However, not many would have anticipated the scale of impact that he was to have at Forest.  

Climbing up the table at a staggering rate, Cooper’s end of season win percentage was a very impressive 60%. As the season neared completion, Forest had an outside chance of getting automatic promotion, with Bournemouth faltering slightly. However, Bournemouth came out victorious in the deciding fixture between the two sides, and Forest ultimately finished fourth. 

Thousands gathered in Nottingham’s Old Market Square to enjoy the return of such an historic club to ‘where they belong’

Following victories over Sheffield United and Huddersfield, Forest won the play-offs and achieved promotion. Utilising promising loan players, such as Djed Spence and James Garner, Cooper achieved what may have seemed impossible when he took over. Thousands gathered in Nottingham’s Old Market Square to enjoy the return of such an historic club to ‘where they belong’. Of course, fans situated approximately 15 miles west of Nottingham were not among those celebrating.  

The achievement of Nottingham Forest compounded Derby’s misery, relegated to League One at the other end of the table. However, Derby’s journey was uniquely uplifting. On 22nd September 2021, it was officially announced that Derby County had entered administration. A 21-point deduction, 12 for administration and nine for other financial imbalances, left the club facing the almost inevitable fate of relegation.  

However, this was the least of their worries. The financial crisis had been gathering speed for quite some time. Mel Morris, the former Derby County chairman, invested significant sums of money into Derby during the season of 2018-19, in the hope of a return to the Premier League. However, when Frank Lampard’s Derby lost to Aston Villa in the playoff final, Morris’ gamble had backfired. Losing out on the significant payout from the ‘richest match in football’, Derby were left in massive debt. In January 2022, it was estimated that Derby’s debt was more than £60 million.  

The real crisis was around who would be crazy enough to inherit a club in such a disastrous financial condition. Derby faced the very real possibility of liquidation. Due to the added complications of further claims against Derby by Wycombe Wanderers and Middlesborough, many thought that Derby County vs Birmingham City on the 30th of January 2022 could be the club’s final game. Thousands marched in protest against the EFL before what was a complete sell-out. In typical Derby County fashion, they completed a miraculous comeback in stoppage time to end up drawing 2-2, courtesy of a Krystian Bielik bicycle kick. 

In the midst of the major crisis off the pitch, Wayne Rooney’s Derby played with fight, spirit, and style, refusing to give up and accept their fate. Forced to rely mainly on misfits and academy graduates Rooney’s first managerial role could not have been tougher.  

The spirit shown by the players was mirrored by the resilience of the fans

However, with noteworthy home victories against high-flying sides such as Bournemouth and Fulham, Derby consistently proved that they were more than good enough to stay in the division. Derby would have finished around mid-table if it had not been for their points deduction and had the 11th best home record in the league. The spirit shown by the players was mirrored by the resilience of the fans.  

A true one-club city, the liquidation of Derby would have had a disastrous effect for thousands of people. Derby, as with so many football clubs, provides a sense of belonging to its supporters. For many, going to watch their team on a Saturday afternoon is the highlight of their week. Before matches, Jamie Thrasivoulou’s poem, ‘We are Derby’, sums up Derby’s identity as the ‘underdog city of middle-England’. Revelling in the opportunity to defeat the odds and fight against the oppressing forces of football hierarchy, the pride and passion displayed by supporters is unrelenting.  

We have now arrived at this present season. After bringing in 22 players in the summer and being one of Europe’s major spenders, Forest initially struggled to adapt. However, Cooper’s men have gradually got to grips with the step-up and are currently poised to stay in the division. In an era where newly promoted teams struggle to cement their position in the top flight, this would be a significant achievement.  

Derby have stabilised. David Clowes, a Derby fan and multi-millionaire businessman, formally took charge of the club on 1st of July, rescuing them from administration and possible liquidation. Under Paul Warne this season, Derby’s run of 19 games undefeated has only recently come to an end. It has already become apparent that Warne’s philosophy matches the DNA of the Rams. With Warne demanding that his players take to the pitch as ‘gladiators’, the fight illustrated by the club last season is ever-present. They are currently fourth and in a strong position to push for promotion.  

While the two clubs may be separated by two divisions, this is unlikely to be the end of the rivalry. Nottingham Forest can enjoy their current superiority, but Derby are already showing signs of a comeback. Brian Clough’s name is etched into the East Midlands, with the Brian Clough Way connecting the two cities. Perhaps this shared sense of history and pride is what makes the East Midlands Rivalry so intriguing. 

Matthew Boyd

Featured image courtesy of Matthew Boyd. Permission given to Impact to use. No changes were made to this image.  

In article image 1 courtesy of @officialnffc via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.

In article image 2 courtesy of @dcfcofficial via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.

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