Fan's Eye View: Derby's days of despair: No. 25 Derby County

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THE Prime Minister is living a lie. While purporting to be a lifelong Chelsea fan, I can exclusively reveal that John Major did in fact spend his formative football years at the Baseball Ground. Where else could he have possibly learned so much about political in-fighting and indecisive leadership.

And if you think his predecessor had a total disregard for the feelings of the public, you should try being a Rams fan. What other club could be so sadistic as to have inflicted upon their supporters the twin evils of Tommy Docherty and Robert Maxwell?

They haunted the corridors of the Baseball Ground towards the beginning and end of what most Derby fans regard as the club's Dark Ages, the late Seventies- early Eighties. With the memories of championship-winning teams under Clough and Mackay fading fast, the Rams embarked on a nightmare journey which included relegation to the old Second and Third Divisions, crippling financial problems, no-hope managers like John Newman (who he?) and Colin Addison, and a string of players - Derek Hales, Terry Curran, Kenny Burns and many more - who gave a new meaning to the phrase donkey Derby. Remember Mike Brolly or Alan Biley? No, not many other people do either.

The man who really set the ball rolling was Tommy Docherty. The man with more clubs than IQ points soon began to weave his familiar magic at the Baseball Ground, ripping the heart out of a good, if ageing side, to the point where he was buying and selling faster than a currency trader on Black Wednesday. Far from being able to get to know each other on the training ground, most players met for the first time in the tunnel, and stood more chance of being featured on Blind Date than Match of the Day.

The Doc finally went, but somehow still managed to cast his shadow over what was undoubtedly the lowest point in the club's history: March 1984. Derby, struggling at the foot of the Second Division, going out of the FA Gup quarter-finals on a freezing cold night at the Baseball Ground to a freak goal from Third Division Plymouth; a court order to wind up the club due to be issued two days later; and, to rub salt in the wound, the otherwise unemployed Docherty giving his 'expert' opinion on the match from the BBC Radio commentary box.

But riding to the rescue - or so we were told - came that well-known football fan and philanthropist, Robert Maxwell, who dipped his hands into his pocket (or, as it turned out, other people's pockets) to enable Arthur Cox to steer us to promotion in successive seasons.

Indeed, for one brief, shining moment - 1989 to be precise - it looked as if the glory days could really be on their way back. Finishing fifth in the top flight that season, Derby had the first real chance in years to build a side good enough to challenge for honours again. But the Fat Controller said 'no' to spending more money, and the Rams, having edged their way almost to the top of the greasy pole, slipped back again.

Captain Bob finally jumped ship at the Baseball Ground shortly before doing it for real, but sadly not before putting the club in the position of having to sell its only real assets, Dean Saunders and Mark Wright, to pay him off (and buy Gary Lineker's left leg - for Spurs).

Derby's current chairman, Lionel Pickering, looks to be that rare creature an honest businessman and a true football supporter - and this season there is genuine cause for optimism, even if Derby, almost invincible away from the Baseball Ground, have a home protection plan which seems to have been modelled on the Maginot Line. Seven successive away wins is the form of champions, but these have been somewhat cancelled out by seven home defeats, with the result that Derby are hovering just above mid-table (or in manager-speak, on the fringes of the play-off places).

Pinpointing the problem is not easy. Craig Short and Darren Wassall are combining well at the back, Martin Kuhl is the buy of the season, and Paul Kitson and Tommy Johnson are regularly among the goals. Even the much-maligned Marco Gabbiadini is doing everything an expensive striker should do - holding the ball up well, playing intelligent one-twos, creating chances for his colleagues, and regularly getting into scoring positions. Everything, in fact, except putting the ball in the net.

I wonder if The Doc wants to buy him?