Football: Pickering invests in futures - Beyond the Premier / Derby County aim to realise their benefactor's dream of scoring 100 goals and climbing to the top flight. Phil Shaw predicts the ups and downs in the three divisions of the Football League

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The Independent Online
Lionel Pickering does not take kindly to being compared with Robert Maxwell, his infamous predecessor as owner of Derby County, though there is one similarity. In his desire to steer the disgraced tycoon's former plaything into the Premier League, Pickering has displayed a firm belief in the power of money.

There is no family crest on the gates of his rural home, Ednaston Manor, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and set in 50 acres near the Peak District, but if there was the motto might read: 'In for a penny, in for pounds 9m'. That is Pickering's outlay in the nine months since he bought a controlling interest in Derby - on acquiring shares, settling debts and signing players - and he is not finished yet.

Favourites to win the 'new' First Division, Derby had hoped to have Bryan Robson installed as captain and Craig Short in defence at Peterborough tomorrow. Neither Manchester United nor Notts County would sell, but the fact that their manager, Arthur Cox, could match Blackburn's pounds 2.5m offer for Short testified to the extent of Pickering's ambitions.

'I've not got unlimited cash,' he cautions. 'I'll go along with Arthur for two more players, and that's me finished. I reckon a commitment of pounds 12m is enough.'

As a businessman who sold his group of free newspapers for pounds 26m three years ago, and still owns one of the country's leading news agencies, Pickering is obviously a canny operator. But, as he says, 'normal business principles don't apply in football'. For all his protestations, one suspects the philanthropic impulse would prevail if Derby's expenditure required topping up during the season.

'I'm looking at it from an emotional point of view,' Pickering admits. 'I'm trying to resurrect a good old-fashioned, long-established club and bring a little joy to the lives of Derby people. If I want to make a fool of myself, and back the manager to buy players, it's my money down the drain if it doesn't come off.'

He is confident it will, barring disastrous injuries, and expresses satisfaction with the way Cox has used his cheque-book. All four seven-figure recruits - Marco Gabbiadini, Paul Kitson, Tommy Johnson, and the new pounds 1.2m midfielder from Luton, Mark Pembridge - are essentially attackers, which is important to Pickering.

'I haven't paid all that money just to go along with the safety- first system. I want to see flair, and style, and raiding wingers, not ones who hold their full-backs' hands. Clearly we want to go up, and it was a big blow to lose in the play-offs, especially with being in the Premier League worth pounds 3.5m. But to me it's more important that Derby score 100 goals.

'I was easily bored last season. We seemed to spend 20 minutes containing inferior teams at home, which gave them confidence. This year I want to be excited - I want my money's worth. I'm the fans' representative on the board, and I want to see 100 goals first and promotion second.'

What does the pragmatic Cox make of such idealism? 'You can't say to Arthur, 'It's only a game', or 'This is what you must do', because he's the professional. But we've had a little concession. I noticed in a pre-season friendly he left a man upfield when we were defending a corner. He used to be adamant that everyone came back, and I questioned how we could hope to score a breakaway goal.'

Some managers, I suggest, might regard that as interference. The benefactor bristles. 'I've interfered by giving them pounds 9m - obviously I want to protect that investment in that I don't want to see negative football.'

However, Pickering professes 'total confidence' in Cox, 'the best manager in the country for buying and selling players'. He sets great store by the fact that 'Waddle, Beardsley, Keegan, Gascoigne, Saunders and Wright . . . they all swear by Arthur'. And he maintains Derby would never have been in the position of having to buy promotion had Maxwell backed Cox properly three years ago.

'He came saying he was the fourth-richest man in the country, and allowed Arthur to buy Shilton, Wright and Saunders. We finished fifth in the First Division. Two more players and we could have won the championship, but Maxwell put the block on it.'

Maxwell also lent Tottenham pounds 1.2m to buy Gary Lineker as Cox scratched around for loan signings. When he did offer Derby for sale, Pickering offered pounds 3m, only to be banned from the Baseball Ground for his trouble (thereby completing a notable double, for Brian Clough also made him persona non grata there; no wonder he has been dubbed 'the black sheep who bought the Rams').

Eventually, Maxwell sold to a consortium led by Brian Fearn, who retained the chairmanship when Pickering (who is vice-chairman) rescued the ailing club five months later. It has been argued that if Cox had availed himself of the funds immediately, rather than waiting a few months, Derby would be in the Premier League now.

'That's easy to say with hindsight. Arthur is not cautious, just single-minded and prudent. If he does spend pounds 2m I know it'll be well spent, because I believe he really knows his players. Kenny Dalglish spends Jack Walker's cash (at Blackburn) as if it's going out of fashion, whereas Arthur spends it as if it's his own money.'

Pickering feels that after enduring the last two years of Maxwell, fans the late publisher branded 'fickle' have a right to expect promotion. If he talks like a supporter - owning the club 'gives me an interest', he says almost plaintively - it is because as a boy he watched the fine Derby side of Peter Doherty ('10 times better than Best, if you can imagine that') and Raich Carter ('our Puskas').

Later he 'stood in draughty corridors' reporting Derby reserves and Chesterfield for the city's evening paper, and enjoyed the title-winning exploits under Clough ('reluctantly') and Dave Mackay.

'Mackay was my kind of manager. He bought flair players like Franny Lee and Charlie George, and I once saw his team stick eight goals past Spurs. Years later I sat next to Pat Jennings at a dinner and he said it could have been 18. That's what I want to get back to at Derby. I might be living in cloud cuckoo land, but why not be ambitious? Why not set a trend?'

Heady days at the Baseball Ground. But heaven help Arthur Cox if Derby fall short of Lionel Pickering's century of goals.

(Photograph omitted)

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