THERE’S an episode of the Garry Shandling-a-like early 90s Channel Four sitcom Sean’s Show in which the Sean Hughes character, going through one of his various existential crises, is comforted by his friend Tony.
“Don’t worry, Sean,” Tony says, cheerfully. “Nothing lasts forever. Apart from Saturday’s Brookside omnibus.”
Even the unluckiest of unlucky streaks comes to an end eventually. Derby County fans should know this better than anyone.
By the time they faced Sheffield United at Pride Park on September 13, 2008, Derby had gone 36 league games without a victory – the longest winless run in English football history.
They had just been relegated from the Premier League with a record low points tally of 11 points – 25 adrift of safety – having managed just one top-flight victory all season. That victory had come against Newcastle, a game shown live by Setanta, who managed to miss Kenny Miller’s winning goal because they were showing a replay of another incident.
These are not things that happen to a team blessed with good fortune. Yet midway through this miserable run, in February 2008, the Derby Evening Telegraph ran a story headlined: “Does Pride Park stadium have a lucky ghost dog?”
The article centred on a book about alleged ghost sightings in Derby, written by astrologer Philip Solomon. In the book, it was claimed that a ghost dog had been seen hanging around outside Pride Park when Derby beat West Brom in the 2007 play-offs to gain promotion to the Premier League. (Judging purely by results, I’m guessing the dog then buggered off to Barcelona.)
Ghost dog or no ghost dog, Derby didn’t win another game that season following the Evening Telegraph article. After relegation, their first four matches in the Championship brought a draw and three defeats.
The Sheffield United game was a Saturday evening kick-off, shown live on Sky. I was there to cover the game for the Sunday Express, having somehow snuck on to their matchlist shortly after going freelance.
Gamely, Derby’s players and staff had spent the week insisting that their 36-match winless run did not constitute a crisis – and that it had all been created by an over-excited media.
Left-back Jordan Stewart sounded positively Zen-like in the match programme:
You’re one of the new lads – did you find a bit of a hangover from last season when you arrived?
I think the only hangover is from the media. They are talking about Derby not winning for so long, but if I thought there were big problems, I wouldn’t have come here. I’ve come here to go straight back up. I spoke to the manager, who told me his ambitions for the season, and that’s why I’ve come.
I wouldn’t be too harsh on Stewart. These are the sort of things a footballer has to say in those situations. But time hasn’t been kind to his words. Derby remain a struggling Championship side, while Stewart stayed for a season before moving on to… Sheffield United.
Derby’s manager at the time was Paul Jewell, who had still to win a league game since taking charge. His programme notes also sought to play down the significance of a winless league run stretching back nearly a year.
“There has been a lot of talk outside of the club in the build-up to this game about statistics, runs and anniversaries,” the column read. “Inside, there has not.
“The only statistics we as a team are interested in are the three points up for grabs today, and the remaining 42 league games which are still to be played.”
Again, I wouldn’t criticise Jewell for these words. For one thing, a manager has to remain outwardly positive in the face of adversity. For another, he didn’t write the column – he always left it to Derby press officer Matt McCann to put together.
It was an eventful evening at Pride Park, livened up no end by the presence in the press box of ITV’s award-winning reporter Gabriel Clarke, there to film an item for The Championship.
Clarke is undoubtedly brilliant at his job. He is, though, probably not the best person to try to engage in convivial conversation when he’s working.
Around 25 minutes into the game, Derby winger Kris Commons delivered a left-wing cross which Paul Green headed in via a deflection off Sheffield United defender Matt Kilgallon.
Was it Green’s goal? Was it Kilgallon’s? The question went round the press box: “Who would you give that to?” Someone tried to get Clarke involved in the conversation. Politely but firmly, he made it clear that he had enough things to think about without doing newspaper reporters’ jobs for them.
While we were still trying to sort out the confusion, Darius Henderson equalised for Sheffield United, and any thoughts of Derby ending their winless run were put on hold.
At half-time, Clarke left the press box to do whatever he had to do. On his way back, he paused to look over my shoulder at my half-written match report. He said nothing, but I still sensed disdain. I hope it was just my paranoia.
Rob Hulse thought he had won a penalty for Derby shortly after the interval. Understandable, really, given that referee Chris Foy had pointed to the spot when Matt Kilgallon brought down the Derby striker. However, Foy then went to consult linesman Bob Pollock, changed his mind and gave a corner. There was no sign of a ghost dog.
Hulse’s luck changed, though, when he blasted in Nacer Barazite’s cut-back with 20 minutes to go. And that was enough to end Derby’s 362-day wait for a league win.
Jewell took his seat in the post-match press conference. “I don’t know what to say,” he joked, and the room laughed. But Derby did not transform into promotion contenders, and by the end of 2008, Jewell was free to spend more time on Gillette Soccer Special.
I spent the rest of the season travelling around the North and Midlands, generally covering Championship games, as I settled into a freelance routine which seemed to work pretty well for me. Strange, really, given the insecure nature of freelance work, that I was finally starting to feel settled in what I was doing.
I think I had realised that I was not, and never would be, the sort of person who could do the same thing week in, week out for 30 years. For me, too much security could be suffocating. Nothing lasts forever – not even Saturday’s Brookside omnibus – and I was OK with that.