Saturday, January 09, 2016

Derby County v Plymouth Argyle

I’ve just seen this video on Facebook.

And a host of memories have come flooding back!

The game was a 6th round FA Cup replay played on the Tuesday following a 0-0 at Home Park the Saturday before – there was no nonsensical 10 day delay between the first match and the replay in those days.

I was in my first year at college and was living in Gloucester at the time and I’d journeyed back to Plymouth for the first game. We were unlucky not to win after Gordon Staniforth spanked a long range shot towards the top left corner only to be denied by Derby ‘keeper Steve Cherry getting his fingertips to the ball thus diverting it onto a post, the ball then bounced down onto the goal-line, hit the other post and was deflected away. It was a sensational moment in a pretty drab game but plucky underdogs Argyle, struggling horribly in the league below, had shaded it and Derby, who were something of a fading power at the time, knew they’d been lucky to get out of the game with a replay. Argyle, on the other hand knew Derby were there for the taking.

I suppose the most remarkable thing about the first game, Staniforth’s moment apart, was the attendance: 35,000. Home Park was rammed with Derby being allocated the Devonport End (and maybe the Barn Park too?). It was mayhem. These were the days when football grounds were feral places, terraces were often vast and the horrors of Hillsborough, Heysel and Valley Parade were yet to happen. Things really could not have been any more different to how they are today. Back then football was so much more raw than it is now. They say the past is a different place well this might as well have been a different planet.
So a replay it was to be. I had to go. So, too, did many thousands of others. Most of them travelling from Plymouth but me having to make my way from Gloucester. The Plymothians would have been coached up, I guess, for the large part but for me the only option was public transport so I bunked off college for the day and got the train up to Derby. There was only one problem: no train back. “Never mind” I thought. “What the hell! There’s no way I’m missing this one.”

I’d never been to Derby before. In fact I don’t think I’d ever been that far north before so on arrival I didn’t have a clue where anything was. I asked a railway porter where the town centre was, he jabbered something I completely failed to understand and with my mouth being kept firmly shut and my scarf being securely stashed away out of sight – there was every chance that an away fan going anywhere in those days would get a kicking if he took even the slightest of liberties – I made for the town centre where I hoped to find the Baseball Ground. This plan failed abysmally but I did find WH Smiths so I went in grabbed a Derby A to Z road map (internet? mobile phone? google maps? Not even a gimmer on the horizon at the time!) looked up where the ground was, committed details to memory and was off.

On leaving Smiths I bumped into an old school mate, Bod, who had made the same journey as me but from London. We were now a crew of two. I seem to remember that it was a fair old walk to the Baseball Ground but we had nowhere else to go so off we toddled and we got there early. Very early. Ridiculously early. I suppose it might have been about 1730 with kick-off at least 2 hours away. Nothing else for it but to hang around which we did. It’s possible we were the first ones there because the stadium wasn’t even open!

People eventually began to arrive. Bod and I continued to mope about – going to a pub was unthinkable. Eventually we were approached by a few fellas. “Are you from Plymouth or Durrrrrrrby?” “Gloucester” says I. “London” says Bod. Our interrogator was a bit confused by our unexpected responses but by now it was obvious they were from Plymouth and chances were they were looking to give any stray Derby fans they could find a kicking. We sort of fell in with them. We were now a group about 7 or 8 strong.

Neither Bod nor I had any way of getting back and our new friends were quite impressed by our bone-headed commitment. “We have a space in the car – but only one. There’s a lift, but only 1 place, back if you want it. Find us afterwards.” That didn’t seem likely.

And so on to the game. 27,000 at the Baseball Ground (“we’ve got more fans than you!”) crammed into the tightest of grounds imaginable. There’s nowhere to compare today except maybe Loftus Road but the Baseball Ground had about twice the capacity and its stands rose almost vertically from the touchline with barely any track around the grass of the pitch at all. We were stood on the lower terrace behind the goal we scored into, right behind the goal about 10 yards from the front. Behind and above us was a tier of seating also occupied by Argyle fans and above that a third tier of seating filled by home fans who took great delight in chucking stuff down on top of us: anything that came to hand and coffee seemed to be a great favourite (I hope it was coffee – it was certainly warm anyway). I’ve no idea of how many travellled up that night but it must have been at least 5000 fans and if it wasn’t it certainly seemed like it.

There was much banter. Derby’s Archie Gemill came in for fearful, relentless abuse some of which was good-natured. Blue Peter’s Simon Groom and his dog, Goldie, put in an appearance and the atmosphere in the ground positively crackled away into the night sky. It was a night of rare old passion.

We took  a lot of abuse from the home fans above us and one of them had an inflatable something or other… maybe a penguin or snowman or some such and they were dangling it down on a length of string teasing us with it. Needless to say everybody was trying to grab it and eventually they lowered it fraction too far and the thing got ripped to pieces. “We’ve got Archie Gemmill!” was the song and somebody put the head over his own and was hoisted aloft on shoulders as we celebrated the triumphant destruction of our inflatable foe.

The game itself is a blur. They battered us, we defended desperately, magnificently and with huge resolution. Our defence was not going to breached. Andy Rogers fluked the goal direct from the corner and Cherry went from hero in the first match to zero in the replay. Football can be so cruel. At the final whistle scenes of unbridled joy: Chris Harrison climbing onto the fence around the pitch; Johnny Hore dancing in delight on the pitch… It was like a mass tellytubbies big hug sprinkled with angel dust. “What scenes!” as today’s youngsters like to say.

As we filed out at the end of the match Bod and I bumped into our new friends from earlier. “Want a lift then, boy? We ain’t going to London but Gloucester is on the way home we’ll take you if you want.” What price friendship, eh? The offer of a lift was too good to turn down (and it was free!) so I went with them and Bod took his chances hanging around Derby all night dodging their supporters, who had nought but murderous intent in mind, until the first mail train the next morning. We stopped off somewhere on the way back for a beer. Uttoxeter, maybe? And got there just in time to see the match highlights on Sportsnight which was a definite result!

I got dropped off at my halls of residence where everybody was fast asleep and I was all on me tod buzzing like I never had before and rarely have since.

Derby. 1984. What an occasion! Just… crazy. Absolutely stark-raving bonkers in every single way imaginable. I'd like to think this blog gives a taste as to what it was like but I probably haven't even got near...