Looking back, football finance expert Dr Rob Wilson knew exactly what he was talking about.
“This is the last roll of the dice,” he told BBC Sport ahead of the 2019 play-off final between Aston Villa and Derby County. “It’s the winner takes all and the loser lose pretty much everything.”
Villa won that day at Wembley. Three years later, they spent pre-season touring Australia, preparing for a new Premier League campaign with Brazil star Philippe Coutinho in their ranks.
Derby have just begun their first third-tier campaign since 1986, and only the fifth in their history, after local businessman and lifelong supporter David Clowes stepped in to save the club.
Fans will have to hope on opening day 1-0 win over Oxford in front of 31,053 at Pride Park on July 30 marks a decisive shift towards a more stable future for one of England’s most historic clubs, a founding member of the Football League and two-time top flight champions.
Because the story of Derby’s last three years is a wild tale of almost unrelenting bad news, including drunk driving crashes, bad social media posts, Financial Fair Play trouble and failed takeovers, all played out against a backdrop of potential ruin.
If former owner Mel Morris knew what the playoff final loss meant to Derby, he didn’t give anything away in the immediate aftermath.
Someone who left Wembley with him says Morris was “down but not disappointed”. There was a sense that spending had to be cut, but just a couple of months later, Derby signed Arsenal midfielder Krystian Bielik for £10m. Those at Pride Park who trusted Morris felt the owner had to have a plan. He always had a plan.
Wilson had his doubts.
“From an analytical point of view, the writing was frankly on the wall,” he says. “Derby had consecutive losses and the accounts were in such bad shape.
“Critics argue that if owners want to invest in their business, they should be allowed to. But if the owner leaves, a club can go bankrupt.
“They were not alone, but Derby depended on owner investment. If you look in the auditor’s reports there is often a statement saying that the auditor is happy to write them off as a going concern solely on the basis that the owner is prepared to continue to invest in the device. It’s there in black and white.”
Morris’ plan involved Wayne Rooney. Three days after the Bielik deal was announced, it was announced that England’s record goalscorer would join the club five months later in January 2020.
With former Netherlands midfielder Phillip Cocu replacing Frank Lampard as manager and impressive loan signings Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Harry Wilson returning to their parent clubs, the play-off defeat had sparked a summer of change.
But the storm clouds gathered. When they finally burst, the downpour almost swept Derby out of existence.
A group collaboration session during a midweek holiday in September 2019 was to have disastrous consequences.
Tom Lawrence crashed his Range Rover into the back of teammate Mason Bennett’s Mercedes as they left the Joiners Arms. They were over the limit and initially fled the scene, along with two other Derby players traveling with Lawrence. Skipper Richard Keogh was left unconscious in the back of Lawrence’s vehicle.
The fallout from the incident was extensive. Lawrence and Bennett avoided prison but was banned from driving for two years after pleading guilty to drink-driving. Both under-20s and under contract, they played against Barnsley a week after the incident, having been fined six weeks’ wages by Derby.
Keogh, 33, one of Derby’s highest-paid players and facing 15 months out of the game due to injuries sustained in the accident, was sacked for gross misconduct.
Sources at Derby still refuse to treat Keogh differently to his former team-mates because of their relative financial worth. They insist there were specific differences in the behavior of the three men that merited different outcomes.
Keogh disagreed. He challenged the decision and in May 2021 was awarded £2.3 million in damages. In an interview with guardian in October 2021 he said: “It’s pretty obvious to most people what happened.”
Lawrence remained at Derby until this summer when his contract expired and he joined Rangers. Bennett joined Millwall on loan in January after the crash. In May 2020, a video was posted on social media of Bennett saying “burn” as he travels past Pride Park. He later said it was a private joke that was not meant to be made public. That summer he signed for Millwall on a permanent basis.
“There was never a sense that we were out of the limelight,” a long-serving Derby employee told BBC Sport. “It’s hard. Everyone has pride.”
The downward spiral had begun. It would soon accelerate.
Derby were charged with breaching the EFL’s financial rules in January 2020, the month Rooney took over as player-coach after leaving MLS side DC United.
Although the case initially went Derby’s way, the EFL won an appeal against a specific point relating to amortization method it used to value its players.
Crucially, that victory was not confirmed until nearly a year and a half later, on 11 May 2021. The penalty, a nine-point deduction after the club accepted further infringements, was not settled until November.
This meant that at the end of the 2020–21 campaign, Derby remained in the Championship at Wycombe’s expense. They had finished one point above them.
While the case was developing, Morris, suffering from ill health, had been trying to find a buyer for Derby. Having incurred personal losses on the club of around £200m, he was no longer willing to finance it.
In November 2020, he had agreed a deal in principle with Derventio Holdings, a company owned by an Abu Dhabi national said to be a cousin of Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour. Everything was agreed, contracts were drawn up. The funds were promised. They never came.
On 7 April 2021, Morris agreed another deal with Spanish businessman Erik Alonso. It also fell through, but not before Alonso had laid out what he implied was his own property to show proof of his wealth, which turned out to be a screenshot of a house sold by an unrelated real estate agent in the United States.
With no alternative buyer in sight and Morris unwilling to inject a further £15m to cover Covid-related losses on top of the £15m funding shortfall he was already committed to, Derby entered administration on 22 September 2021.
It was a devastating blow, although concerns about the club had grown.
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, the club had laid off employees. At EFL level this was not unusual, but the fact that Derby did not top the 80% of wages received by the authorities was. Staff didn’t know it at the time, but HMRC bills also went unpaid. Morris was noticeably less visible. Redundancies meant the club was stripped back. Costs were cut.
When the administration came, they were cut even more.
With an additional 12-point deduction automatically imposed after going into administration, survival always seemed unlikely. Relegation was finally confirmed after a loss at QPR on 18 April this year.
By this time several potential buyers had come and gone. Former Manchester City boss Garry Cook brought one American consortium to the table, but they pulled out. Former Derby chairman Andy Appleby led another group. The American Binnie family put forward a bid but were told it was not high enough. The administrators came under sustained criticism for their approach, and bad feeling persists to this day.
Simultaneous legal action from Wycombe and Middlesbrough over alleged losses linked to Derby’s overspending caused further problems in the process.
In retrospect, it is felt by some around the club that it would have been better for Derby to have been relegated in 2020-21. Firstly, it would have avoided the Wycombe litigation. More significantly, while administration would almost certainly have happened anyway, the club’s wage bill would have been reduced due to a combination of relegation clauses and player sales. It would be better placed for a quicker sale.
As Morris still owned the stadium and had more than £20 million in liabilities against it, £28 million was the generally accepted figure for what was needed to buy the club and pay off creditors, allowing Derby to start the 2022-23 season without further 15-point penalty. Bringing the club and stadium back under the same umbrella will take in excess of £50m.
No one seemed willing to take the plunge until US businessman Chris Kirchner returned to the table four months after pulling out of the talks. He was also closely associated with Cook and Rooney’s long-time adviser Paul Stretford. Kirchner received preferred bidder status on 6 April.
For a man on the brink of such an important deal, Kirchner’s behavior was strange. He met Derby fans in a local pub before the home win over Fulham, but when it came to the actual deal he left many of the details to Cook as he flew around the world on other business trips and traveled to golf events on a private jet.
Despite repeated bullish statements to the contrary and allegations of delays in the transfer of funds, Kirchner withdrew his bid on 14 June. Speaking to BBC Sport, Kirchner, who had provided the EFL with proof of funding, blamed the development on opposition from a board member of his American company Slync.
“There’s always one bad apple that spoils the pack,” he said. Answers promised to questions about the source of his personal wealth were not provided.
Kirchner was suspended from his position as CEO of Slync on 22 July. He has now deleted his Twitter account. Stretford’s company, Triple S, is demanding £1.8m from Kirchner after stepping in to pay May’s wages on his behalf.
Fears among fans of liquidation increased. It looked like a serious possibility. Into this maelstrom walked Clowes.
Clowes originally bought the stadium from Morris to facilitate the sale of Derby. When the Kirchner deal collapsed, he came forward to buy the club he has supported all his life and until this season used to watch from the North Stand.
Clowes is described by those who know him as completely lacking in ego. But he is emotional. He admitted he cried on the London Underground with his wife after learning the purchase had gone through.
A source told BBC Sport that Derby County has become a byword for “backdoor sneaking and trickery”. Clowes wants to change that.
His desire is to make Derby sustainable. It is emphasized that if it means a season or two in League One, that is the way it has to be. Amid the clear temptation to plow money into his boys’ club, Clowes is described as unlikely to succumb.
At the season opener last week, there was no big introduction before the game. No trip to the center circle at the hill he now owns. Clowes’ media involvement was limited to an interview with the match program and a chat with the in-house TV station.
When asked what he wanted Derby to stand for, his answer was succinct: “Stability, integrity and progress.”
After the last three years, most Derby fans would welcome that.