Derby County: Back in the Championship – thanks to an accidental manager and reluctant owner

“Turn up expecting the worst,” is not the rallying cry many managers would deliver when their team is on the cusp of promotion to the Championship.

But Paul Warne is not like most managers and for that, Derby County can be grateful. When he arrived at Pride Park 18 months ago, it was with little fanfare — after all, Derby had only just ensured their survival when local businessman David Clowes rescued them from liquidation at the eleventh hour.

Warne’s appointment was not, as he willingly admits, “a massive popularity winner” for the new owner, but he is a manager with a specialism in winning promotion from League One. After doing it three times as manager of Rotherham United, where he was a player-turned-physio who had to be talked into becoming a manager, joining Derby was a test of how he could step up to a big club with expectations to match.

Under cloudy skies and with a 2-0 win over Carlisle United, Derby did enough to hold off Bolton Wanderers in third place and add a fourth promotion to Warne’s impressive CV, which he described with a quippy response worthy of another great Derby manager in Brian Clough as “in my top four promotions as a manager”.


Derby’s fans on the pitch at full time (Nancy Froston/The Athletic)

As fans flooded the pitch and hoisted the players on their shoulders, Warne disappeared down the tunnel until the runners-up trophy made an appearance. Clowes looked abashed and pleased to be involved at all as he handed over the silverware.

The reluctant owner and the accidental manager had come good. Derby are a Championship club once again.

No club ever wants to use a relegation to League One as a reset, but the dividing line in Derby’s history could not be clearer.

Before relegation while under the ownership of Mel Morris, their story was one of straining against financial fair play rules as they chased the dream of promotion to the Premier League. They came close with play-off final defeats in 2014 and 2019, but spending big eventually catches up with a club. A spiralling series of points deductions, failed takeovers and financial woes left Derby battling for their Championship status in 2021-22 before they eventually succumbed to relegation. Their very existence was of greater worry, too.

Property developer Clowes was the saviour — stepping up to save the club when it looked like all hope had been lost in the summer of 2022. After starting last season with five senior players, no kit and minimal staff before Warne’s arrival in September 2022, Derby finished seventh and missed the play-offs by a place.

The Derby built in Clowes’ image and with Warne’s leadership is more modest and humble than the one that came before, as might be expected of the chastening experience of being a club in administration, even if they have been one of the league’s bigger spenders.

“It’s not quite a phoenix from the flames, even though it was close to extinction,” Warne said. “We haven’t come back from not having a training ground — it’s not a rags to riches story. We still had a really good facility, a good home following and fans still came in numbers away from home, so you could feel the love from everyone, but obviously, everyone was disappointed that they were in the third tier.

“I’m really pleased for the owner because he’s just a fan. He has no ego, he just wants to keep the club going and if anyone ever moans about the cost of a season ticket and you know what David has had to put in, then they’re not even comparable. I respect the fact that win, lose or draw his behaviour towards us as a staff hasn’t changed. He knows it’s not easy to win football matches, so going up is a gift from David back to the fans, it’s pretty irreplaceable in life.”

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Warne has now won four promotions from League One (Paul Currie/Shutterstock)

Clowes’ humility and reluctance to be the star of Derby’s revival has meant he has rarely undertaken media duties and does not impose on Warne. Such is his unassuming nature that in the build-up to the final game of the season, Clowes made a rare visit to the training ground and was stopped by one of the players who asked what he did at Derby.

“Some other owners would have been devastated,” Warne said. “David replied in the nicest way saying he owned the club. He wasn’t embarrassed by that.”

That Derby managed to retain their Premier League-grade Moor Farm training ground and Pride Park was essential to their success, with their Category 1 academy providing a string of first-team players in Eiran Cashin, Max Bird, Louie Sibley and Liam Thompson. Experienced summer arrivals including Curtis Nelson, Kane Wilson and Sonny Bradley bolstered Warne’s squad as he set the target of an average of two points per game to achieve promotion — exactly what they achieved, with 92 across the 46-game campaign.

After a sluggish start left them 11th in October, Warne faced the biggest challenge of his time at the club following defeats away to Shrewsbury Town and Stevenage. He retained the backing of Clowes and CEO Stephen Pearce despite fans calling for him to go and confrontations between captain Conor Hourihane and fans in the away end at Shrewsbury.

A run of just two defeats in 19 games from then marked that disappointing away trip as a turning point as they overcame injuries to all of their strikers to keep pace with Bolton and Peterborough. The settled back line of Bradley, Cashin and Nelson was crucial to Derby being able to grind out results even when convincing performances were lacking.

“Last season we probably had a more flamboyant team,” Warne said. “We had more three, four or five goal wins, whereas this year we’ve been methodical. But we’ve got the points that we needed. Trying to pick a consistent XI and shape (has been the biggest challenge of the season). We’ve played one system 30 per cent of the time, another system 40 per cent and others the rest of the time. I know you’ve got to be flexible, but we’ve been like a gymnast. We had a good squad, but even then at times we’ve looked a bit thin.”

With age — Derby’s squad is the oldest in League One — comes experience and stubbornness, which has, more often than not, seen them through.

With Portsmouth already promoted, the race for second went down to the final day. The requirement for Derby was simple: win or draw and they would be promoted. There was a risk of some jeopardy if third-placed Bolton Wanderers could heavily beat fourth-place Peterborough United, but as 31,000 fans at Pride Park watched on, Derby delivered.

Unlike his previous promotions, Warne broke with tradition and did not assemble a video message from his players’ families in an attempt to keep them grounded.

It seemed scripted, despite Warne’s caution not to expect everything to go their way, that with five minutes on the clock, boyhood fan Max Bird should open the scoring with a sweet strike from the edge of the box.

In his 200th and final game as a Derby player, the 23-year-old midfielder provided the moment to get the promotion party started before he leaves to join Bristol City this summer.

“This is how I dreamt about it,” Bird said. “We stuck together through real low times and the fans have been brilliant. This is my best day at the club. It’s exactly how I visualised it. I’ve been working with a sports psychologist all year and knew after January that this would be my last game and I wanted to end this way. This is for the fans and the staff and repaying them for all they’ve done for me. Everyone from the academy has got me to this point and it feels like a fitting end.”


There was not a seat spare for the final day of the season (Nancy Froston/The Athletic)

“The first game I managed here at Pride Park I walked on the pitch and did an interview with (BBC) Radio 5Live, the sun was shining and I thought about my dad and I cried,” Warne said. “When Birdy scored I thought about how he’s lost his father and he’s a younger man than me. He’s a classy kid, his departure from the club has been classy. He was always going to play somewhere else this summer. When you’ve been at a place for a long time, people decide that you’re good at that or not at that and so I understand why players don’t stay at one club forever. It worked for all parties. He is so committed to his game… it upset me to think that when he scored, the first person he would think about was his dad. I know being a father, if that was my son scoring in front of 30,000 at your childhood club, it is priceless. I’m glad he could say thanks.”

At 33, James Collins was Derby’s top scorer and his 19th goal settled the nerves in the second half to secure his sixth promotion as a player. It was little surprise that fans packed along the edge of the hoardings ready to storm the pitch and celebrate when there were 10 minutes left to play. The final whistle could not come soon enough and the party will last long beyond the weekend despite a Derbyshire police dispersal order to limit anti-social behaviour.

As the players prepare for an end-of-season trip to Las Vegas, a relieved Warne will return home to his usual ritual of walking his dog, Chief, before starting the hard work of preparing for the Championship.

“Just relief, you wake up in the morning and have to pretend it’s like any other game when it isn’t,” Warne said. “You have to convince the lads to play it like any other game, which is difficult because they’re not idiots. It’s relief and pride in the way we got the job done. David said, ‘Thanks’. And I said, ‘Well that’s alright, you do pay me to do it’. We’ve laughed about it but it’s just surreal.

“Clubs as big as us have been in this league for many a year. Next year we’ll have to take another step, then another step and one day, whoever it is, will hopefully take them back to the Premier League. That’s what everyone wants. It’s a good step and it’s a positive step and one with recent history that should be enjoyed.”

(Top photo: Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)

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