Derby County: How Brian Clough’s Rams won the First Division title 50 years ago
On a deserted suburban Derby street on the night of Monday, 8 May 1972, two men were jumping in jubilation next to a white Ford Capri.
Crackling through on the car radio was news that Wolves had beaten Don Revie’s Leeds United in the final game of the season.
With it came confirmation that Brian Clough’s Derby County were English First Division champions.
The two men hugging and celebrating wildly, trying to raise the residents of Littleover after a tense and seemingly endless amount of added time at Molineux, were Rams captain Roy McFarland and fellow defender Colin Todd.
“I tell you what, we made enough noise,” McFarland told BBC Sport.
“Colin got out of the car, we hugged. We were just elated, jumping up and down and shouting, making as much noise as we could to get the people coming out of their houses.”
No-one did emerge, with the two players marking the momentous moment with their partners before setting off in the Capri for Hendon Hall in London to meet up with Alf Ramsey’s England squad.
McFarland, now aged 74, recalls being crowned champions while standing outside a row of houses as “surreal”, having paced up and down the street waiting for the result from the Leeds game to come through after Liverpool, another title challenger, had already drawn with Arsenal.
A 1-0 victory against Bill Shankly’s Liverpool at a packed Baseball Ground in Derby a week earlier had put the Rams top of the table by a solitary point.
The Reds and Revie’s Leeds, two sides with a superior goal difference over the Rams, could both overtake Clough’s side with the one game they each had in hand.
By the time those fateful last games kicked-off, Rams players had been on the Spanish island of Majorca for days sunning themselves and celebrating what had been their best season for nearly a quarter of a century – even if they missed out on the title.
Clough himself was on a family holiday in the Isles of Scilly. In a call with BBC Radio Derby just moments after the Rams became champions, the late, great manager uttered the famous words: “I don’t believe in miracles, but one’s occurred tonight.”
A majority of the team in Majorca tried to listen to the game with assistant coach Peter Taylor, who arranged a feed of the action to come through over the phone in his room. But with the line going down they did not learn of their title triumph until the following morning.
McFarland and Todd had left their team-mates on their end-of-season holiday to report for international duty and made sure they tuned in to listen as their fate was decided for them.
“We felt, underneath, that one of those clubs would do it and therefore we wouldn’t be champions, but it didn’t happen and it went for us,” McFarland said.
“Would you have thought Leeds would lose, the way they performed all season? I doubt it. Would you have thought that Shankly Liverpool’s would not not do what is needed to win something? But they didn’t. That pressure, that’s the way it was.
“We heard that full-time whistle on the car radio and it was unbelievable.”
When Derby had been beaten 2-0 by Manchester City in their penultimate game of the season, there were undeniable doubts that Clough’s little-fancied side – one that had risen from the Second Division just three seasons before – would go on to claim an historic first English title.
But still ringing in McFarland’s ears, and those of his team-mates, was the sternly delivered message from attacker Alan Durban after the Rams were knocked out of the FA Cup by Arsenal, a tie that took three matches to settle.
Derby won seven and lost just two of their remaining 11 league games following that cup exit. Among the victories was a 2-0 triumph over Leeds and the decisive win, sealed by John McGovern, against Liverpool in the last of their matches to go top of the table.
“We were all down after being knocked out of the FA Cup,” McFarland said. “It was hard to deal with.
“Alan Durban turned around in the dressing room and said ‘well lads, that’s a good omen. Don’t worry about it because we will go on and win the Championship’.
“I couldn’t believe it or get it in my head at the time. We all wondered what he was talking about.
“It felt like a lot for us to haul back. There was no leeway.
“We probably blew our best chance when we lost to Manchester City, which was a big game for us.
“Low and behold, Leeds and Liverpool couldn’t match what we had done to get the results that they wanted in their last game and we became champions.”
In McFarland’s first season as captain, he helped the Rams keep an astonishing 23 clean sheets in the 42-game league campaign.
Goalkeeper Colin Boulton was just one of two players to feature in every game. In total, just 16 players featured for Derby that season.
Alan Hinton was the club’s top scorer with 15 goals, while John O’Hare netted 13 and Kevin Hector also hit double figures with 12.
The title win came at a time when the rivalry between Clough and Leeds boss Revie – two managers with different approaches and footballing ideologies which defined a generation in their own ways – was simmering.
Clough greeted the title win as “a miracle”. He would go on to repeat and even perhaps eclipse the mesmeric feat with Derby’s fierce rivals Nottingham Forest by the end of the decade.
While back-to-back European Cups at Forest ensured Clough and Taylor’s place in the folklore of the game, the pair also took Derby to the semi-final of the continent’s biggest competition after Derby won the title in 1972.
“The one thing Brian and Peter emphasised was that ‘this [title] isn’t the end, this is the beginning. This is what it’s all about’,” McFarland said.
“They said ‘what we have achieved is what we were going to achieve and keep achieving as much as possible’.”
Derby did go on to have more moments to savour, beating a Benfica side with the great Eusebio in the team in the European Cup the following year. But their hopes were controversially ended at the the semi-final stage by Juventus.
Derby even went on to claim a second English title in 1974-75 under Dave Mackay, who took over following Clough’s resignation in 1973.
“These were magical experiences,” said McFarland.
“Everyone in Derby enjoyed our European nights, there was a tremendous feeling and it was exciting times. That is what winning the English title meant.”
A special programme marking Derby County’s 50th anniversary of winning their first English title will air on BBC Radio Derby at 13:00 BST on Sunday, 8 May.