Jim Smith: Six games which defined the Bald Eagle’s Derby era

Derby’s 2019/20 season may have left some parts of our fanbase divided, but one era from our past will always remain unblemished.

It’s only on reflection when you can appreciate how special some period for were for the Rams. Jim Smith’s six year reign at Derby County was just that. From broken club records and promotion jubilation to flirting with Europe’s elite, Smith truly spoilt us for most of his six years at the helm. Add in his eye for foreign flair and the Bald Eagle years are a highlights reel we’ll never get sick of watching.

So, as we remember Jim Smith, here are six memorable matches which defined the Bald Eagle’s watch.

Derby County 3-0 West Brom (Nov 11, 1995)

(Gabbiadini 2, Sturridge)

Derby’s 1995/96 promotion campaign didn’t get off to the best of starts. Before this impressive win, the Rams had only managed four wins from their opening 15 games. A less than ideal start for Smith in his first season.

While there was some sympathy for the Bald Eagle, who was tasked with overhauling an expensive, under-achieving squad, fans were questioning his credentials. But after making a mix of shrewd and inspired signings, including some fella named Igor Stimac… Derby’s slow start to the season received a timely turbo boost.

A Marco Gabbiadini brace either side of a Dean Sturridge penalty secured a comfortable 3-0 win over West Brom, in a victory which proved to be the start of a tidy partnership. A return of 31 league goals from the pair was pivotal to Derby’s success.

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An impressive win, but it was what followed that proved more significant – the beginning of Derby’s infamous 20-match unbeaten streak. Spanning from November to March, it remains our longest unbeaten spell in a single league season. And just like that, mid-table mediocrity was ousted for Premier League dreams. 

Derby County 2-1 Crystal Palace (April 28, 1996)

(Sturridge, Van Der Laan)

Fast forward to the penultimate game of the 1995/96 campaign. The second place Rams face third-placed Palace knowing that a win would secure promotion. With an expectant, capacity crowd packed into the Baseball Ground, the scene was set.

When Dean Sturridge opened the scoring in the third minute, the door to the Premier League was wide open. But it would slam shut within a couple of minutes as the Eagles equalised. Derby had a date with destiny and they needed a hero. It would emerge in the form of a flying Dutchman – Captain Robin Van der Laan. 

soccer - Endsleigh League Division One - Derby County v Crystal Palace

Powering home a header from a corner in the second half, the tough tackling midfielder rooted his place in the club’s history books. Signed from Port Vale in the summer, it was fitting that one of Smith’s less glamorous, but arguably most dependable signing, had his moment in the spotlight. 

After a five-year absence, the Rams were a top-tier club again and the bald Eagle had landed in the big time.

Blackburn Rovers 1 – 2 Derby County (Sept 9, 1996)

(Willems, Flynn)

Smith wouldn’t taste his first win as a Premier League manager until game five of Derby’s top flight return, though three draws and just one defeat had provided signs of encouragement. 

After taking points off Leeds United, Spurs and Manchester United, that maiden victory was in sight. And it came against Blackburn Rovers, who only two years previously, were champions of England. 

Smith’s new look Derby side set showed their top division credentials with an array of fresh faces lining up at Ewood Park. This included the likes of Danish fullback Jacob Laursen, defender Christian Dailly, and the enigmatic Aljosa Asanovic. 

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Back in the mid-90s, the concept of foreign stars playing in England was still something of a novelty. But Smith, working his European connections, did not hesitate in signing Asanovic, who had starred for Croatia at Euro ’96. Despite his inconsistencies, the Croatian playmaker would capture the imagination of Derby supporters in his brief one-and-a-half year spell.

It was a goal from another foreign import that gave Derby the lead. Dutch striker Ron Willems opened the scoring inside a minute, before Chris Sutton equalised for Rovers. It would be one of Smith’s first signings, Sean Flynn, that smashed home a late winner from a Gabbiadini lay-off in front of the travelling Rams fans. 

Manchester United 2 – 3 Derby County (Apr 5, 1997)

(Ward, Wanchope, Sturridge)

A game that includes a win over the Premier League champions and THAT goal, we couldn’t leave this one out could we? A newly promoted side getting one over Manchester United at Old Trafford is enough to make the headlines – but Derby did it in style.

The Rams sat comfortably in mid-table and looked odds on for survival when travelling to the Theatre of Dreams in April. With Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in the midst of a title battle, a daunting task faced the Bald Eagle and his side. But in true Jim Smith fashion, he had a couple of aces up his sleeve.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Manchester United v Derby County

Handing debuts to two more foreign unknowns – Estonian goalkeeper Mart Poom and Costa Rican striker Paulo Wanchope – Smith’s swashbuckling Rams took the game to their star-studded opponents.

Following Ashley Ward’s opener, Wanchope sent Rams fans into delirium by dribbling from his own half into the United area and slotting past Peter Schmeichel. Voted the club’s greatest goal of all time, Wanchope took all the plaudits, but without Smith’s eye for raw talent, this monumental chapter in the club’s history would’ve been unwritten.

In between Eric Cantona and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer goals, Dean Sturridge would score Derby’s third to secure a famous victory. United lost only five games as they retained the title that season – but the Rams had their historic moment too.

Derby County 3 – 2 Liverpool (1999)

(Burton, Wanchope 2)

Following back-to-back midtable Premiership finishes, the Rams had established themselves as a tidy top flight side under the guidance of Smith. And with a brand new stadium to go with an exciting team, the 98/99 season would prove to be the Bald Eagle’s peak. Memories of a team that included majestic Italian pair of Stefano Eranio and Francesco Baiano are still fresh in the minds of Rams fans two decades on.

When Liverpool came to town in March, the Rams were sixth and edging towards a UEFA Cup spot. The Reds, who were also chasing European football, had lost to Derby earlier in the season at Anfield, and so Smith’s Rams held a psychological edge. In front of the season’s largest home crowd, Derby secured the double over a Liverpool side that included the likes of Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and a young Steven Gerrard.

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Deon Burton opened the proceedings with a well-timed header. Robbie Fowler equalised, before a Wanchope brace, including another header from a set piece (remember what they look like?) either side of half time put Derby in full control. A second Fowler goal made it tense but the Rams held on for their 11th win of the campaign.

Unfortunately, Derby would only chalk up two wins from their last nine fixtures. It was a heartbreaking end. Despite this disappointment, Smith was able to secure an 8th place finish with a team that was in England’s second tier just three years previous – an exceptional feat.

Manchester United 0 – 1 Derby County (May 5,2001)

(Christie)

Derby’s European ambitions were short lived and over the next couple of years, the Bald Eagle’s wings were clipped by the Derby hierarchy. Our best players were long gone, with the likes of Stimac, Asanovic and Wanchope having departed.

Man Utd v Derby Christie

But in an admirable act of defiance, Smith would show another side to his managerial game by managing to keep two struggling Derby sides in England’s top division. And it was on the penultimate day of the 2000/01 season when he achieved one of Derby’s most memorable escape acts.

Needing a result at Old Trafford against the Premier League champions, Smith rallied his troops and led a frontline headed by Malcolm Christie to a shock 1-0 win. Unfortunately for Christie, it isn’t just his curled left foot finish that the game will be remembered for. 

With Derby on the backfoot for the rest of the game, the striker had a chance to finish the game off from inside the six-yard box, but blasted his effort wide of an open goal. Smith’s priceless reaction said more than words ever could… but the Rams still hung on for a priceless three points at Old Trafford once again.

Jim Smith – thanks for the memories.

 

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