It is 36 years to the day since Arthur Cox was appointed as Derby County’s manager.
Fresh from guiding Newcastle United to promotion to the First Division at the end of the 1983/84 season, it is fair to say his arrival was something of a coup for Derby.
The club’s glory-years of First Division titles in 1971/72 and 1974/75, under first Brian Clough and then later Dave Mackay, were nothing but a distant memory.
Relegations and financial problems followed and by the summer of 1984, Derby were preparing for life in the Third Division.
Only weeks before his appointment, Cox had guided Newcastle to automatic promotion, after a six-year stay in the Second Division.
In a sense of irony, Newcastle’s promotion was sealed with a 4-0 hammering of Derby at St James’ Park.
Cox’s time in charge of the Magpies saw him manage some top-class footballers, including the likes of England international stars Kevin Keegan, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley.
He could have been gearing up for a season back in the top-flight at a packed St James’ Park, but instead he swapped it all for a club that needed a huge rebuild.
The first question that springs to mind, simply, is why?
The Complete History of Newcastle United, by Roger Hutchinson, offers some insight.
“The newly successful manager had been quibbling for months with the board over his own contract and the amount of money which would be available to buy new players for the First Division. That much had been fairly public knowledge: nobody seriously expected that Cox would follow his principles all the way out of Newcastle to accept an offer from Derby County.”
Regardless of Cox’s situation at Newcastle and the reasons behind his departure, it was some move by Derby to bring him to the Baseball Ground.
For example, albeit it is not easy to compare to the modern era, it is the equivalent of Chris Wilder leaving Sheffield United after guiding them to the Premier League last summer and taking over at Ipswich Town following their relegation to League One.
Make no mistake about it, a huge amount of work was required at the Baseball Ground as Derby prepared to compete in the third tier for just the second time in their history.
After a fall from grace, from First Division champions to the Third Division in nine years, what was to follow for Derby County in the years ahead on Cox’s watch was a memorable journey.
By his own admission he was not the easiest person to work for, certainly a strong taskmaster, but Cox had the magic touch to get players to buy into his way of working.
Because, ultimately, he just wanted to win football matches.
This is the story of Derby County’s journey back to the top under Arthur Cox, the man who revived the Rams.
Cox’s arrival by the end of May 1984 allowed him almost three months to get his feet under the table before the opening day of the 1984/85 season.
One of his first moves after taking charge was to retain Roy McFarland as his assistant.
McFarland had actually applied for the manager’s job after a brief stint as caretaker manager in the closing months of the 1983/84 season.
He had already cut his managerial teeth during just over a year at Bradford City as their player-manager, guiding them to promotion from the Fourth Division in 1981/82, but he returned to the Baseball Ground as Peter Taylor’s number two in late 1982.
It was a move that landed the Rams in hot water with the football authorities at the time and they were fined for an illegal approach.
Cox, clearly, valued McFarland’s knowledge and understanding of the club after the former England international contributed heavily to the Rams’ successes under first Clough and then Mackay.
He labelled the decision to keep a man with a deep love and affiliation for Derby County on the coaching staff as one of ‘good common sense’.
“Without doubt the club made the right decision to bring in Arthur,” McFarland said during an interview with RamsTV Meets.
“At the time I wasn’t ready for the job in terms of the size of the club that Derby County was and would become. I applied for the job, spoke to the directors and put my point of view across.
“They made the right decision, without a doubt. Arthur dropped down a few leagues, but he knew about the level. He was passionate and he loved football. I got on with him so well and I gave him respect, which he showed me in return.”
On the player front, Cox wasn’t given what these days is regarded as a ‘transfer warchest’ to spend and instead he needed to be smart in his recruitment and use his long list of contacts well.
The squad wasn’t subject to an immediate overhaul, numbers weren’t huge anyway, but signings were made during the summer and the manager was limited mainly to free transfers.
Charlie Palmer arrived from Watford, Rob Hindmarch was signed from Sunderland and Eric Steele joined from Watford.
Cox, speaking to BBC Radio Derby’s Ed Dawes in a Sportscene special a few years ago, said: “We had no money whatsoever and had to develop a squad of free transfers pretty quickly.
“The board found £15,000 before the start of the season and I spent £13,000 of it on Kevin Taylor from Sheffield Wednesday. That was the only one we bought.”
Steele, as one of the first signings through the door, admits it was clear from the word go that it was a rebuilding process.
“I drove up to meet Arthur and Roy ahead of signing for Derby and Arthur was doing a massive rebuild – that was very clear,” Steele explained during his RamsTV Meets interview in 2018.
“You had sense there was something about Arthur taking on a challenge. We looked around the dressing room and felt a team was building. I remember we didn’t have many players when I first signed and if we had a game on the Saturday, Arthur and Roy would have been playing!”
Hindmarch, in particular, was a revelation of a signing.
Sadly, in November 2002, he passed away after being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, but he remains highly thought of to this day.
The centre-back, who would go on to be Derby’s captain in the years ahead, was drafted in from Sunderland under a clause in his contract.
Cox explained: “Had I stayed at Newcastle; I would have taken Rob there (in the First Division).
“He was a far better player than the Third Division, but I persuaded him to join us. He was important in starting the spirit we eventually developed; he was a terrific competitor and it rubbed off on others.”
The strikers that Cox inherited were arguably one of the biggest positives in the form of Kevin Wilson and Bobby Davison.
Wilson, who had only netted twice in the previous relegation campaign, scored 11 times in the first 14 games of the 1984/85 season in all competitions before breaking his arm.
Speaking to RamsTV Meets back in January 2018, Wilson said: “We had endured a bit of turmoil before Arthur joined; we had financial issues, not being paid and players coming and going. They were tough years for the club and the fans. The year Arthur came in, things began to turn around.”
On top of that, Davison was an ever-present and he bagged 24 league goals.
Davison had been signed from Halifax Town in 1982 and had previously been working on the shipyards in his native North East, so rolling his sleeves up for a battle in the third tier was not of huge concern to him.
Looking back, Davison told RamsTV Meets in March 2018: “I remember we had good players in my early years at Derby, but it was an aging squad. Time was catching up with them, which happens to everyone in football.
“Things had to change behind the scenes and become a bit more professional. The times were moving on and we needed to move on with them, rather than living on the glory years and that is with no disrespect to what was achieved during that time.”
Cox knew he had inherited a natural goalscorer: “Kevin was hungry to score goals; he wasn’t short of courage and if there was a chance to score, he was there.”
The new manager’s arrival made Derby’s squad sit up and take notice and it also provided a burst of enthusiasm.
As Davison recalls, there was an environment quickly created that the players wanted to be part of.
It would be fair to say that members of the team knew where they stood with their manager; if they didn’t give their very best each day, it would not be accepted.
He said: “Straight away Arthur talked about Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Kevin Keegan. What players they were. His enthusiasm for life and football was immense and it rubbed off on everybody.
“After training, you didn’t want to be last in the changing room because as soon as you got in there, Arthur was talking about those players and everyone wanted to be part of it. Arthur was just what Derby County needed at that time.”
Defender Paul Blades, who was coming through the ranks at the time and would later make over 150 league appearances for Derby, shares the same views as Davison.
“Before Arthur came in, it was pretty grim to be honest,” Blades openly admitted in 2017 in an interview with dcfc.co.uk. “We were relegated to the Third Division and off the field it was a very tricky time for us.
“The appointment of Arthur was a masterstroke. He had just taken Newcastle up to the top-flight, but he came to Derby in the Third Division.”
Anyone expecting instant success going into the start of the 1984/85 season was brought back down to earth very quickly.
An opening day defeat at AFC Bournemouth, losing 1-0, got the Cox era off to an underwhelming start and three wins, two draws and four defeats were recorded in the first nine matches.
Wilson recalled: “There was a hoo-ha about us going to Bournemouth and being in the Third Division. There was a documentary crew filming us that day.”
Wilson’s broken arm didn’t help matters either as he was Derby’s main source of goals in an inconsistent start to the season.
“It was hard to take when I broke my arm because I was on such a great run and one of the best of my career,” Wilson admitted.
As it turned out the baton was picked up by Davison and he became the first player since Kevin Hector to surpass 20 league goals in a season for the Rams since 1967/68.
Derby did pick up as the dark winter nights closed in but a poor run of form, four defeats and two draws from six matches, early in the New Year gave them too much to do in order to gatecrash the promotion race.
Many may not have realised it at the time, but signs of progress were evident after that tricky run of results and Cox’s side tasted defeat in just three of the subsequent 18 league fixtures as they finished in seventh place.
Davison felt things were moving forward too: “Training had livened up, we had younger players and leaders – who spoke up and also did their job - and were ready to take the club to the next level.”
The rebuilding work really escalated in the early stages of 1985 as Wilson, after returning from his broken arm, was sold to Ipswich Town for £150,000.
There was an indication that Ipswich actually wanted to sign both Davison and Wilson, but only the latter was allowed to make the move to Portman Road.
“It was good for me to go to Ipswich and likewise for Derby as they managed to use the money to sign some players,” Wilson said.
“It worked well for both clubs. If I had not left, who knows what would have happened. I wasn’t actually looking to leave but sometimes things happen for a reason.”
“I was a bit reluctant to go, Arthur was a great manager and I liked him,” he added.
“I wasn’t forced out, but every player wants to play in the top division, don’t they? It was a real opportunity for me to further my career.”
The money raised was reinvested in the squad and Trevor Christie, Gary Micklewhite and Geraint Williams proved to be three important signings.
“The foundations were laid in the first season,” Steele admitted. “The players we signed added to what we had. You live and die by your recruitment; it was a skill and Arthur was good at it.”
Cox, years later, labelled Wilson’s sale as a turning point for the club as it gave him the financial ability to bring in players to enhance Derby’s chances of promotion.
And those players he did add to the group were just what was required, both as players and characters.
He said: “Not only could the players we had contribute on the field, they could contribute off the field. My biggest criteria was ‘are they good men?’. It was about the team, not individuals.”
The newly signed trio all contributed in the closing weeks of the season and by the summer of 1985, a year after arriving, Cox’s Derby were set for lift-off.
Cox dipped into the transfer market again ahead of the 1985/86 season, paying transfer fees which were determined by a tribunal for Jeff Chandler, Ross MacLaren and Steve McClaren.
Chandler was a smart addition and the wideman contributed heavily, while MacLaren claimed the Player of the Year accolade in his first season with Derby. McClaren meanwhile, suffered with injury and was less of a regular.
MacLaren and Hindmarch, in central defence, provided the perfect partnership.
MacLaren told dcfc.co.uk back in 2013: “Rob was my partner. He was fantastic. The big man could read the game well and I guess we complimented each other.”
On the summer additions, Davison said: “Jeff Chandler; he would be worth a fortune today for the goals he scored from out wide. Great player. Great buy.
“Ross was a player that was comfortable on the ball. He could bring it out from the back and is a player everyone is crying out for today.”
There was a sense that the Rams were in a much better place compared to 12 months previously.
“The players want to do well for the club,” Cox admitted in an interview on the eve of the season.
The hard yards had been put in on the training ground and there was an air of belief that Derby were steadily moving in the right direction.
While the work on the training ground was serious, Cox was a big believer in making sure his players enjoyed their work.
Ironically, the Rams faced AFC Bournemouth on the opening day of the season - this time at the Baseball Ground – with the outcome completely different.
A 3-0 win, secured thanks to two goals from Chandler and one from Christie, provided an indication of what was to come.
Even then, only two wins were recorded in the first eight league games - but a run of five successive league wins as Autumn arrived kicked the promotion challenge into life.
MacLaren, looking back on the opening months of the season, admitted: “We had a tricky start but once we gelled, we had a right good record.”
Another significant signing came in November, with Derby building up a head of steam after hammering Lincoln City 7-0 at the Baseball Ground.
Eighteen months after playing for England, John Gregory was signed from Queens Park Rangers for a fee of £100,000.
Gregory bought into Cox’s long-term vision for the club and he was fully committed to the task in hand – to take Derby County forward.
He explained to dcfc.co.uk back in 2017: “Without expecting too much, Arthur sort of said to me that if we turn it around and once Derby County get going, we could very hard to stop because of the history and tradition.
“That is how he sold the club to us and I bought into that dream. Even in the Third Division, Derby County were a big, big fish and you would see packed houses at every stadium because everybody wanted to come and watch us play.”
Gregory didn’t taste defeat in a Rams shirt until the end of February, three months after his arrival.
Perhaps that’s a coincidence, and unfair on the other players, but his influence certainly contributed.
Cox said: “John didn’t actually start that well, but he grew into it.”
Gregory admits it did not take long to be sold on a move to the East Midlands, particularly when what his role was going to be explained by his new manager, alongside the aforementioned vision for the club.
As well as being a player and a leader, Cox wanted him to be a mentor - like Mackay under Clough.
“At the time when I came in, Arthur told me that he wanted me to do what Dave Mackay had done in the past for the club,” Gregory said.
“He told me that I was an old head with experience and with that, he felt that I could help some of the younger players - he brought be in to do a specific job in that respect.”
March and April combined, in all competitions, produced a staggering 17 games and it would be fair to say Derby’s form stuttered as the season edged towards its conclusion.
It wasn’t as if they were losing games, but there were perhaps a few too many draws for Cox’s liking.
But when they needed a big result, more often than not, Derby would pull one out of the bag.
The team spirit was vital. Cox regularly spoke of the unity within the squad as the season unfolded and how the group enjoyed each other’s company.
The mantra was clear. People may have been sick about hearing it on the airwaves, but it was all about the team.
A 3-0 victory at Swansea City in their penultimate away fixture of the season left the Rams knowing that a win over Rotherham United, just three days later, at the Baseball Ground would seal promotion.
A brace from Chandler and a goal from Christie at the Vetch Field set Derby up nicely.
“We knew we had to win at Swansea,” MacLaren admitted. “That was an important one. Rob Hindmarch called a meeting on the bus beforehand, just the boys, stressing we had to go and do it now.”
Micklewhite, Christie and Davison had all netted double figures in the season, Davison finished the season with 23, but an unlikely hero stepped out of the shadows on a famous night at the Baseball Ground.
The task was simple, all Derby had to do was defeat the Millers to claim the third and final automatic promotion spot.
Speaking ahead of the game, Cox wanted to reward Derby’s fans: “My pleasure and the warmth I get is seeing the reaction from the public, who have been so good to us in the two years since I’ve been here - and a lot longer to the club in the past.
“It would be very, very nice this evening, on behalf of the supporters, to take Derby back into the Second Division.”
Hindmarch said in the hours leading up to kick-off: “We’ve slipped up week in week out over the last six weeks. Hopefully that’s behind us now and we can finish it tonight. Three points tonight and it’s all over.”
Christie echoed his captain’s comments too and in a pre-match interview, he said: “It’s there for the taking tonight and if we don’t do it, it’s our own fault.”
Even if Derby couldn’t get the win they craved, there was another game at Darlington to round off the season to get the job done, but there was a growing sense that the opportunity was just waiting to be grasped.
The atmosphere, before a packed Baseball Ground with 21,000 supporters in attendance, was understandably tense.
The clock ticked down, chances came and went, but as the latter staged approached the game remained goalless.
But with 77 minutes on the clock, it all changed.
Fresh from coming off the bench, an unknown and raw striker Phil Gee burst onto the scene.
Plucked from non-league obscurity at Gresley Rovers the previous year and a regular goalscorer in the reserves, Gee raced clear on goal on a mudbath of a pitch to keep his composure and find the back of the net.
He couldn’t have picked a better time to score his first professional goal, on the most important of occasions.
“I wasn’t involved from the start that night, but Geraint Williams was forced off and I came on,” Gee said in his RamsTV Meets interview in 2018.
“I remember the Baseball Ground pitch wasn’t in the best state at that time! It was pretty heavy on the legs.”
But his own admission, it wasn’t the cleanest of strikes either and the poor state of the Baseball Ground pitch almost caused him to miss the target.
“Some people think I was offside, but Trevor Christie didn’t touch a long ball over the top so I was alright. There was no whistle, so I went through on goal and I managed to slice the ball into the top corner!” he joked.
“The ball bounced as I went to shoot, which is why it looped up with not so much power.”
There was, however, a twist in the tale.
No sooner had Derby gone ahead, they were pegged back as Rotherham equalised and the Baseball Ground immediately fell eerily silent.
It came from a goalkeeping error from Mark Wallington, who felt the wrath of skipper Hindmarch in the aftermath.
Davison revealed: “I know this because he told me; big Rob absolutely slaughtered him. He went mad.
“Apparently Mark said to him ‘don’t panic, there’s loads of time left. Go and get a goal!’. Rob told me afterwards it calmed him down.”
Cox’s side were made of tough stuff and they bounced back to get the job done.
Chandler was adjudged to have been fouled in the box as Derby prepared to take a direct free kick, after Davison had been hauled down when he was clear on goal, which resulted in a penalty.
Christie kept his cool and slotted home from 12 yards to restore the Rams’ lead.
In fact, BBC Radio Derby’s Graham Richards described him in commentary that night as ‘cool as custard’.
Davison was pleased for Christie personally: “As he came from Nottingham (Notts County), he was not a fans’ favourite.
“He was my favourite! He took a lot of weight off me and was a battering ram; he won stuff in the air. I just had to make runs off him. I was so pleased for him and he looked so calm.”
He added: “It was good in a way too as he and Mark Wallington were good pals, so Mark made the mistake and his mate got the goal to get us and him out the hole.”
The minutes and seconds eventually ticked away. Eventually the final whistle as blown. A 2-1 victory confirmed promotion.
Derby’s fans poured into the pitch to celebrate and Cox, as ever, was keen to remain calm and retain an element of perspective.
“We’ve really achieved nothing yet,” Cox said straight after that game.
“Until we have them back where Brian (Clough) had them playing, we’re only just starting and scratching the surface. Long may it continue, obviously.”
The reporter asking the questions was Tony Francis that night and wrapped up the interview by asking: “You don’t want to hang around in the Second Division do you, obviously?”
“Let’s just enjoy this first,” Cox responded with a beaming smile on his face before he was mobbed by supporters on the Baseball Ground pitch.
Recalling the post-match celebrations, Gee said: “After the game was enjoyable too, walking around the pitch and then in the dressing room. We had a few drinks in town as you can imagine!
“It was some first season with Derby and in many ways, it was just a blur. I’ve still got my scrapbook though to remind me of the games I played and scored in.”
A civic reception followed to toast promotion and with the first stage of their rehabilitation complete, following an incredible 60 games in all competitions, and success in the Central League, the Second Division lay in wait.
While McFarland and the players went away on a post-season trip to enjoy some sunshine and, undoubtably, one or two beverages - Cox was already planning Derby’s assault on the next level.
No-one could have predicted what was to follow in Derby County’s 1986/87 campaign in the Second Division.
Having finished third in the Third Division to claim the final automatic promotion spot, not many would have predicted that Cox’ side would romp to the Division Two title.
But, that is exactly what they did.
And they did it in style too.
More additions followed in the close-season as Cox fine-tuned his squad; defenders Mel Sage and Michael Forsyth were amongst the additions ahead of the new season, as well as striker Mark Lillis.
Speaking about his summer recruitment, Cox said: “When you go from one league to the next you have to have people in your team that can understand and play in the league you’re going in to, to raise the standards of the ones that you have.”
There were outgoings too.
Long-serving defender Steve Buckley ended his Rams career at the end of the previous season with his 122nd consecutive league appearance, the only player to achieve two league centuries, while Christie also moved on.
Cox wanted to keep the squad fresh, to strengthen the competitions for places and ensure things didn’t become stale.
It was another wise move by a very switched on manager, as his assistant at the time recalls.
“Winning football matches isn’t easy, and we knew it wouldn’t be at the next level,” McFarland said.
“We could tell the players were gelling and engaging with each other; something was building and without a doubt it came together with Arthur. We had good characters and you can’t beat togetherness and success.”
That feeling was shared in the dressing room, too.
Williams, signed in the latter months of Cox’s first season in charge back in the Third Division, felt the squad displayed the manager’s core values out on the pitch.
“I think teams and squads take on the persona of their managers,” said Williams in an interview with the Derby Telegraph’s Steve Nicholson.
“The Gaffer would not have had any dissenting voices or people pulling in a different direction, and you saw that with the character of the players he signed. Nobody was going to roll us over.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though.
Derby tasted defeat on the opening day of the season with a 1-0 defeat to Oldham Athletic at the Baseball Ground.
As it turned out, that would be their only defeat on home turf all season long.
The season was eventually kicked into life as Gregory scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace in early September.
Up until the end of the month, Derby’s start to the campaign would probably be best regarded as steady rather than spectacular.
By November, however, things were coming together nicely.
A five-game winning run – against Brighton & Hove Albion, Stoke City, Ipswich Town, Barnsley and Sheffield United – propelled Derby into the promotion picture.
By this stage, the Davison-Gee partnership was beginning to click too.
The unfortunate Lillis was plagued by injury throughout the season, and Gee wasn’t about to let his opportunity to shine pass by.
From the fourth game of the season onwards, Gee started every league fixture.
He repaid Cox’s faith too, bagging 17 goals in all competitions. Davison contributed with another 22 and Gregory chipped in with 12.
Between them, those three players scored 51 of Derby’s 64 league goals.
But it was the combination between Davison and Gee which excited Cox - and not just for their attacking qualities.
“Bobby and Phil competed like your best defenders compete, make no mistake about it,” he said.
“They went together well as a pair and they were a handful. They wanted to run at the back of defenders and were willing runners.”
Ahead of the new season, Gee was preparing to play second fiddle to Davison and Lillis.
Being young, and a striker plucked from non-league football, he was accepting of the situation but at the same time he was desperate to prove his worth.
“By the time we came back for pre-season, we had signed Mark Lillis as Bobby’s strike partner from Manchester City,” Gee said.
“Mark was a very good player and I think I just accepted the situation, having come from non-league and being young. I didn’t expect to be playing every week.
“From six to eight games in, I felt things were going well and I got on a run.”
His strike partner recalls Gee being a player with potential and with plenty to learn.
Cox, known for his excellent man-management, knew exactly how to handle his development.
“Phil was a raw young player, but he had an eye for a goal,” Davison said. “I remember John Gregory going to Arthur to ask to come do some work with Phil, because he was offside all the time or was shooting from impossible angles.
“Arthur just said ‘leave him, he’ll learn’. To be fair, Phil did learn.”
Looking back, Gregory believes the Davison-Gee strike force was perfect for Derby.
He admits Gee’s meteoric rise was one of the great stories of the Cox era.
“Phil had scored a crucial goal against Rotherham to help get us promoted, but he really came to the fore in the Second Division. Phil and Bobby were a fantastic strike force.”
Another good run of form over Christmas kept Derby in the promotion picture going into the New Year, although bad weather across the country in January meant there was a three-week gap in fixtures.Like with Gregory’s arrival previously, Cox dipped into the transfer market to make another shrewd signing.
This time it was winger Nigel Callaghan from Watford early in the New Year.
Callaghan had that extra dimension Cox craved. Two-footed, a direct winger and dead-ball specialist; he added further sparkle to an already exciting team.
Gregory was equally as excited by the signing and said: “Nigel Callaghan gave us another dimension on the wing, down the left-hand side.”As the season ticked away, it became clear Derby were serious promotion contenders.
Their home form was excellent and on the road they were equally as effective. In fact, the 11 away wins they recorded in a season set a new club record at the time.
Cox’s side had an uncanny knack of getting the results they needed at key times.
In particular, 1-0 wins away from home at Millwall and Brighton proved to be pivotal while, more often than not, in tight games they would come out on top by the odd goal.
Another pivotal match came against Birmingham City in February, Callaghan’s debut, with Derby 2-0 down by the half hour mark – but Gee hit two second half goals at the Baseball Ground to earn them a point.
Derby’s belief grew the longer the campaign went on that back-to-back promotions could be achieved.
Winning was a habit and one the Rams weren’t getting bored of.
“The teams were obviously better in the Second Division,” Cox recalled.
“But we were extremely together and as the season gathered momentum, so did our confidence and belief in each other.”
He added: “We could see the gates of the First Division, and we were going to move heaven and earth to get through it.”
The team spirit within the squad once again had a big part to play, helped by several players remaining in the squad from the previous season, as well as Derby’s quality on the pitch.
Steele, who played in the final eight games of the season after Mark Wallington was first choice in goal for most of the campaign, backs up that claim.
He said: “We had a turnover of players and what remained was the camaraderie in the dressing room. If we all went out, like you could back then, and if you weren’t there with the lads at 8pm, you were fined!
“There was a real mix of personalities, but when we crossed the white line on a Saturday, we were all together to get a result. The club grew back into the local community as well at that time.”
Two crucial wins, at home to Bradford City and at Sheffield United, came at the end of April to put Derby on the cusp of another promotion.
Six points were achieved on both occasions with a 1-0 scoreline and they proved to be hugely important.
Davison was missing for both matches due to injury, which came as a major blow.
But like Gee 12 months previously, someone was waiting in the wilderness to make their mark.
This time, it was Lillis. He crowned a rare start with his only goal for the club against Bradford, a second-half header from Gee’s left-wing cross, to send the Baseball Ground into raptures.
Looking back, Lillis told dcfc.co.uk in 2017: “Arthur was so enthusiastic about me and I got a feel for the place. I felt it was going to be a good time for me.
“I had a massive injury early on in my time at Derby. I still have a picture of that single goal for Derby against Bradford; the diving header.”
The goal itself was a massive relief after such a frustrating personal campaign.
Cox, who no doubt will have been disappointed not to have seen the best of Lillis in Derby colours, told Lillis straight after the game just how important his goal was.
Lillis said: “I remember jumping on the railings and celebrating that goal with the supporters at a packed Baseball Ground – the referee threatened to book me but I wasn’t bothered.
“Arthur told me it was a massive goal in the club’s history, and I think I was probably in tears. Going back to Littleover I had a few pints that night; everyone wanted to get them in for me!”
Backed by an away following of 8,000 supporters a few days later, Derby travelled north to Sheffield United.
Gee scored the only goal of the game, in front of the Derby fans, as he raced clear on goal to lash the ball through the legs of former Rams goalkeeper John Burridge.
It was another memorable day - and the Rams were all of a sudden on the brink of promotion.
It’s a moment Cox can remember to this day: “I can see it now. Phil put it through Burridge’s legs.”
Steele, on the periphery for most of the season, watched Gee score from the other end of the pitch and had a perfect view of the travelling fans going wild.
With a beaming smile, he said: “What a day at Sheffield United, unbelievable. That was the Derby fans at their best.”
Gee to this day admits he didn’t intend to nutmeg Burridge to score the only goal at Bramall Lane.
As all good strikers know, what matters more than anything is the ball finding the back of the net.
“I remember the win at Sheffield United set a new club record for away wins in the season,” Gee said.
“I managed to break through and fire the ball through John Burridge’s legs in goal. I didn’t mean to nutmeg him, but it happened. It was amazing to score in front of the Derby fans.”
Derby had three games left to play and a victory over their old rivals Leeds United at the Baseball Ground at the beginning of May would seal promotion.
Davison was back to lead the line with Gee and, once again, the strike duo stepped up when it really mattered.
Gee opened the scoring early on with a run which started in his own half and ended with the striker blasting a low effort into the back of the net from the edge of the box.
The Rams were on their way.
Recalling another crucial goal, Gee said: “I managed to run from the halfway line and towards the box.
“It wasn’t the best shot, but it went in. The celebrations were something else, again.”
Derby could even afford the comfort of a second goal before the half-hour mark to put Cox’s side in dreamland.
Micklewhite delivered a tantalising cross from the right-hand side and Davison put his head in where it hurts, beating Leeds goalkeeper Mervyn Day and three surrounding defenders to the ball, to score.
On his goal, Davison said: “I have a picture of that goal against Leeds at home in a frame. I managed to get there before the goalkeeper. As a young player I supported Leeds and I had some great battles against them.”
Promotion was close. So close.
Leeds got a goal back in the second half but, despite a tense finish, the final whistle resulted in another pitch invasion and, most importantly, another promotion.
The cries of “Derby are back, Derby are back” were loudly and proudly being sung by the loyal faithful on the Baseball Ground terraces.
“The Baseball Ground was bouncing against Leeds when we won promotion,” Williams, who was capped by Wales while on Derby’s books, recalled.
From the heartache and pain of the relegations and financial problems, Derby had risen to where they belonged once more.
Recalling the confirmation of back-to-back promotions, Gregory said: “It was such a fantastic period in my life.
“It was an amazing transformation to see the state that we were in two years before that but Arthur did a great job and was instrumental in getting us promotion over those two seasons.”
Gee couldn’t believe that two years previously he had been playing non-league football - but now he was preparing for life in the top-flight and facing some of the best teams in the country.
He said: “We had been on the edge of bankruptcy at one stage, before I signed.
“I remember Stuart Webb (former Director) doing an interview after the promotion against Rotherham the year before saying we wanted to consolidate in the Second Division; I think that lasted about a week!”
Promotion was secured, but there was still a job to do.
The title needed bringing back to Derby.
Two days after promotion was secured, they were surprisingly beaten 2-0 at Reading.
Therefore, they needed to avoid defeat to Plymouth Argyle on the final day of the season at the Baseball Ground to be confirmed as champions.
Cox wanted his players to go up in style - and Gee remembers receiving a tongue-lashing after the defeat against the Royals.
“We were told not to go out after the Leeds game as we had a game at Reading on the Monday,” he said
“I ended up having a few drinks and was persuaded quite easily to go out. Arthur fined me in the end, probably because we lost at Reading, and I had a telling off from him in the office!”
So, a week after promotion was secured, Derby welcomed another expectant crowd to the Baseball Ground with one thing in mind.
Perhaps because of the emotion and relief of what was achieved the previous week against Leeds, the Rams were lacklustre, by their own high stands, in the opening 45 minutes.
Garry Nelson put Plymouth ahead inside the opening ten minutes and at half-time the Pilgrims led 1-0, meaning Portsmouth could still pip Derby to top spot.
Blades recalls Cox was not a happy man at the interval and his words of wisdom were once again straight to the point.
Blades said: “The game against Plymouth stands out for me. We were poor in the first-half and I remember getting a rollicking from Arthur at half-time. We responded and, to be honest, we blew Plymouth away in the second half.
“Arthur was very astute in the players he picked and how he handled them. He was a great motivator; he made you feel great about yourself and the team.”
Gregory admitted: “We got a right kick up the backside at half-time.”
The second half proved to be a complete contrast to the first as Derby turned on the style to get the job done.
Davison made it 1-1 with a stunning goal on 70 minutes after the Rams had wasted a number of gilt-edged chances.
The ball fell to the striker some 25 yards out on his left foot and, with the ball bouncing kindly, he thundered the ball into the top corner beyond the reach of former Derby goalkeeper Steve Cherry.
Surely, it was one of his favourite career goals? Wrong.
Davison confessed: “That goal I don’t think is one of my best ones. I used to like the ones where you slid in inside the six-yard box to get a tap-in. They are the best ones for me; I loved to be steaming in for a diving header or a tap-in.”
Derby weren’t done there, though.
The crowd sensed it too. They began to sing loudly: “Here we go, here we go, here we go…”
A fine individual effort from Callaghan put Derby ahead for the first time in the game before Micklewhite swivelled and fired home from close range to provide a two-goal cushion.
Nelson pulled another goal back for the visitors late on, but the Rams fittingly had the last word on the day and the season.
Gregory, the man signed to help play an instrumental role in Derby’s rise, smashed the ball into the roof of the net inside the box to round off the scoring and the season with a 4-2 win.
The instrumental attacking midfielder admits that even he was surprised with the speed in which Derby rose through the leagues.
“After we were promoted in 1986, I thought we might have to stay in the Second Division for more than one year but as it turned out, we never really looked back,” Gregory said.
“It was a long season of being title contenders and basically no one stopped us, not even Portsmouth.”
A large banner in one corner of the Baseball Ground proudly stated: ‘BACK IN THE BIG TIME’.
And Derby were back in the big time, if anyone needed reminding, as Second Division champions as the full-time whistle blew.
Davison said during the lap of celebration after the game: “To win the Championship is the icing on the cake.”
Williams recalls the Derby supporters playing their part on a memorable afternoon in the sunshine.
“We were struggling against Plymouth, but came back to win,” Williams said. “The fans willed us on and there was pride among all of the players in representing Derby County.”
For MacLaren, another of the players signed when Derby were scratching around in the third tier, the title success remains one of his proudest achievements.
MacLaren said: “Winning the title was the pinnacle of it for me, it’s amazing when you win something.”
Cox, the man who masterminded it all, was never one for the limelight.
But he was determined to savour the moment and, fresh from signing a new five-year contract upon securing promotion, he was understandably proud of the dramatic turnaround in the club’s fortunes.
“It’s very nice,” he said with a smile on his face.
“If you’d have tried to have written a script for today, it couldn’t have been better. We were very poor in the first half and a goal down, deservedly so.
“All of the things we’ve been doing this season, we did it in the second half. We’ve seen what’s happened and it’s magnificent.”
While Cox was always one to try and keep the spotlight away from himself, his efforts were rightly recognised by his peers.
He was named as the Second Division’s ‘Manager of the Year’ at London's Savoy Hotel in May 1987 and was presented with a silver salver and a cheque for £1,000.
As was the case 12 months previously, his assistant took the players away on a post-season bonding session to celebrate the team’s achievements.
Cox, as you’d expect, remained in Derby. He was already plotting for the First Division campaign ahead and continuing to strive for improvement.
As he said in an interview ahead of the 1987/88 First Division season: “The hard work starts now.”
Not one to look back, Cox always looked forward. But in a quiet moment in August 1987 as Derby prepared to kick off the season back in the top-flight, he must have reflected on the meteoric rise.
If he did do, there would not have been a prouder man in Derby than him.
The rehabilitation was complete.
Now 80, Cox is retired from football and, like he was during his managerial days, he remains a low key figure.
Cox established the club back in the First Division in the late 1980s and the fifth-place finish achieved in 1988/89 remains to this day the club’s highest finish since the late-1970s.
While relegation followed in 1990/91, which came during a time when finance was not available to improve the squad, Cox remained in charge two more full seasons as the club knocked on the door for promotion once again.
He remained at Derby until the early months of the 1993/94 season before stepping down as manager owing to a long-term back complaint.
During almost a decade in the hotseat he managed 454 matches, recording a win percentage of just over 40%.
After leaving Derby, he never managed again. Cox did, however, work at a number of clubs as an assistant manager and was part of Kevin Keegan’s coaching staff at Newcastle United, Manchester City, Fulham and also the England national side.
His achievements with the Rams mean he will forever have a place in the club’s history.
He is fondly remembered by all those that had the pleasure to play for and work with him to this day.
MacLaren, one of Cox’s most influential signings, can’t speak highly enough of the man.
He left Derby in 1988 for Swindon Town, where he played Premier League football, and later moved into coaching upon his retirement alongside his former team-mate Gregory.
But it is fair to say Cox influenced him as both a player and a person.
“He was great for me,” MacLaren said. “Arthur was hard but fair. They were great days.”
The same can be said for Wilson, who went on to play international football for Northern Ireland and also step into coaching and management at various lower league clubs.
Although his time with Cox was brief, Wilson says his influence played a part throughout his playing career.
“Arthur’s man-management was a huge influence on my career, so I have a lot to thank him for,” he said.
Blades, having come through the youth ranks, owes a great deal to Cox and he was a mainstay in the Derby side for many years before moving to Norwich City in 1990.
From being a young player with everything to prove, he became an established top-flight footballer.
He said: “I have very fond memories of Arthur because he was so instrumental in my career.
“The promotions were fabulous times and those big games at the Baseball Ground was amazing. As a young player, it was a great experience and a super time to play for Derby County. We were a team and a very good group of players.”
Gregory, a masterstoke of a signing, remains convinced to this day that despite the players doing the business on the pitch, Cox was the man that made Derby tick.
Gregory scored the club’s first goal back in the top-flight in the 1987/88 season, in a 1-0 home win over Luton Town, before leaving in 1988.He returned to Derby in 2002 as manager, with MacLaren as his number two, but his time in charge lasted just over a year.
He said: “The key to it all was Arthur. He kicked our backsides every day and expected the best from everybody. Arthur never ever got carried away, whether we lost or won – that kept both his feet and our feet on the floor.”
Gee played 152 times for Derby in all competitions, scoring on 31 occasions, until he left to join Leicester City in 1992 as part of the deal which saw Paul Kitson move in the opposite direction.
As the manager that gave him his big break, Gee is indebted to Cox.
“The managers I had played for before were quite mellow, whereas Arthur was very regimented,” he said. “He was very consistent in what he did and if you did well, he stuck to the same routine.
“So much so, I remember we’d had a bad run at one time and I made the teas on the Friday after training. We won, so I had to make them every week after that.
“Arthur was fair in the sense that if you did well for him, he would stick by you. But he was also firm as well, but very fair.”
Steele says Cox deserves to be remembered for the way he turned Derby around.
The former goalkeeper has remained in the game to this day as a goalkeeping coach, during which time has enjoyed separate spells on Derby’s coaching staff, and he has a huge amount of respect for the way Cox guided the club through some troubled times.
Steele explained: “I don’t think Arthur did get the credit he deserved for what he did. To see where we ended up, a rebirth of a new team rose through from the Third Division to the First Division, is incredible.”
“I had some ups and downs with him, but Arthur has huge respect from myself for building two teams during his time at Derby.”
McFarland, who stepped up from the role of assistant to take over as manager in 1993, enjoyed every minute of his time learning from Cox.
While he admits he could have taken up managerial positions elsewhere over the course of those nine years, he could not bring himself to break up the successful partnership.
For the former England international, every day was an education.
“Over nine years as his number two, maybe I should have left to be a manager elsewhere, but I loved Derby and a manager who gave me the opportunity to coach and work with the players and him,” McFarland admitted.
“Arthur taught me a lot about management and coaching.”
So, there you have it. The rise of Derby County under Arthur Cox.
The last word, however, should be reserved for the man himself.
Cox said: “They were good days; exciting days. There was always something to look forward to.
“They (the players) played a major part in Derby County’s history. They kept it alive.”
What a journey.
Arthur, thank you.