Derby County’s 2021/22 season was, to say the least, eventful.
Manager Wayne Rooney and his players had to battle against the odds from the first minute of the season to remain in the Sky Bet Championship and it was a challenge they all faced in resilient fashion.
Derby started the campaign under a transfer embargo, limiting the number of players that could play first-team football, before it was announced in September that the club would be placed into administration.
That resulted in a 12-point deduction and was followed by a nine-point deduction in November for a historical breach of profitability and sustainability rules, taking the total chalked off them to 21 and leaving them bottom of the league table and written off by many.
The January Transfer Window saw various players depart and no players added to the group which left the Derby boss relying on players stepping up from the Under-23s and Under-18s.
All of that, combined with the usual injuries and suspensions during the season, left the Rams with a mountain to climb - but they battled valiantly to try and achieve what many regarded as impossible.
While they were unable to avoid relegation to League One, it wasn’t through a lack of trying. Ultimately, the off-the-field obstacles placed in front of them were too tough to overcome.
Despite dropping to the third tier, the 2021/22 season was a season that will be remembered for many good reasons, too. The performances of the players and the backing of the supporters, and the positive connection between the two, was something truly special to witness and be part of.
Here on dcfc.co.uk, we’ve picked out six matches which offered both significance and hope in the most testing of circumstances to the Rams’ faithful and all those connected with the club.
Derby County 2-1 Stoke City
18th September 2021
If you thought the emotions were high even without fans on the final day of the 2020/21 season as Derby retained their Sky Bet Championship status with a 3-3 draw against Sheffield Wednesday, that was nothing compared to the emotionally charged September afternoon early in the season.
Less than 24 hours beforehand, it was announced that the club would be placed into administration. Alongside a 12-point deduction on the pitch, off-the-field it left supporters and many associated with the Rams staring down the barrel of an uncertain future.
But, come 3pm as the game got underway, everyone with a Derby County persuasion came together to produce one of the most unique afternoons at Pride Park Stadium since its opening in 1997.
Looking to salvage something positive on the pitch after the toughest of days off it, the Rams duly obliged with a superb performance against a Stoke side who arrived boasting their best start to a season for 17 years.
Midfielder Max Bird picked the ideal moment to score his first-ever career goal just after the half hour mark as he curled a 25-yard shot into the top corner to mark his 21st birthday in style.
Moments later defender Curtis Davies met Graeme Shinnie's floated free-kick into the Potters’ penalty area ahead of the on-rushing Stoke goalkeeper Josef Bursik and flicked a header into an empty net to double the side’s lead.
Former Derby winger Tom Ince pulled a goal back for Stoke in the second half, but Rooney’s side held to pick up three points and the roar and outpouring of emotion at the final whistle was a sight to behold.
“I thought the team were excellent under very difficult circumstances,” Rooney said afterwards. “It's a massive win for us with all the negativity and all of the problems surrounding the club.
“The players have gone out and put some pride back into this football club with that performance and that win.”
Derby County 3-2 AFC Bournemouth
21st November 2021
Another challenging week for Derby off-the-field came in November 2021 as the club was deducted a further nine points for a historical breach of the EFL’s profitability and sustainability rules.
That meant the Rams’ total number of points taken off their 2021/22 season total was taken up to 21 and left the side facing an uphill battle to stay in the division.
After going back into minus points for the second time this season, many didn’t give Derby a hope when they welcomed high-flying AFC Bournemouth to town in their first outing since their latest points deduction.
Once again, Rooney’s side stepped up to the plate and offered some pride on the pitch as the rolled up their sleeves to come from behind to win a game at Pride Park Stadium for the first time since March 2019.
Midfielder Jason Knight was left unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box to head in Max Bird's corner early on to get Derby off to a flying start, but it didn’t last long.
Jaidon Anthony slammed in an equaliser soon afterwards, despite Curtis Davies' brilliant goal-line block from his initial effort, and Jefferson Lerma slid a pass through for Dominic Solanke to rifle the Cherries in front before the break.
Derby responded, though. Skipper Tom Lawrence curled a fine equaliser into the far corner from inside the penalty area just after the hour and the Wales international then drove home a penalty for the Rams’ winner just seven minutes later after Jack Stacey hauled down Graeme Shinnie inside the box.
The final whistle was, like the Stoke game, greeted with a huge roar from the Pride Park faithful as once again Rooney’s players showed that they were well and truly up for the fight.
“There's a chance we can perform a miracle, which I feel it would be if we stay up,” Rooney said afterwards.
“I have never doubted the players in terms of character, attitude and energy and, when we are on it, we can compete with any team in this league.”
Stoke City 1-2 Derby County
30th December 2021
Derby’s hopes of pulling off a miraculous escape and claw themselves away from danger took a huge step forward during December as they racked up an impressive run of three successive wins to see out 2021.
Home victories over Blackpool and West Bromwich Albion either side of Christmas, both by the same 1-0 scoreline, offered some festive cheer - but picking three points up on the road really strengthened the Rams’ belief.
Away wins proved to be hard to come by across the campaign but when Derby did pick up maximum points on the road, they were moments to enjoy and savour.
The visit of Stoke to Pride Park Stadium back in September was a poignant moment, so it was somewhat fitting that another 2-1 success over the play-off chasing Potters would see out the calendar year.
Striker Luke Plange gave the Rams an early lead, his second goal in three matches after only making his senior bow earlier in the month, in an impressive first half showing across the A50.
However, Stoke substitute Tom Ince scored against the Rams for the second time during the season with 78 minutes played, just seven minutes after coming on.
Derby could have gone into their shells and felt sorry for themselves; but they came back fighting to pick up all three points with a late winner.
Substitute Colin Kazim-Richards came off the bench to put the Rams back in front with a low left-foot finish on 85 minutes, firing home from fellow substitute Ravel Morrison’s pass.
The large 2,800 Derby following were in jubilant mood in the away end at the final whistle as the victory took them to 11 points away from safety with just over half the season remaining.
Belief and excitement was growing, with the way Rooney’s side were playing and displaying a strong never-say-die attitude, that what many described as ‘The Great Escape’ was on.
“The fans were excellent today, as they have been all season,” Rooney said afterwards.
“My oldest lad was in there in the away end, it was his first time in there so I’m sure it will be one he’s enjoyed!
“The fans have been excellent. They keep pushing us and we keep trying to deliver for them.”
Derby County 2-0 Sheffield United
15th January 2022
Derby started 2022 how they ended 2021, in good form.
Despite only picking up a point in their next outing after the win at Stoke, a 2-2 draw at Reading, the circumstances in which the Rams picked up a point on the road made it appear to be a very valuable one.
They’d been two goals down going into the final minute, until Colin Kazim-Richards and Curtis Davies netted last gasp goals to earn Wayne Rooney’s side a point on their travels.
Their next league outing saw Derby pick up another three points; and this time it felt big for several reasons.
The January Transfer Window was open and many of the Rams’ squad were being linked with moves elsewhere, while Derby were unable to extend the impressive Phil Jagielka’s contract and influential midfielder Graeme Shinnie was on the verge of a move to League One promotion-chasers Wigan Athletic.
When Sheffield United, in good form after a slow start to the season, came to town it felt like the Rams could be in for a tough afternoon.
But, as always, they defied the odds and two stunning second half goals from captain Tom Lawrence handed them a 2-0 win and fourth win in five league outings.
The first was a superb individual effort. He wriggled clear of a number of defenders from the left-hand side and then beat another two in the box before firing the ball beyond goalkeeper Wes Foderingham with a left-foot finish to send Pride Park Stadium wild.
Wales international Lawrence then doubled the lead with a sensational second, curling a left-footed finish into the top corner after being teed up by Craig Forsyth following Festy Ebosele’s breakaway.
The final whistle was greeted like another goal had been scored, with a huge roar, as Derby hauled themselves off the bottom of the table for the first time since their points deductions.
It was the fitting way to mark a year to the day that Rooney had been given the Derby job on a full-time basis and called time on his playing career.
“If I’m being honest, I was a little concerned about today’s game, but the lads were incredible once again,” Rooney said when he spoke to the media after the final whistle.
“We lost two big characters out of the dressing room in Phil Jagielka and Graeme Shinnie and it’s the first time I’ve been concerned, but the lads have delivered again.
“What pleased me the most is the work rate, the battling, the energy, being aggressive and doing everything we wanted from them; they keep going. The players deserve a lot of praise.
“To be off the bottom of the table in January after being deducted 21 points is a huge achievement.
“I said it last week, maybe a bit prematurely now, because I said I believe we will stay up. Unless things get sorted out off the field, that will be extremely difficult.”
Derby County 2-2 Birmingham City
30th January 2022
Another home game and another drama-filled afternoon at Pride Park Stadium saw out the first month of 2022.
Wayne Rooney’s side came from two goals down to draw 2-2 for the second time during January, but this time it was on home turf against Birmingham City.
The game was played before a sold-out crowd with the club’s off-field problems gathering plenty of media and public attention.
It was announced in the days leading up to the game by the EFL that the Rams’ administrators had an extra month to prove how they would fund the rest of the season.
Ahead of kick-off against the Blues close to 10,000 Derby fans gathered outside the Assembly Rooms in the City Centre before walking to Pride Park in a touching sign of unity, carrying banners and singing loudly and proudly, for the meeting with Lee Bowyer’s side. Once they arrived at Pride Park Stadium, they gathered in the West Stand car park and continued to show their support and love for their club.
On the pitch, it didn’t look like it would be a good afternoon as an early goal from Lyle Taylor and a second half effort from Scott Hogan had the Blues in total control.
As we learnt over the course of the season, Derby never knew when they were meant. Luke Plange gave them hope on 87 minutes when he showed remarkable coolness to beat two men in the box and curl home a right-foot effort into the far corner.
Then, six minutes into added time, substitute Krystian Bielik returned from a year out with an anterior cruciate ligament injury to hit a dramatic and stunning equaliser.
Tom Lawrence’s free-kick into the box was headed across goal by Richard Stearman, and the Polish international midfielder's overhead kick thundered into the net to send the capacity crowd wild.
Seven points from safety, and despite several player departures during a tough month, Rooney’s side weren’t throwing the towel in.
Rooney said afterwards: “We keep fighting, we keep pushing and I think we did deserve a point even though the performance wasn’t what I wanted. Even though it’s a point, this point could keep us in this division.
“For us - myself, the staff and players – the support we are getting means a lot. We could hear the crowd inside the dressing room before kick-off so we know we’ve got the support of the fans.
“We have to keep pushing, fighting and I have no worries that we won’t do that because it’s a good group of honest players who are fighting.”
Derby County 2-1 Fulham
15th April 2022
If there was one thing we learnt during the 2021/22 season, it was not to write Derby County off.
Going into the latter stages of the season, and the Rams’ threadbare and youthful squad stretched to its limit, it was always going to be tough to avoid the drop to League One.
The Easter Friday clash with league leaders Fulham at Pride Park Stadium was moved to an 8pm kick-off to accommodate the Sky Sports live schedule of four matches over the course of the day.
As the day unfolded, results went the Cottagers’ way and meant a win over Derby would secure their promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
On the flip side, the scores hadn’t gone the Rams’ way either and they knew they had to pick up a victory to offer at least some hope of remaining in the division.
What followed over the course of the next 90 minutes was another memorable evening under the Pride Park floodlights as Rooney’s side once again downed one of the promotion chasers on home turf by recording an impressive 2-1 success.
Fulham were on track for an immediate top-flight return with five games to spare thanks to Fabio Carvalho's well-taken opener after 20 minutes.
However, striker Luke Plange brought Derby level five minutes into the second period following excellent play by Liam Thompson and Lee Buchanan down the left-hand side.
Thompson drove away on the counter from inside his own half and fed Buchanan down the left wing. In turn, the England Under-21 international crossed for Plange to poke the ball home from a few yards out to net his fourth goal of the season.
Rooney’s side kept plugging away and an own goal by Fulham defender Tosin Adarabioyo, during Tom Lawrence's cross-shot into his own net, gave the Rams what many felt was an unlikely lead.
Another huge effort saw the Rams over the line as they held firm to delay the visitors’ promotion party by a few days.
“We knew it would be a tough game, but I believed we would win,” Rooney said moments after the final whistle. "When I saw Reading score in the last minute to win at Sheffield United, I was worried our young players were watching that and it would take energy out of them.
“But I felt at half-time if we had more belief, we would win. The character of the players is incredible to go out and get the two goals.
“We pressed a bit higher and they really struggled with that. It was a must-win match and thankfully we have done that.
“I want my team to be a reflection of myself. I can see in the players eyes, at half-time in many games this season, they look a bit down. The mentality is the thing I am most proud of. That is the hardest thing to teach.”