When Alan Durban joined Derby County in the summer of 1963 as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, not many people, least of all himself, could have envisioned the journey he was about to embark on. Because in the space of a decade, he saw the club grow and transform from Second Division obscurity to First Division champions. It was an incredible rise and a truly remarkable story. And Durban was at the heart of that building process.

Signed by Tim Ward and trusted by Brian Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor, the Welshman helped lead the Rams to what felt impossible when he first joined the club. It took time to get it right, of course. But once everything clicked into place, there was no stopping the Rams. Durban spoke exclusively to dcfc.co.uk to recall memories from that famous 1971/72 campaign.

It’s just under 60 years ago since the Welshman swapped Cardiff City’s Ninian Park for the Baseball Ground. Ironically, his first professional game, which came in 1959, was against Derby County in a 2-1 victory. But, by 1962, he was a Rams player and was enjoying some of his best football. In his first season with the club, he hit double figures. In fact, he hit double digits in all but three campaigns for the Rams during his 10-year spell. But, his most prolific came under the tutelage of Ward as he netted 24 goals in the 1964/65 campaign, and 17 the following season.

“I enjoyed the first few seasons at Derby with Tim Ward because with the amount of goals we scored, we should have got out of that league really,” he started. “Eddie Thomas and I both got more than 20 goals in the same season, but I really enjoyed playing in that side, but we couldn’t defend. If we could have defended the future might have been different but I did enjoy my football in those early days.”

But, it wasn’t to be for Ward’s tenure. Despite being able to score goals at a rapid rate, defensively the side were fragile which cost him his job in 1967. In came Brian Clough, alongside his trusted assistant Peter Taylor. The pair would become legends of the football club, but they didn’t hit the right notes immediately. Defensive fragilities continued in Clough’s first season in charge, but a good League Cup run kept the crowd interested.

However, at the end of that campaign, after finishing 18th in the Second Division, Clough knew he needed to make changes. He knew he needed someone to stabilise the defence and he needed to recruit better players. And, with Taylor by his side, he always had a rabbit up his hat.

“The signings from the very start were top class,” Durban said. “Roy McFarland, Alan Hinton and John O’Hare all came and then it all changed with the signing of Dave Mackay. He was on his way back to Hearts in Scotland so everyone thought and then Clough and Taylor intercepted him on his way to Scotland and that more than anything changed the whole picture for us.

“His legacy had stayed with everyone. He lifted the standard of everything that we did and even though he left before we won the First Division, his influence was still strong. I still say that now. He nurtured Roy and John Robson and within three or four months, they had gone from not playing at that level to handling it very easy.

“We would go out with Dave to the dogs on a Wednesday night and he would treat us. We would struggle to get home before the early hours and we all mixed very well. We weren’t all the same. Some lads didn’t get out but, on the pitch, I always knew when Ron Webster was going to give it me. I could tell by the pace of the ball what he wanted me to do with it so we built up an understanding and John O’Hare knew when I was going to slide something through the middle. Cloughie was very reluctant to change the side too much or use a substitute, we only used one when we got an injury, he never did one because someone was playing poorly.”

The Rams romped to the Second Division title in 1969/70. It was comfortable in the end, as Clough’s side lost only five games on their way to lifting their first piece of silverware. Durban was a key part of that side and he made the step up to the First Division seamlessly. Many may have struggled, but Durban didn’t. He put that down to the work of Clough and Taylor who made the game very simple for the players.

“Brian had a confidence and arrogance that I’ve never seen in anybody else,” Durban smiled. “His ideas of what was right for football in terms of preparation for games was incredible. When you think, we only used 16 players over the course of the season in the heaviest ground in the country. We hardly trained and everything was light-hearted because we couldn’t afford to take much out of the batteries in training.

“I always felt fresh and ready for games. We would have shooting competitions but that was about it during the season. We worked very hard in pre-season for six weeks, we never trained with the same intensity afterwards. It was just a case of making sure everybody was fit. We had very few injuries even though we kept the same side for three or four years.

“One thing with Brian, we never feared anybody and he never talked about the opposition. The only person I ever heard remember him talking about was George Best. He used to say don’t let him pick up speed and start running at you. That meant as soon as he picked up the ball, somebody picked him up and closed him down, then someone would tuck in behind. He never gave any impression of fearing anybody.”

Durban added: “The way he organised us from finishing training on a Thursday, he took all the responsibility away from us. He would make us have a bottle of beer whilst we were playing cards on a Friday night and it was as much to say that he would take responsibility for them having a beer. We would only have one, but there was something about him where he would give you confidence.

“Another one as well was that nobody was allowed to talk about tickets on a Saturday. They were all sorted by Thursday so there was nothing which interfered with your preparation. Sometimes he would make us walk from the Midland Hotel in the rain to the ground sometimes because we stayed there on a Friday night most of the time. We would all sit together, play cards, have a drink and everyone was together. We were always in the same room and spent a lot of time with each other and that helped.”

After a fourth-placed finish on Derby’s return to the top flight was sealed, there were expectations to go on and improve the following season. However, they struggled to a ninth-placed finish. It brought about change, too. Mackay left the club to join Swindon Town as their Player/Manager, whilst Clough recruited Colin Todd for a British record transfer fee.

By that stage, the bulk of the squad had remained the same since the Second Division days. Only Archie Gemmill, who had joined the club from Preston North End, and Todd were new additions to the squad from the side which lifted the title in 1969. And having that close-knit squad certainly helped build a trust and understanding between the players.

“When I look back, the side had very little pace,” he explained. “There was only Kevin and Toddy that were like lightening. Pace wasn’t so important in the bog of the Baseball Ground, which is what it was like between October and March. It was extremely heavy and you learned to not play too much in the centre of the pitch. You had to get it down the sides and we were so lucky with Alan Hinton. He could pick anybody out on crosses and was the best crosser of the ball ever.

“You talk about Trent Alexander-Arnold and David Beckham, Alan Hinton could get it across by dummying the ball, pretending to cross, shift it a yard and then get it in and a lot of our goals came from crosses. I used to get in the box later, mainly because I couldn’t catch up with them. I would come in later at the back post, John O’Hare had the near post, but because we had been together for so long, we knew what they were going to do with the ball before it came. I think that was one of the main assets that the side had. Archie and John McGovern could run all day as well.”

But, going into the 1971/72 campaign, there was an air of confidence amongst the squad that they could achieve something quite extraordinary. It started well, too. They remained unbeaten in their opening 12 games of the season, before they lost their first match at Old Trafford against Manchester United. After a tricky period through November and December, Derby still found themselves in the chasing pack. Disappointing away defeats against Wolves and Huddersfield Town put Derby on the back foot before a big clash against Manchester City at the Baseball Ground followed.

“I remember the game against Manchester City at home because I had been out of the side for three or four games,” he said. “Cloughie used to give me a bit of a rest when the ground got a bit heavy and I came back for the Manchester City game which we won 3-1, but that was a huge game. If you talk to any Manchester City supporter, they signed Rodney Marsh just before the deadline. All the supporters will say that it disrupted their team for a bit. They had Francis Lee, Mike Summerbee and had enough strikers but once Malcolm Allison fancied someone, he would pay anything to get them. I got a goal in that game which was nice, too.”

However, Derby would suffer in-different form over the festive period. They were beaten 3-2 by Liverpool, but got the better of their Merseyside rivals seven days later as the Rams beat Everton 2-0. A convincing 3-0 loss to Leeds United saw Derby end 1971 a little off the pace, but they stormed into the new year with victory over Chelsea at the Baseball Ground. But, it was an away game against Southampton which sticks out in the memory of Durban.

“I remember it well because Cloughie never came to the game,” he recalled. “I have no idea why he wasn’t there. I would have thought Peter would have recommended a player and he would have gone to have a look at them, that’s what I assume, but I don’t know the real reason why he wasn’t there. You didn’t use computers in those days and most games kicked off at 3pm so he must have been scouting a player.

“Anyway, the game was just after Christmas and it was 1-1 with about 10 minutes to go. John Robson got hold of the ball in space and Peter Taylor was shouting to go to the corner flag. Robbo, as usual, didn’t listen and he just cut inside and let fly from 35 yards. It ended up hitting a defender in the chest and it bounced back to me and we scored from it. It was in the last two or three minutes and Peter was thrilled because he was in charge. They were a good side too, but I remember that game vividly.”

Clough’s side continued to charge as they beat Coventry City and their nearest rivals Nottingham Forest 4-0, before Wolverhampton Wanderers visited the Baseball Ground. Wolves presented a difficult task for Derby, as they did for many sides that season. Clough knew it, too. And he did something that afternoon which has lived with Durban for more than half a century.

“When we went out to play the game against Wolves, I was generally one of the first players out after the captain,” he remembered. “I was always the third or fourth out, but Brian said to me before the game to go out last. I wasn’t sure why and it was a bit strange, but as I was just going down the tunnel, a big hand came over my shoulder from him. He whispered in my ear: ‘If Mike Bailey finds Dave Wagstaffe with a 40-yard ball, you will come and sit with me.’ So that was my instructions for the match.

“Now, what he didn’t tell me was that he had already told Ron Webster to go and play next to Toddy to stop Derek Dougan running down that channel. Now, the fact he never brought it up in a team meeting in front of everyone is incredible. If you go on management courses, they will tell you that fear motivation doesn’t work, but there was something about him that you feared and it worked because I didn’t let that pass happen all game and we managed to get the win which was important.”

Derby’s biggest test of the season was just around the corner as they faced Arsenal in the FA Cup Fifth Round. The game had already been played twice, with both sides cancelling each other out at the Baseball Ground and at Highbury. The game would be settled in a second replay at Leicester City’s Filbert Street, but it would be the Gunners who came out victorious.

Derby used the disappointment as their motivation to succeed. Durban gave a rousing speech in the dressing room following the game, stating that the league title would be theirs by the end of the season. They won four of their next five league games, drawing the other, to ensure they were right amongst the chasing pack for the league title. The last of those wins came at home to Leeds United at the Baseball Ground.

Defeat against Newcastle United and a draw against West Bromwich Albion followed before back-to-back victories against Sheffield United and Huddersfield Town saw them leading the table with only two games remaining. Their final two games of the campaign would be huge, though. A trip to Maine Road to face Manchester City and a home game against Liverpool, both of whom were challenging Derby for the league title, awaited. It didn’t go to plan against Malcolm Allison’s side as they were beaten comfortably 2-0.

The result lifted Manchester City to the top of the table and saw the Rams drop to third, but that was their season finished. Derby had one game remaining against Liverpool, and they knew they needed all three points to stay in the race for the title. Ahead of the game, Clough was without his first choice right-back Ron Webster who had suffered an injury, and when he named his side to play the game, there were some surprised looks amongst team-mates.

Durban recalled: “We didn’t think we could afford to lose against Manchester City, but they played very well that afternoon. Rodney Marsh played well but the Liverpool game was a strange one. When Brian named the team in the afternoon nobody could believe it. Steve Powell had only played one or two games and he put him in the side at right-back instead of putting Peter Daniel in.

“Steve had played a couple of Texaco Cup games but he hadn’t played in the league, and he gave him his debut in the biggest game of the season in a game we needed to win. He stuck him in against Steve Heighway. Ron Webster was injured and it was an incredible decision which we all couldn’t believe. Steve was a fully grown man at 16, physically he was strong and from the opening 10 minutes, the ball came over his head, Heighway was chasing him and he flicked it back over his head, left Heighway standing and carried the ball out of defence.

“It was incredible for a kid to come in and play like that on his debut and he had a terrific career afterwards. He didn’t have any fear so that is what I’m saying about Clough and Taylor, they made some amazing decisions at times and you couldn’t believe it, and they always worked out fairly well!”

The rest, as they say, is history. John McGovern’s only goal ensured victory for Derby against Liverpool at the Baseball Ground which propelled them back to the top of the division, but they had to endure an agonising seven-day wait to see if they would be crowned champions. It looked unlikely, with Liverpool needing a win against Arsenal, whilst Leeds United only needed to draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers. The players, Durban included, jetted off to Majorca to take their minds off things.

“We went first thing on the Tuesday morning after the Liverpool game,” he explained. “We had been in Majorca six days before the games came back around on the following Monday night. We were in Majorca enjoying the sun, and would you believe that six of us played for the hotel team. There was a league where the waiters would play against each other and we played for them. I’ve got a great photograph of Colin Boulton, Ron Webster and myself playing. We played twice that week before the Monday night games. Cloughie wasn’t with us and Peter wasn’t as much of a disciplinarian as Cloughie so we had a brilliant week.”

And it culminated in Derby winning the First Division for the first time in their history. They were 8/1 with the bookies to win the title ahead of the night’s football, but with Leeds United losing against Wolves and Liverpool only managing a draw against Arsenal, the Derby players returned from Majorca as champions. They were presented onto the Baseball Ground pitch days later and it was a celebration of their achievements that season.

“It was a truly incredible campaign,” Durban said. “A lot of the things were remarkable that season. It was remarkable that our top scorer ended up being a winger. Alan Hinton scored 20 goals and I know he took some penalties but I don’t think it was that many. The goals were shared out nicely, and Kevin Hector at home could run through that mud like a racehorse. We all ran in the mud and he ran over the top. We did only score 69 goals, which I didn’t think was enough, so we defended well to win the league.

“We had three people in the side, Boulton, Webster and Robson, in any other era they would have played for England. They were established, but with England winning the World Cup in 1966, they had regular players and you couldn’t shift them. Roy did well to get in considering Jack Charlton had been there since 1966 but it was a magical time for the football club and one I look back on fondly.”

In total, Durban scored 12 goals that season. After a decade at the football club, he eventually left in 1973 after agreeing to become player/assistant manager at Shrewsbury Town. He later went on to manage Shrewsbury, as well as Stoke City, Sunderland and Cardiff City. It is those days at Derby which stick out so vividly in his mind.

“I was one of the oldest members of the squad as well!” he laughed. “I can’t believe it’s been 50 years. I’ve kept myself reasonably fit since then and the amazing thing is that 10 of the starting line-up are still alive, god bless John Robson’s soul. It’s incredible really and I think John Robson was the youngest. I still keep in touch with a few of the lads and it was great to celebrate together at the End of Season awards dinner, which celebrated 50 years since we won the title together. It was a great night enjoyed by all and it was great to catch up with familiar faces and recount stories once again.”