The 2023/24 season will live long in the memory of all of those associated with Derby County Football Club.

It was the campaign that saw the Rams taste promotion for the first time in over 15 years and the first time they have done so automatically in almost 30 years!

However or whenever it was to be ultimately achieved, a return to the second tier was always going to be special, and that it certainly was.

There would be bumps along the way, as is football, but Paul Warne, his staff and the playing squad would never allow themselves to get too high or too low after results; an attitude that would pay dividends come 27th April 2024 when automatic promotion was sealed with a 2-0 home win over Carlisle United.

Over recent days, has taken a look at how the season unfolded. From the feeling of agony after defeats to the feeling of ecstasy following some of the real key wins, we’ve been through it all.

Now it's time look back at the final stretch of the campaign and the final 11 games that would decide it all through March and April.

March Review

If it wasn’t being called that already, March meant that we officially entered the 'business end' of the 2023/24 Sky Bet League One season and, at this stage, every point felt more important than the last. With Bolton Wanderers right on the tail of the Rams in the top two, wins were a must, and with five wins from six in the month, Warne’s side emphatically delivered.

March opened with a convincing 3-0 victory over strugglers Port Vale with recent free-agent signing Dwight Gayle scoring his first goal for the club, either side of a Louie Sibley double, before a difficult trip to Bristol Rovers was made to look routine as the Rams made it back-to-back 3-0 wins.

Gayle was again on target at the Memorial Stadium, before Tom Barkhuizen and substitute Martyn Waghorn added further gloss to the scoreline.

Gayle made his signing look smarter by the minute when he bagged his third goal in as many games to help Derby on the way to a 2-1 midweek victory over a resilient Reading outfit, with skipper Conor Hourihane scoring the winner from the penalty spot, before the showdown of the year would take place at Pride Park.

With eight games remaining, Bolton were the visitors to Pride Park. It was second against third and despite plenty of matches remaining following the conclusion of the fixture, it really had the feeling of a 'winner takes all' match-up.

It was edgy and tense, which made it hard to watch at times, but when Joe Wildsmith pulled off what turned out to be save of the season in the first half, it started to feel like Derby’s day. And that proved to be when Kane Wilson popped up with 10 minutes remaining to head home the only goal of the game, the stadium erupted with joy and following the final whistle; a real sense of belief.

However, just as that belief had been building throughout the week, a 1-0 defeat on the road at Northampton Town followed and those nerves soon came crawling back.

The Rams would round off March with an impressive 1-0 home victory over promotion rivals Blackpool; loan star Ebou Adams the hero on the day with a stunning strike which would ultimately land ‘Goal of the Season’ at the End of Season awards.

March Results

Sky Bet League One – Derby County 3-0 Port Vale (5’ Lopata OG, 44’ Gayle, 58 Sibley)

Sky Bet League One – Bristol Rovers 0-3 Derby County (55’ Gayle, 58’ Barkhuizen, 89’ Waghorn)

Sky Bet League One – Derby County 2-1 Reading (53’ Gayle, 70’ Hourihane)

Sky Bet League One – Derby County 1-0 Bolton Wanderers (78’ Wilson)

Sky Bet League One – Northampton Town 1-0 Derby County

Sky Bet League One – Derby County 1-0 Blackpool (40’ Adams)

April Review

Here we were, the final month of the regular season. Five games to play, three on the road and two at Pride Park. Whatever was to happen in those remaining fixtures Derby had, at this point, totted up enough points to know their regular season would end in one of two ways; with automatic promotion to the Sky Bet Championship, or they would enter the lottery of the Sky Bet League One play-offs.

As fixtures went on paper, they could have been worse, however, they certainly couldn’t have started much tougher as a trip to leaders Portsmouth was on the cards.

Pompey knew, at this point, a win would all but secure them promotion whereas for the Rams, it was all about closing the gap on top spot and cementing themselves in that top two.

The conditions on the night were horrific, to put it bluntly, as the rain poured down but that didn’t stop Warne’s men from playing some of their best football of the campaign. They were on the front foot from the off and got their just deserts when Joe Ward got onto the end of a Corey Blackett-Taylor pass and slammed home first time to bag his first goal for the club and put the Rams in command at the league leaders.

Pompey responded almost immediately through Abu Kamara but Derby hit back themselves before the break when Ward again let fly from range to notch his second of the night. The Rams were disciplined after the break and were evidently frustrating their hosts. As the match entered the final 15 minutes it looked as though Warne’s men had done enough to cement a real colossal victory on the road but a screamer from Owen Moxon halted that thought and the spoils were shared on the south coast in a thrilling 2-2 draw.

Another midweek road trip was next up as Derby travelled to Wycombe Wanderers. After a heroic performance at Pompey, the display was far grittier at Adams Park. Despite a couple of early efforts, chances were limited in Buckinghamshire with the Rams unable to break down a resolute Wycombe side.

There was tension in the air as the full-time whistle blew as the result meant automatic promotion was now back into the hands of Bolton Wanderers but with the Trotters still having to play Portsmouth and Peterborough United; Warne emphasised the point post-match that there were far more twists and turns that would occur before this campaign was out.

And the Head Coach proved to be right the following weekend when the Rams put to bed the disappointment of the result at Adams Park with a thumping 3-0 victory over Leyton Orient on home soil. Kane Wilson scored early on before defender Sonny Bradley added a double on a day where all three of Derby's goals came from set-plays.

That win, combined with Bolton drawing 1-1 with Portsmouth on the day, meant once again, the pendulum would swing in the favour of the Rams. With two games left, the mission was simple; win both and Derby County will be promoted.

It didn’t matter how the wins came at this point, the team simply had to win, and if there was ever a fixture that showed that, it was the final road game of the season against Cambridge United. You’ll have to go far to find an uglier fixture to watch on the eyes, which Warne stated afterwards, but that mattered not when Nathaniel Mendez-Laing scored on 39 minutes to put the Rams in front. Derby had deserved their lead but the second half would prove to be tough. It was frantic in the stands and it was frantic on the pitch as players, fans and management alike kicked and headed every ball away from Joe Wildsmith’s goal but when that final whistle blew, there was that real sense of feeling in the air that the team was now so close that they could almost touch it. One more game.

A sold-out Pride Park. Derby County against an already relegated Carlisle United. What could go wrong? In truth, due to goal-difference, a point would have likely been enough on the final day but that wasn’t enough to stop the nerves jangling around the stadium. However, when Max Bird fired in a rocket on his final appearance for the club after just five minutes, proceedings were about as routine as everyone would have hoped for.

Bolton themselves had rushed into a two goal lead at Peterborough United but with the Rams doing their job, it mattered not. At half-time it still felt like there was a job to be done but when top-scorer James Collins fittingly fired in the second after an hour, it very nearly was. Coupled with the fact that Bolton had surrendered their lead to Peterborough, the party inside Pride Park was ramping up. There were chances to make it three on the day but at this point nobody cared.

Thousands lined the touchline ready for the full-time whistle and the minute it touched the referee’s lips, the pitch was swarmed, and players lifted high onto shoulders. The outpouring of emotion after the turbulence of the previous years before Clowes Developments (UK) Ltd purchased the club in the summer of 2022 was clear to see. Owner David Clowes, up in the directors’ box, was serenaded by the Rams faithful before the pitch was partially cleared to allow the management and players to come and lift the promotion trophy that confirmed the job really was done.

All the long hours, blood, sweat and tears were worth it. Derby County had made it back to the Sky Bet Championship.

April Results

Sky Bet League One – Portsmouth 2-2 Derby County (23’ Ward, 35’ Ward)

Sky Bet League One – Wycombe Wanderers 0-0 Derby County

Sky Bet League One – Derby County 3-0 Leyton Orient (10’ Wilson, 18’ Bradley, 86’ Bradley)

Sky Bet League One – Cambridge United 0-1 Derby County (39’ Mendez-Laing)

Sky Bet League One – Derby County (P) 2-0 Carlisle United (5’ Bird, 59’ Collins)