Derby County Football Club was formed in 1884 as part of an attempt by Derbyshire County Cricket Club to give players and supporters a winter interest and to secure the cricket club extra revenue. It was originally intended to name the club ‘Derbyshire County FC’ to highlight the link, but this was objected to by the Derbyshire FA. Home games were played at the cricket club’s Racecourse Ground, in the middle of Derby Racecourse, writes Malcolm Johnson.
The club undertook an extensive programme of friendly matches, the first of which was a 6–0 defeat to Bolton-based club Great Lever on 13 September 1884 while the first competitive match came in the FA Cup, when they lost 7–0 at home to Walsall Town on 8 November 1884.
In the following season’s FA Cup, a 2–0 victory over Aston Villa, an emerging force in English football at the time, established Derby County on the football map, helping the club to attract better opposition for friendlies, and in 1888, they were one of six Midland clubs invited to become founder members of the Football League. Derby County’s first ever Football League match saw them win 6-3 away to Bolton Wanderers with the club ultimately finishing 10th out of 12 teams.
Apart from a grandstand built in 1852 facilities at the Racecourse Ground were minimal although it had the distinction of hosting the first FA Cup Final to be held outside London after the 1886 final was the first to require a replay. The attendance of 12,000 was just 5,000 less than the for the first game held at Kennington Oval. The ground also staged five FA Cup semi-finals and a full international match when England beat Ireland 9–0 in March 1895, the England side including two Derby County players, one of them being legendary striker Steve Bloomer.
Meanwhile, Sir Francis Ley the proprietor of Ley’s Malleable Castings, one of the largest foundries in Europe, had laid out an adjacent sports complex known as Ley’s Recreation Centre in the 1880s for the benefit of his employees. After a visit to the United States in 1889, Ley introduced baseball to the area, as part of a personal quest to establish professional organised baseball in the United Kingdom and the focal point of the complex was known as Ley’s Baseball Ground. Matches there were played by a club set up in 1890 by Ley known as Derby Baseball Club. In its first year the club competed in the first British professional baseball championship, the National League, established that same year. Although looking like runaway winners of the championship the number of American players in the team resulted in pressure from other teams in the league forcing Derby to resign before the end of the season. However, they went on to win the British Baseball Cup three times in the 1890s, the side often including Steve Bloomer and members of the football team. Baseball then faded into the background due to the popularity of football.
With increasing disputes over fixture clashes between football, racing and cricket at the Racecourse Ground Derby County took an opportunity in 1895 to lease Ley’s Baseball Ground for their home matches, renaming it simply The Baseball Ground. They had in fact previously played a game there due to a clash with a race meeting at the Racecourse Ground, losing 0-1 to Sunderland on 19 March 1892,
Sir Francis Ley had already spent £7,000 to improve the Baseball Ground and added another £500 to extend the football pitch and transfer stands from the Racecourse Ground. This increased the capacity from 4,000 to 20,000.
Surrounded by streets of terraced housing, one side of the ground was hard up against Ley’s foundry with Shaftesbury Crescent along the opposite side To the right was the original stand at what later became known as the Normanton End with the baseball diamond roughly in that corner. There were standing areas along the other sides of the field
The first home match as full tenants, on 14 September 1895, saw a game against Sunderland again but this time with a 2-0 victory, both goals scored by Steve Bloomer, and an attendance estimated at 10,000.
To make way for the football club’s tenure at the ground a party of Gypsies had been forced to move and legend has it that before leaving they put a curse on the ground preventing Derby County from winning the FA Cup. This evidently had no effect on league form however, as Derby achieved their best finish so far, finishing runners-up in Division One. However, although reaching three FA Cup finals between 1898 and 1903 they lost all three, in the last of them going down 6-0 to Bury, a record scoreline that would not be equalled for another 113 years.
In 1906, star player Steve Bloomer was sold to Middlesbrough due to financial demands, and Derby suffered their first ever relegation the following season. That same season brought the first ever visit to the Baseball Ground of Lincoln City. Having beaten fellow Division Two side Chelsea in the first round of the FA Cup the lower mid-table Citizens, as they were then known, came away with a 1-0 defeat in front of a crowd of 6,000 at the beginning of February to a Rams side struggling towards the foot of the First Division. It was Lincoln who then provided Derby with their first opposition following their relegation to Division Two and a 4-0 win for the home side must have made them think they were going to have an easy time of it at the lower level. The game saw four players making their debuts for City – right half William Alston, inside forwards John Law and James Poppitt and centre forward Robert Brewis. It also saw left winger Norrie Fairgray make his last appearance for club before joining newly-promoted Chelsea.
Derby didn’t have it all their own way in Division Two, however, finishing the 1907/08 season in sixth place. Lincoln, meanwhile finished in last place and were not re-elected resulting in a gap of one season in the meetings between the two clubs. Having won the Midland League by some distance the Citizens were back at the Baseball Ground in Division Two in early March 1910. With the home side second in the table at the time and Lincoln third from bottom it was no surprise when Derby ran out 2-0 winners in a game which featured the second of only two appearances made by City reserve goalkeeper Harold Hews. Lincoln recovered to finish the season clear of trouble in 15th place out of 20 while Derby slipped to finish fourth and miss out on promotion on goal average.
Later in 1910 Derby re-signed the talismanic Steve Bloomer from Middlesbrough, unfortunately for City just in time for his first game back to be against the Imps, as they were starting to become known, at the Baseball Ground at the beginning of October. Lincoln were actually third in the early-season league table at the time with Derby in the lower reaches, but with a crowd of 12,000 having turned out to see the return of Bloomer he obliged with two goals to contribute to a 5-0 scoreline for City’s heaviest defeat on the ground so far. By the end of the season the respective league positions had been more than reversed with Derby finishing sixth while Lincoln finished bottom of the league for a second time.
In February 1911 the Baseball Ground hosted an international match for the only time, a crowd of 20,000 seeing England beat Ireland 2-1.
Although Lincoln bounced straight back into the league after again failing to be re-elected, this time as champions of the Central League, Derby in the meantime, inspired by the veteran Bloomer had won the Division Two championship to return to the top flight. However, after two seasons they were back down again, with Bloomer finally hanging up his boots in January 1914 at the age of 40 after having scored 332 goals in a total of 525 games for Derby to put with a record of 28 goals in 23 games for England.
Lincoln were therefore back at the Baseball Ground again in March 1915 as the Football League continued despite the outbreak of World War 1. The outcome was the by now usual defeat for the Imps, the top of the table Rams winning 3-0 in a game which saw a City debut for reserve inside forward John Cavanagh. Derby remained at the top of the table for the remainder of the season to make an immediate return to Division One while City just managed to avoid another re-election plea.
The two clubs then went their separate ways for almost the next 40 years as although Derby were relegated again in 1921 after two seasons in the top flight, by that time City after yet another solitary season out of the league had become founder members of the new Division Three (North).
Derby had an opportunity to move in 1923 to a stadium at the Municipal Sports Ground on Osmaston Park Road to be funded by the Corporation in return for an annual rent of £500. However, the club decided to remain where they were and, in July 1924, bought the freehold of the Baseball Ground from Sir Francis Ley for £10,000. The following year saw the concreting of the Popular Side terracing, and following promotion back to Division One in 1926 an ambitious development plan was set in motion with work beginning immediately on a new 3,300-seater main stand, known as the B Pavilion, on Shaftesbury Crescent. Costing £16,000, it incorporated dressing rooms and offices and was opened in the September of that year. Further work was also carried out on the Popular Side with deeper terracing followed by the building of a roof which had a higher level in the centre.
Derby County then became something of a force in football, usually finishing in the top seven for the remainder of the 1920s and throughout the 1930s. With an increased demand for accommodation a double decker stand was constructed at the Osmaston End in 1933 for a cost of £12,000, although it did not fill the entire width. The north-eastern section, in a part of the ground known Catcher’s Corner, from the baseball days, remained uncovered. This was followed two years later by a stand similar in appearance at the Normanton End which increased the ground capacity to 38,000.
During World War Two the Osmaston End was damaged during a German air-raid in 1941, while baseball made a brief return in 1944 with an exhibition game played by US servicemen.
When competitive football resumed after the war Derby reached the Cup Final for the fourth time and in view of the legendary curse took the precaution of crossing a gypsy’s palm with silver to have it lifted. This evidently did the trick as their first major trophy resulted with a 4–1 victory over Charlton Athletic.
Shortly after the war there was another possibility of Derby moving to a new home at the Municipal Sports Ground site. Maxwell Ayrton, the designer of Wembley Stadium, produced a design which would have room for 78,000 spectators plus a health centre under the stands. However, the directors again decided to stay where they were. Apart from the installation of floodlights, set low on the corners of the end stands in 1953, nothing was to change significantly at the Baseball Ground until 1969.
After two top four placings later in the 1940s a decline then set in and the club was relegated in 1953. This led to a renewal of encounters with Lincoln City who were in the second season of something of a golden age of Division Two football under manager Bill Anderson. There was however, to be no improvement in the Imps’ results at the Baseball Ground as they suffered a 2-0 defeat in a mid-table clash in early September 1953. City actually finished the season above Derby who avoided relegation by four points. The Rams were not so fortunate the following season, finishing bottom of the division, but along the way inflicting the inevitable defeat on Lincoln City at the beginning of December 1954, this time by 3-0 in a game which saw the last of the 255 appearances made by City’s long-serving half back Bobby Owen.
After finishing runners-up in Division Three (North) Derby won the championship of it the following year and so faced the Imps at the Baseball Ground again for the first in the longest run of consecutive seasons in which the two clubs played each other. All their seven previous visits to the Baseball Ground had not only brought defeat for the Imps every time but they had also failed to even score a goal. That at least was put right in mid-September 1957 when the distinction of scoring the first goal by a Lincoln City player at the ground fell to midfielder Joe Buick. There was also a goal for left winger Alan Withers, but the result in the end was the usual defeat as Derby won 3-2. Although the Imps were sixth in the table at the time of the match this was the season of the great escape as they won their last six games of the season to avoid relegation by a single point, Derby themselves only managing 16h place.
Despite the winning end to the previous season City were in poor form from the start of the 1958/59 season with only a handful of points gained from home games keeping them off the bottom of the table at the time they visited a Derby County side just four places above them at the end of September. The inevitable Baseball Ground defeat came, this time by 1-0, as the Imps proceeded to lose every away game played up to mid-November. The season finished with them once again narrowly avoiding relegation while Derby revived somewhat to finish seventh.
The 1959/60 season was a better one for the Imps and they visited the Baseball Ground on the last day of the season in 12th place with their hosts six places below them and five points clear of the relegation zone. But there was no change to the usual outcome of the game as a crowd of 10,400 saw Derby win 3-1. Winger John McClelland registered the rare goal for Lincoln as with little resting on the outcome of the game they gave youth a chance with 17-year-old defender Brian Drysdale given his debut and only a third appearance by the similarly-aged Roger Holmes in midfield.
The 1960/61 season saw Lincoln’s last season to date in the second tier and their visit in early March saw them rooted to the foot of the table and midway through a run of nine defeats in a row. They did at least manage a goal in the 3-1 defeat, the only one scored by left winger Peter Dunwell in the 14 appearances he made for the Imps while later City striker Barry Hutchinson scored twice for the home side.
The two clubs then went their separate ways again, with a period of decline for the Imps including two successive relegations and several applications for re-election. Derby themselves went quietly along for the next few seasons, more often than not finishing in the lower half of the league table. This began to change in the summer of 1967 with the appointment of the managerial team of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor and the pair were in charge of the Rams by the time of Lincoln City’s next visit to the Baseball Ground at the beginning of November in that year. By then the Imps themselves were also under new management with Bill Anderson, in charge throughout the 1950s having finally departed a few years before. Just completing a year in charge Ron Gray, had revitalised the club with a raft of new players and an inspiring run in the League Cup which saw City arrive at the Baseball Ground on the crest of a wave which included beating Division One side Newcastle United in the second round. As part of his rebuilding of the Derby side Clough had started bringing in new players, but some were cup tied for this game, notably two past and future England players, winger Alan Hinton and centre half Roy McFarland. This added to a feeling of optimism among the City supporters for the fourth round tie with up to 6,000 estimated to have travelled from Lincoln to swell the crowd to a figure of 25,079, the highest ever attendance to see a game with the Imps.
Ironically, given that the gap in the status of the two clubs was at its greatest in this game it provided the best-ever result for the Imps as they were full value for the 1-1 draw earned by a goal from Lewis Thom. As it turned out, the header from the diminutive left winger was the last ever goal scored by a Lincoln player at the Baseball Ground.
The replay at Lincoln drew a record attendance at Sincil Bank as Derby won through by 3-0 and went on to reach the semi-final losing to eventual winners Leeds United. The two clubs then remained apart again, as although Derby once again finished the season in the lower half of the league table the following season Clough and Taylor led the club to the Second Division championship in 1969, and promotion to the First Division.
Constructed in time for the return to the top division was a new stand squeezed in above the Popular Side terracing at a cost of £250,000. The building of it was made possible by the acquisition of some land from Ley’s Malleable Castings and it was named the Ley Stand in recognition of this. Backing onto the foundry the site was so cramped that access to the seats was possible only with walkways above the terracing. The stand, renamed more than once, later had boxes added at the back. Derby now had one of the few grounds in the league with seating and standing accommodation on all four sides and the new stand brought the capacity up to over 40,000. In fact the ground’s record attendance was achieved on 20 September 1969 with a crowd of 41,826 watching a 5–0 defeat of Tottenham Hotspur.
Derby went on to finish fourth in 1970, and won their first ever Football League Championship in 1972 followed by reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup, entry into which competition brought the installation of new floodlights to match UEFA specification.
The ground capacity then began to drop following the installation in the early 1970s of seats in the middle tiers of the Normanton and Osmaston Stands. In 1975 and 1976, more seats were put in the Paddock below the main stand as the ground capacity was gradually reduced over the years to 26,500 in 1985. Also, owing to the rise of hooliganism fencing was put up all around the ground. A family seating area was provided on the Osmaston End terrace, which was a popular initiative but the location of the seats, near to visiting supporters, was not and in 1983, the area was returned to terracing
Despite the controversial departure of Clough and Taylor in 1973, Derby went on to win the league championship a second time in 1975 under former captain Dave Mackay. However, a steady decline then set in followed by relegation to Division Two in 1980.
The club then began to be hit by rising debts and falling attendances due to dismal performances on the field. Derby did manage to avoid going out of business, and became owned by the wealthy and pugnacious businessman Robert Maxwell.
After four seasons in Division Two the club’s decline continued and in 1984, they found themselves in Division Three for the second time in their history. There they encountered Lincoln City once again, the Imps now embarking on a fourth season at that level after promotion in 1981 under manager Colin Murphy. The game, at the end of September, was City’s ninth of the season and they had yet to register a win. Fourth from bottom, and with Derby, now managed by Arthur Cox in mid-table, the home side included two later Imps players in goalkeeper John Burridge and left back Steve Buckley. Derby, who also included former Nottingham Forest European Cup winners Kenny Burns and John Robertson had too much experience for a City side who never looked like getting anything from the game, and a goal in each half from Burns and striker Kevin Wilson saw a comfortable win for the home side. City recovered to finish the season five points clear of relegation while Derby, never rising much above mid-table finished seventh but well short of a promotion place.
Following the fire at Valley Parade in 1985 work was carried out on the ground to take out seats to widen gangways and remove fencing along the Paddock in front of the main stand and at the Normanton End.
The Imps were back at the Baseball Ground the following November for what turned out to be the last time. If the 2-0 defeat the previous season had been all-too-typical of their results at the ground the Imps would have been grateful for small mercies to equal that on 29th November 1985. The Derby side included another later Imps first team goalkeeper in Mark Wallington with Buckley still in the side.
With Colin Murphy having been replaced as manager in the summer by his assistant John Pickering the Imps had made a reasonably good start to the season rising as high as sixth in the table just a month previously. Since then, a run of one point from six games had seen them slump to three points outside the bottom four while Derby were just a win away from the top three. City were over-run in midfield from the start of the game and tormented throughout by Derby left winger Jeff Chandler who got the first goal early on with striker Bobby Davison scoring just before the break. City were still in the match at 2-0 before the game turned into a rout with two goals each for midfielder Gay Micklewhite and defender Rob Hindmarch plus one from Andy Garner. The 7-0 defeat was City’s worst since losing to Newport by the same score 21 years earlier and four members of the team never played for City again, these being full backs Mark McCarrick and Bobby McNeil, and loanees Ian Measham and goalkeeper Alan Judge for whom it was the second of only two games he played for the club.
After four more defeats in a row Pickering was replaced by George Kerr as manager but he was unable to prevent relegation back to Division Four for the Imps. In contrast, Derby went from strength to strength, winning promotion back to the second tier in third place. This was immediately followed by the Second Division championship to return to the top flight for the 1987/88 season. In preparation for this undersoil heating was installed and later on new cladding was provided for the three older stands. Following the Hillsborough disaster in April 1989 the remainder of the perimeter fencing was removed although this resulted in policing levels being increased by 50%.
Derby spent four seasons in the First Division before a lack of investment from Robert Maxwell was blamed by discontented fans for their relegation back to the second tier in 1991 when the club finished bottom of the First Division with just five wins all season. Local businessman Lionel Pickering then took control of the club just before Maxwell’s death in November 1991. Although finishing third they lost out in the play-offs for an immediate return to Division One. Two years later they did the same after the replacement of Arthur Cox as manager by Roy McFarland. A year later McFarland himself was sacked and replaced by former Imp Jim Smith. Assisted by another former Imp in Steve McClaren, Smith immediately guided Derby to promotion at the end of the 1995/96 season and a place in what was now called the Premier League.
The prospect of moving to a new ground had arisen again in 1993 when the City of Derby earned £37.5 million from an urban regeneration scheme with a site identified at the newly being developed Pride Park Business Park. This was on land previously occupied by railway sidings and a gas plant and with the soil having to be decontaminated the scheme initially failed to progress. In early 1995 it was decided to remain at the Baseball Ground where, following the Taylor Report in 1989, and the requirement for an all-seater stadium, the capacity had by now been reduced to just 18,500.
Plans were drawn up for a massive redevelopment of the Baseball Ground into a 27,000 capacity all-seater stadium that would have left only the former Ley Stand in use. However, these plans were abandoned in February 1996 and with Pride Park needing a central attraction it was confirmed as the location for a new stadium. Construction work began later in the year, with the new stadium scheduled to be ready in time for the 1997/98 season.
The last league match to be played at the Baseball Ground was on 11th May 1997 when 18,287 people saw Derby lose 3-1 to Arsenal in the Premier League. The new 33,597-seater Pride Park Stadium was officially opened by the Queen on 18 July with a friendly match against Italian club Sampdoria following on 4 August. The one further match at Derby played by the Imps prior to the start of the 2022/23 season therefore took place at Pride Park in August 2008 and the League Cup tie typically saw a victory for the home side.
The Baseball Ground continued to be used by Derby County for reserve and youth matches until 2003 and later in that year demolition began to make way for housing with memorabilia such as seats and turnstiles put up for sale. The site of the ground is now occupied by a development of 150 new homes and in 2010 a commemorative statue was unveiled featuring the silhouettes of three footballers.
The general area around the old ground had been much opened out by the demolition of many of the surrounding terraced streets and the removal of the giant Leys Malleable Castings plant which had close in 1986.
As a footnote, the Baseball Ground was one of just a handful in the country to have its own railway station for the use of football specials. In 1990 a single platform was built at the side of the Derby to Birmingham line called Ramsline Halt. Just a few hundred yards from the ground its purpose was to prevent crowd trouble and aid policing by keeping visiting supporters away from the main Derby station, the city centre and residential areas. The station cost £320,000 to build, partly funded by the Football Trust, but perhaps due to a decline in the number of special football trains it’s said that only four trains ever called there before it closed along with the Baseball Ground in 1997.
Lincoln City’s away record at various grounds over the years could be described as mixed at best but there can’t have been many venues that produced worse results than the Baseball Ground. Of the 14 games played there 13 were lost including all 12 of the league games, the best result being the 1-1 draw in the League Cip in 1967. The Imps failed to score in ten of the 14 games and only managed two goals on one occasion. The five goals that were scored were by five different players with the average in round figures being one goal every three games and the 40 goals conceded averaging out at just under three a match.
Demolition in progress
Baseball in 1895 (looking towards Osmaston end)
Remains of main stand entrance
Main stand 1990s
Ley Stand 1990s
Ley and Normanton stands
Site of the Ground today
Osmaston end 1990
Main stand 1969