For Derby, this was a day just a few weeks ago many worried would never come. Before kick-off, Liam Rosenior showed his players a video montage of the journey to this point, some of the tougher moments in the past couple of years – supporters marching outside this stadium for fear of the club’s future during a draining nine months in administration – but now the fanbase, among them the new owner, David Clowes, sense happier times.
As reference points go, this was an encouraging start to the new era. As Conor Hourihane celebrated scoring the only goal by moseying along the bottom of the South Stand, trailed by his teammates, Derby supporters were able to drink in the moment that earned a victory that carries significantly more weight than the three points it earned them on the first afternoon of the League One season.
There were seven minutes of second-half stoppage time but that suffering was nothing compared to some of the bumps in the road in recent months, Hourihane’s powerful low strike 10 minutes from time enough to edge out Oxford United. By then, Cameron Brannagan had cleared off the line to deny James Collins on debut and Steve Seddon prevented Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, another debutant, from getting a shot on goal.
In some ways, given how close to the precipice Derby were little more than a month ago, the football – the possession, the tactics and the box entries – felt irrelevant, though it will not be that way for long.
Fans are grateful their team exists, chuffed to still be able to make the pilgrimage to this arena and that almost 19,000 season-ticket holders have signed up for their first season in the third tier since 1986 speaks volumes of how embedded the club is in the community. There is one seat going spare in the North Stand these days, though, with Clowes, a local property developer, conceding that giving up his regular spot for a place in the directors’ box is one downside to his takeover.
“Thank you, David Clowes,” came the chant from the home support with two minutes to play.
Clowes’s first Derby game was against Nottingham Forest at the Baseball Ground in 1978 but few have been as anticipated as this. “We are back, we are Derby,” roared the emotional stadium announcer, Matt McGibbon, before the players emerged from the tunnel for kick-off.
Derby supporters came in their droves – a crowd of 31,053 was the biggest at an English league game on Saturday – and, with the help of more than 3,000 visiting Oxford fans, most of whom were decorated in yellow, they created a supercharged atmosphere during a fractious contest, consigning those troubling days to the past.
“There were times it was scary, not just for myself but every member of staff and anybody who had a connection with Derby County,” Rosenior said. “It makes days like this sweeter. This day will always be remembered.”
For Rosenior, in interim charge after Wayne Rooney’s resignation, this represented his first game as a first-team manager, a day he had been building towards since coaching a school team in his teens and picking teams with his dad, Leroy, a former manager. Rosenior is unfazed about having to make the big calls – on his first day he released a player whose kids attend the same school as his – but there is no such thing as a selection headache just yet, a thin squad meaning the team picks itself. The starting lineup included seven signings, including the lively Brighton loanee Haydon Roberts, who excelled from left-back, and eight players who were in the Championship last season, four with Derby.
Rooney called on Friday to wish Rosenior good luck. Another symbol of the togetherness born from the chaos was in the dressing room at full-time. Krystian Bielik, who joined Birmingham on loan on Friday in order to give himself a chance of making Poland’s squad for the World Cup, wished everyone all the best.
“I finished the teamtalk, I turned around and Krystian is standing there,” Rosenior said. “He’s not leaving the club because he doesn’t want to be here, he’s leaving to follow his dream and we should appreciate that and give him the best chance to do that.”