Bird and Collins fire Derby to promotion to Championship with win over Carlisle

Bird and Collins fire Derby to promotion to Championship with win over Carlisle

Two minutes into the four allocated for added time, the assistant referee made his desperate dash across the pitch for safety. So eager were Derby’s supporters to herald their return to the Championship there was no option but to call a premature halt to proceedings. This pitch invasion was not for preventing.

Derby are back. Not yet anywhere near their highest heights; the quest for Premier League football remains an ambition for some unspecified point in the future, at the conclusion of what has been a wholesale rebuild of a club that came perilously close to disappearing altogether. But after the extent of their recent plight the unbridled joy of this final-day win over already relegated Carlisle United to seal automatic promotion back to the Championship means a return to where a club like this feels it belongs.

Crowned English champions more recently than Tottenham and Newcastle, their outlier status in League One – with an average attendance in excess of 27,000 – has ended after two seasons. As inflatable rams were hoisted into the pungent smoke of flares unleashed at the final whistle, a firm farewell to third-tier football was bidden.

“You wake up in the morning and have to pretend it’s like any other game,” said Derby’s manager, Paul Warne. “It isn’t. The players know what they are playing for.

“The club is moving back in the right direction. Next year we’ll have to take another step and another step and one day, whoever it is, will hopefully take them back to the Premier League because that’s what the fanbase wants.

“It’s a positive step and one that should be enjoyed by everyone. But it’s just one little step.

“ Hopefully, in 10 years’ time Derby are back in the Premier League, but this promotion team will always have a special place in the fans’ hearts. These lads will be connected with that forever and they deserve to be.”

It was September 2021 when Derby’s financial woes plunged such depths that the club entered a wretched 282-day period of administration, resulting in a 21-point deduction and the end of their 14-year stint in the Championship. Local businessman and lifelong fan David Clowes provided an emergency £55m investment to keep the club afloat. Without it, he said, they were a week away from going bust.

Yet it has been no straightforward route back. A failure to reach the playoffs last season was followed by a tumultuous start to the current campaign when a portion of the fanbase called for Warne to be dismissed.

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The hierarchy stuck by him – “we’re trying to build a new team, a new club, really,” pleaded the manager – results improved and the expectant supporters descended on a sold-out Pride Park on Saturday knowing a point would be enough to render results elsewhere obsolete.

Nerves were swiftly eased when Max Bird – playing his 200th and final match for the club before departing for Bristol City in the summer – unleashed a thunderbolt from 20 yards after five minutes. Cut adrift at the foot of the table after their relegation was confirmed at the start of the month, Carlisle provided as firm a test as they could. But when James Collins scored his 19th goal of the season – prodded home from close range just before the hour mark – the party could truly begin.

“It’s been tough,” said Warne, who has now earned four League One promotions after guiding Rotherham to the Championship on three occasions. “The injuries we’ve sustained have been horrific so it has been hard, but I have had really good support.

“The owner has been amazing. I’m really pleased for everybody at the club and there’s no greater fan than the owner. It’s nice that when someone shows you that much faith and belief, you can pay them back.

“When I saw David after the match, all the headaches and stress and years I’ve taken off my life were worth it.”