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Review of the year - 31/12/2002

   Georgiou Kinkladze
   Branko Strupar
   Robert Lee

It's been quite a year both on and off-the-field for Derby County during 2002. The biggest disappointment was obviously relegation from the Premiership. I remember us beating Tottenham Hotspur on my debut and there was a feeling that we could get out of trouble. This grew when we had good away wins at Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers. There were a number of difficult games in the run-in. We had to play all of the top six - Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Leeds United and Chelsea - and that was always going to be tough. But, looking back, we really lost it in the home games against Sunderland, Everton and Middlesbrough. We were beaten in all three of those. I also remember the games against Manchester United and Newcastle. Malcolm Christie had what looked a good winning goal disallowed against Manchester United and then we stormed into a 2-0 lead against Newcastle but they hit back with three goals in the last 20 minutes or so.

The reality of relegation really sank in a couple of games before it was confirmed. We were beaten 2-0 down at Southampton and it was a terrible performance. That was a really low point. The defeats by Newcastle and then at Liverpool followed, and we were down. It was a sad moment for everybody connected with the club, especially the supporters whose backing had been, and still remains, fantastic. Relegation hits home when you realise that you will not be playing at places like Old Trafford, Highbury and Anfield. It really hit me when I saw the Nationwide badge on the sleeve of my shirt. I had been so used to having the Premier League badge on there.

There was real optimism when we returned for pre-season training for the Division One campaign. Everybody was looking forward to the challenge of bouncing back but nobody really saw the money problems that would affect the game not only in this country, but throughout the world. That has shaken up football and there are many clubs, including ourselves, with financial troubles. I am sure that when things settle down again, clubs will be more prudent with their finances. The Division One season has been a real learning curve. If you ask the manager, I'm sure he has learned a lot in the past few months. We should have done better in the first half of the season but there is a real commitment and a positive feel around the place. There is also a togetherness and a belief in what we are trying to do.

There has also been plenty happening off the field. As skipper, a role I relish, I was involved in talks about the non-payment of wages back in August and, more recently, wage deferrals. I had never come across that type of stuff before. I had a lot of worried players around me but it was also new to me. But I have had to deal with it and I needed all my experience. To be fair, the club has been open and honest with us. We are all trying to work together to push Derby County in the right direction. The Professional Footballers' Association have also been a big help to me, particularly Mick McGuire and Gordon Taylor. It was a busy time with all those phone calls and press interviews. At one stage, I thought my head was going to explode. But from a personal point of view, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the club since arriving in February. It has been a great move for me and I know Rob Lee has enjoyed it too. This is a great club, with nice people around the place and tremendous support.

It has not been all doom and gloom. I remember my debut in the win against Spurs, and there was the victory over Leicester City at Filbert Street with Branko Strupar scoring after being out for so long with injury and Giorgi Kinkladze weaving some of his magic. The victory over Reading on the opening day of this season was also a high. There was a big crowd and pressure on us to deliver. We did, with a 3-0 win and a good performance. I still believe that the club can get back to the Premiership. Promotion was our goal at the start of the season. Whether you do that by finishing as champions, runners-up or through the play-offs does not really matter. The reward is the same. It would be a fairytale ending to the season when you consider all that has happened. Finally, I would like to wish everybody a happy New Year ... and let's hope it's a successful one for Derby County.

Derby Evening Telegraph

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