RamsTrust meets Robin Van der Laan – part 1

RamsTrust meets Robin Van der Laan – part 1

“I don’t think I have ever dreamt about that goal!” laughs former Derby County midfielder and captain Robin Van der Laan. Most Rams supporters older than their mid-30s will instantly know what is being referred to – when the flying Dutchman leapt unchallenged at the back post to head the winning goal from a corner in a 2-1 win at home to Crystal Palace in April 1996. The importance of the game was clear to everyone at the Baseball Ground that day – 3 points for Derby would mean automatic promotion at the end of the 90 minutes. Dean Sturridge gave the Rams an early lead after 3 minutes, then Kenny Brown equalised moments later. Mid-way through the second half, the 17,000 crowd witnessed one of the most important goals in Derby County’s recent history.

“It was a wonderful moment in my career, you get one or two moments like that if you’re lucky. It was an unbelievable feeling, I had a decent enough game, the whole thing was massive for everyone involved. Whenever I speak to Derby fans, it is always that goal, a huge moment for Derby County and myself. I met someone in a Q&A session who said his first game was the Crystal Place game, he got on the pitch and everybody was dancing. He said he thought it was always going to be like that – he got spoiled on his first day!”

Unsurprisingly, Robin Van der Laan was named man of the match that day.

Signing for the Rams

That iconic moment at the Baseball Ground would not have happened had Van der Laan decided to join West Bromwich Albion in the summer of 1995. As it was, Jim Smith managed to beat the Baggies to the Dutchman’s signature and Van der Laan moved to the Rams for £475,000, with Lee Mills going the other way in part exchange.

“The rules were a bit different then. I was out of contract at Port Vale but a transfer fee had to be agreed, it was a player exchange with Lee Ashcroft going the other way. I agreed personal terms with Albion and trained there for a week then got a call from my manager who said Derby County had been in touch. I knew about Derby and about the money spent in previous years but promotion had never materialised so I knew they had a good chance of going up. The incentive of being captain of Derby County made me think that I was definitely going to be playing. I went back to West Bromwich Albion, and they really pushed the boat out to make me change my mind, but my heart was set on going to Derby. My first game was 0-0 at Port Vale, it was a shocking game. All my friends were there and playing against Port Vale was surreal. I was happy to get the game out of the way and it was the first point on the board.”

In Jim Smith’s autobiography It’s Only a Game, Derby’s manager wrote about his captain: ‘He was a tremendously competitive midfielder whom I had tried to buy when I was at Portsmouth. He had been at Port Vale for four years and had already adopted a Potteries accent which was highly amusing. He combined Dutch technique with an English midfield approach – tough and uncompromising – and I did not feel there was any risk at all in signing him. And so it proved – he was tremendous in the first season, hardly missing a game, and it was entirely appropriate that he should score the goal against Crystal Palace that ensured promotion to the Premiership.’

The 1995/1996 promotion season

One day in late April 1996, the then 27-year-old club captain scored that famous winning goal to create lasting memories for all the Derby fans fortunate enough to be packed into the crowd at the Baseball Ground. At the time of writing, this is still the last time the Rams won automatic promotion.

“I remember going to the stadium. Fans were in black and white wigs, there was a lot of activity and the excitement was there. Our build up to the game was normal. The day before we did set pieces, we trained at the Baseball Ground as normal. We knew the importance of the game; we knew not winning it would mean having to go to West Bromwich Albion on the last game of the season which would have been a difficult task. Palace settled quicker than we did, then we got Dean Sturridge’s goal, a very well taken goal. The game was scrappy from both teams, then the goal. It was a great moment.”

“I don’t know why I celebrated the way I did, but it was a great photo on my knees with Matt Carbon. I scored other goals that season, and the celebrations were embarrassing! I remember the Gary Rowett incident when he jumped on my back, then the photo in the paper [The Derby Telegraph] the next day said he was a fan which went down well with Gary! It was elation afterwards, celebration in the dressing room, we raided Jim Smith’s cigar box. Days don’t come much better than that in football, in life in general. It ranks up there as one of the best days of my life.”

After a poor start to the season with only 2 wins in the first 10 games, Derby then went on a 20-match unbeaten run from November to March, including 7 wins in a row throughout December and early January. But it is two particular defeats that Van der Laan credits for the success the team experienced later in the season.

“Apart from the Palace game, the games that stick out a little bit are the ones that negatively impacted us. The Tranmere game [a 5-1 defeat at Prenton Park in November 1995] was pivotal which showed that Igor was not a central defender who can play in a back 4. Because of that defeat, we changed the system and played Igor as sweeper, then we started picking up results.”

For supporters growing up in the 1990s, Igor Stimac is nearly always their favourite player. Where does Igor rank with Robin Van der Laan?

“Igor is right up there; he made such a difference to the team with his composure at the back and his calming influence. If he made a mistake his attitude was ‘I don’t care, just give me the ball again’. It was no surprise that we started that big run just after the Tranmere fiasco. Jim and Steve McClaren found a role for him which suited the players that we had at the time. The game at Tranmere was probably the catalyst to get promoted. If Igor had had a half decent game and we lost 2-1, we probably would have kept the same formation. Things happen for a reason, and we probably would not have gone on the unbeaten run. The other game also with negative feedback was at Sunderland in March when we lost 3-0 and our unbeaten run ended. We definitely deserved to lose. We were not good that game.”

The role of Derby County captain

Van der Laan played in 43 games in the 1995/1996 promotion season, scoring 6 goals. As well as being a tough-tackling midfielder, his leadership skills were instrumental in blending a mixture of experienced professionals, such as Igor Stimac, Dean Yates and Daryl Powell, with younger players like Gary Rowett, Lee Carsley and Matt Carbon.

“It was a real honour to captain the team and do that for Derby County. It gives you the responsibility on the field and off the field. It elevates you a little bit as it is your responsibility to help young players through difficult moments. I remember the last 6 games of the season we were hanging on to second spot. I got injured, I was struggling to walk on my ankle all week but the manager asked me to take painkillers so he could use my leadership. I started to take really strong painkillers on Friday, managed to play Saturday, and on Sunday couldn’t walk! The prospect of going to the Premiership was so important to achieve that you just manage, the adrenaline gets you through.”

However, Van der Laan’s willingness to play through the pain in the last few games of the season would ultimately have consequences in the near future.

“Not many people know this but because I played in the last 6 games with an injury, I lost my spot in the team as I was not fit for preseason. I played more games than any outfield player in the promotion year so automatically you would think that your captain would start in the Premiership. It put a bit of a dampener on it, but it was also well worth it as I played in the Premier League with Derby County and captained Derby at Manchester United in the famous win [a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford in April 1997].”

“It was an honour to be made captain of a club like Derby. You get instant confidence from it because they trust you with that big role and feel that you can help other players play better. If people were to ask: ‘what was your biggest strength?’ – I had the ability to make players around me play 10% better by organising and communicating.”

The role of captain is a complex one – as well as looking their own performance, a captain also has responsibility for the rest of their teammates.

“My role was to manage players around me to make sure our shape was spot on. Asanovic was a fantastic footballer, he had incredible talent but was lazy getting into position where he needed to be. The game without the ball is not their strength so the captain becomes the extension of the manager on the field. It’s one of the things that fans don’t see but players appreciate it, and it was mentally and physically draining. Players rely on you telling them where to go and that part of the role I really enjoyed.”

After the 20 game unbeaten run was ended at Sunderland in March, Derby won only one out of their next four games. With 6 games remaining, Van der Laan’s calming influence in the middle of the pitch was needed more than ever.

“Sometimes winning a league or getting promotion is about getting over the line – but actually finishing it off is the hardest thing, especially when you are not playing well. Certain players needed a bit more help. Sometimes we had younger players, sometimes older players, lacking confidence and my job was to reassure them if they made a mistake – just delete it, don’t dwell on it, make sure the next pass is simple. The occasional rollicking was also needed if they didn’t work hard enough for the team, but [my main role was] feeding confidence and building them up so they play well to win promotion.”

In Ryan Hills’ book Groundwork, Dean Sturridge gives a player’s insight into how successful Van der Laan had been: ‘He was such a good captain, always having banter with the boys at the right time, always being serious when he needed to be serious as well, and just always thoughtful for the players in terms of off the pitch. Those little things like getting family tickets and being accommodating to make it was comfortable for families. All those little things people don’t know about, but behind the scenes you appreciate it because it takes the stresses away and you can concentrate on the game.’

In part 2 of our interview, Robin talks about his memories of playing for Derby in the Premiership, the move to Pride Park, and working for the biggest club in the world.

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