'Frank Lampard has brought the buzz back to Derby - he has an aura, like all great managers'

John Percy
Frank has brought the buzz back to the place, according to owner Mel Morris - Getty Images Europe

Mel Morris is sitting in the Pride Park boardroom on a glorious spring morning, reflecting on the day when appointing Frank Lampard as Derby’s manager first became a possibility.

It was creeping towards the end of May last year, when Harry Redknapp’s name flashed up on the mobile phone of the Derby’s owner and chairman.

Derby had suffered another defeat in the play-offs with Gary Rowett departing soon after for Stoke City, leaving Morris with the dilemma of appointing his fifth manager in three years.

Morris takes up the story: “Harry called and said 'just go and meet Frank Lampard, see what you think, and decide after you’ve met him'.

“I was sceptical, not about it being Frank, more about someone who had never done it before. But every managerial appointment is a gamble and whatever happens now, he’s made history here.

Frank Lampard has guided Derby to the Championship play-off final in his first season Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“Frank has brought the buzz back to the place. He has created a special environment. It wasn’t about him being a celebrity, it was about somebody giving us some excitement. He has an aura, like all great managers. I actually called Harry this week and said 'don't for one minute ever forget your role in all of this’.”

That phone call out of the blue will appear even more significant for Morris, if Lampard can finish his first year in management by winning at Wembley on Monday.

Derby face Aston Villa in the Championship shootout regarded as the most lucrative game in world football, and Lampard’s debut campaign has surpassed expectations.

He has already emerged as a genuine contender to take over at Chelsea, possibly even as early as this summer if Maurizio Sarri leaves.

Morris accepts it is inevitable that Lampard will eventually return to the club he served for 13 years, but his only focus is on the play-off final.

Lampard has been linked with replacing Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea Credit: Reuters

“One day he is going to be at Chelsea, I am sure that will happen. I think it is just one of those things, because of the legend he was there as a player. The longer he is here with success, the easier it is to go there without risk to him because Chelsea is a big club with massive expectations,” he says.

“I would always be pleased we gave him the opportunity, proud of what he has achieved with us, and if that happened sooner rather than later I would just hope it works out for him. There would be absolutely no ill feeling and we’d understand it’s probably an opportunity he couldn’t turn down.

“But right now in the short-term, Chelsea have a massive game [the Europa League final] coming up this week, and so have we, and because of that both clubs would have to be ridiculous to even be having a conversation around that.”

Morris has been Derby’s owner since September 2015 Credit: PA

Morris could have done without all of this before the £170 million game, but nothing surprises him in football now. He has been Derby’s owner since September 2015 and it has proved a rollercoaster ride for the 63-year-old in his pursuit of the Premier League.

He is worth a reported £500 million, ranked at 268th in the Sunday Times rich list, after making his name through his backing of King, the firm behind the mobile game Candy Crush Saga.

But after spending over an hour in his company, it is abundantly clear that he lives and breathes Derby County.  He is gregarious, a raconteur, and comes alive when talking about his club, from Lampard’s training sessions to the burgeoning academy and future plans for the Pride Park stadium.

“My first match on my own, without a parent, was 1969. I was 13 at the time and it was Spurs at the Baseball Ground, with Jimmy Greaves, and we won 5-0,” he recalls, smiling.  

“I became a bit of a tearaway on the terraces for some time. I can remember being thrown into the river at the old Stoke ground. It’s a long affinity with this club and the support is huge in the city.

“I’ve worked away from Derby for many years and the club is always there. You’re always wondering what’s happening. It’s a hell of a club.”

Morris has been seeking investment for over two years but it is difficult to picture him stepping aside; especially if finally Derby reach the Premier League.

“It would be hard for me to move the club on but if I had to do it because I thought it was in the best interests of the club, I would do it,” he says.

“I can’t sit here and say that life as a Championship owner is anything but doom and gloom. There are no happy days, it’s paying out every month.

Derby will take on Aston Villa for a place in the Premier League Credit: Action Images

“I’ve probably spent 40+ days since the season started having meetings to try and look at this unholy mess that is Championship football. The Premier League makes £600m profit and the Championship loses £550m. That is broken.”

Promotion would be life-changing for Derby, and plans for either scenario after Monday’s game have been in place for months.

“We’ve seen so many clubs go up and then come down in financial ruin. [So] Let’s be really careful if we do go up, to craft those pieces, but also keep one eye on whether we might come down,” he says.

“You can’t afford to buy players that if you get relegated can’t cope with playing in the Championship. You’ve got to go with a balance of Premier League experience and younger players. That first year is all about how you invest that money, and how much.” 

Morris hopes this is finally the year when Derby end their play-off curse. He was at Wembley in 2014 when Bobby Zamora scored in injury time to win the final for QPR, and this is Derby’s fourth play-off experience in six seasons.

But this year feels different, fuelled by the stirring win at Leeds’ Elland Road in the second leg. Morris was on the field during the joyous post-match celebrations.

“I have no doubt we will put in a performance probably worthy of winning a game. I think with Frank we have come to see that, and expect that, and I think that will happen, and I am sure Villa will do just the same.

“We feel on balance we deserve to be where we are. We have fought our way into this final game on the back of a great performance at Leeds, and I think Villa have done the same. It’s going to be quite an afternoon.”