“You don’t have too many real friends in football” – Matt Derbyshire interview

Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Matt Derbyshire. In the style of a primary-school verbal reasoning test, what is the theme behind the sequence?

Time up. The answer is they were the top Englishmen in the 2016/17 European Golden Shoe rankings. The first two’s credentials are clear. Derbyshire, lodged a couple of places above Zlatan Ibrahimovic, needs a little more explaining.

His last English-based campaign was at Rotherham, where he helped stave off Championship relegation in 2015-16. When his contract expired that summer, the 31-year-old signed for Omonia Nicosia. It was a left field move, but a successful one. He finished last season as the Cypriot top-flight’s top-scorer, with 24 goals in 33 games for a team well off the pace in fifth.

“The most important thing for me was playing regular football week in and week out,” Derbyshire told the Set Pieces. “That gives you confidence and the chance to score goals. You do get some teams here who roll over when they go behind, but the standard of the players in general is very high. I knew that if I came out here and did well on the pitch I would have more options. Luckily that is how it has happened.”

It is logic that has clicked for players younger than Derbyshire recently. Rather than waste time in a first-team bottleneck at Arsenal, highly-rated teenage forward Chris Willock joined Benfica in June. Oliver Burke made 25 Bundesliga appearances for Leipzig last season, while West Ham’s Reece Oxford has recently joined Borussia Monchengladbach on loan.

Derbyshire, the sort of quintessential, fictional name that would lead an England attack in early versions of Fifa, was ahead of the trend.

In 2009, aged 22, he headed to Olympiakos in Greece, celebrating a derby winner away to Panathinaikos with one hand cupped to his ear to accept some colourful new Greek vocabulary from the fans. “That was was an unbelievable feeling,” he remembers. “To play in one of the biggest derbies in Europe and score the winner was amazing.”

His footloose career has been spread between north-west England, south-east Europe and, in total, ten different clubs. If pragmatism made Omonia the latest stop, it may be because the romance came early. Derbyshire didn’t kick a ball in anger until his parents moved opposite a park pitch when he was 12.

“Before that, I was just hanging about with my mates, in the streets and on corners as you do. I didn’t have any interest in football. But then I could see the blokes playing from my bedroom window. I came to love the games. It was non-stop from there.”

He played for his school and joined local side Darwen at 14. When they folded, he switched to Great Harwood Town and was a tearaway success in semi-professional men’s football, scoring 18 goals in his final nine games in the North West Counties League.

Just 17, he visited Manchester United and met Everton manager David Moyes as Premier League clubs caught the scent of an under-the-radar sensation that had slipped their academy trawler nets.

But Blackburn, where he was already employed as a community coach, were always going to win out: “In my heart I knew that was where I wanted to be 100%. I’m a fan and it had been a dream of mine since Alan Shearer was there.”

Blackburn weren’t that far from those hazy title-winning days when Derbyshire jumped nine tiers to join them in 2003. Rovers had finished sixth the previous season, but by the time Derbyshire headed to Athens six years later, they were fighting against the drop with Paul Ince in charge.

With Derbyshire watching on from Nicosia, Rovers slipped into League One in May.

“It is very disappointing. I am still a massive Blackburn fan,” he said. “Enough people have had their say about the club and owners – if you make the wrong signings and put the wrong people in charge, things can quickly decline and it obviously has done. It is a massive shame.”

Given the Ewood Park hotseat spins faster than a toddler on an office chair, Derbyshire may have worked under more managers had he stayed put, rather than striking out on his own odyssey. The variety of coaches, though, wouldn’t have been matched.

Newcastle’s former touchline tub-thumper John Carver, along with ex-Magpies defender Nikos Dabizas, convinced him to sign for Omonia, while new Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde oversaw some of his time at Olympiakos.

“Ernesto is a fantastic coach – the training was typical Barcelona, all pass and move. In training, if I hit a long diagonal across field, even if it was right onto a team-mate’s toes, he would stop the play, bring it back and make you play it out from the back.”

But Valverde’s first words to Derbyshire were to tell him that he didn’t sign him and didn’t want him, while this season Carver was sacked seven months after telling Derbyshire how much he rated him and wanted to build a team around him.

Derbyshire knows these are the realities of the richest gig economy going. Football may be a team game, but it is a solitary profession.

“You don’t have too many real, real friends in football. You have colleagues and passing friendships, but only have a small handful of proper mates. Football moves on very quickly. I could be at a club with someone and speaking every single day and then I’m a five-hour flight away. It is what it is, and you just get on with your own life.

“You keep in touch with certain people – [ex Birmingham goalkeeper] Colin Doyle is out here with me right now – by there are not many. It is a crazy world. Any second you could be up and away.”

Derbyshire has another year on his contract at Omonia, but was also subject of interest from Leeds earlier this summer.

Either way, the loneliness of the long-distance footballer won’t put him off accepting wherever the best opportunity next appears.

“You don’t have too many real friends in football” – Matt Derbyshire interview
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