Five Stars: Derby County's best players in the 21st century
After a successful Premier League spell under Jim Smith in the 1990s, Derby County’s supporters have had less to shout about since the turn of the century. Perhaps it says something about the club’s current squad that, of the five stars Joel Clyne picks out as the best since 2000, none remain at Pride Park today.
Yet another product from Dario Gradi’s youth system at Crewe, Seth Art Maurice Johnson — and no, I’m not making that up – joined Derby for a then club record fee of £3million in the summer of 1999 and quickly established himself as a fans favourite. His tenacious midfield displays and continued development during his two years at Pride Park led him to an England cap in 2000 (the last Derby player to be capped by England) and a £7million move to rivals Leeds United.
The move to Leeds never worked out for Johnson and following a spate of long term injuries he was released by the Yorkshire club in 2005. Johnson then moved back to Pride Park for two more seasons, a relegation scrap followed by a promotion campaign under Billy Davies where his final appearance for The Rams was to be the Play-Off Final victory over West Brom.
The beauty of Seth Johnson was the way in which he played the game. A traditional tough tackling tenacious midfielder who, in his prime and before his knees gave up on him, would charge around the midfield and break up the play. He was the type of player who would play the game as a fan would want to play it, with passion. A typical British bulldog style approach to football. Also, it’s important not to forget that the club made £7million from his transfer only for him to return a few years later, costing Leeds United a fortune and an over-riding sense of “job well done”.
It’s safe to say that the past two and half years haven’t been the happiest times for Derby fans, but if there has been one player that has made the bad times that little bit more bearable then it is Kris Commons.
After signing from arch-rivals Nottingham Forest in the summer of 2008, you may have expected some sort hostility from his new set of fans. Not the case though. Commons had clearly “seen the light”. And if there were to be question marks over his loyalty or whether there was any truth in the rumour that he had a Forest tattoo, his goal and celebration in a 3-2 victory at the City Ground put any doubt to bed.
It’s safe to say that his final few months with Derby were his finest, scoring 13 goals and helping the side reach fourth spot in the Championship. Commons also favoured a wonder goal – just take a look at his goal against Manchester United in the Carling Cup for proof.
It’s no coincidence that Derby’s league position has dropped since Commons vacated Pride Park at the end of January. While form was on the downward turn in the months prior to his exit, it’s a safe bet that the club wouldn’t be in such a lowly position if he was still there.
There are few players who have the gift of being able to change a game but Commons had the class to do just that. Whilst it’s frustrating to see such a talented player leave the club, the good that he did for the side and the pleasure he brought in defeating Manchester United and Nottingham Forest surely must not be forgotten.
I have to admit to being slightly underwhelmed when I heard that the first big money signing Derby had made in years was Steve Howard from Luton Town. Here we were being linked with Freddy Eastwood and whatever other flavour of the month was doing the rounds at the time and we ended up with some lump from Luton.
In hindsight, a tad harsh. In truth, I didn’t really know that much about him other than that he had done well for Luton in the previous season. He turned out to be a brilliant signing by Billy Davies. While Howard wasn’t prolific in front of goal, it was his work rate and passion that endeared him to the Derby faithful.
Often used as the sole front man, whose job was to hold the ball and bring others into play, Howard’s build and physicality were perfect for the role. In a position that many struggle with, Howard was immense. Not only putting himself about and unsettling centre halves with his willingness to close down but scoring crucial goals as well.
One which sticks in my mind is the header against Southampton in the first leg of the Play-Off Semi Final. After being completely outplayed in the league encounter a few weeks beforehand, yet somehow coming away with a victory, I’d have happily taken a narrow loss upon my exit from St Mary’s.
That thought was further hammered home when we conceded in the opening few minutes. Step forward Steve Howard. Having scored from a towering 12-yard header to level before half-time, Howard went on to bag a penalty and Derby took a 2-1 lead back to Pride Park for the return game. He scored a penalty in the shootout of the second leg and played a key part in the goal that took Derby back to the Premier League.
I couldn’t have been more wrong about Steve Howard. As good defensively as offensively, Howard was fantastic. A poor man’s Alan Shearer? Probably. Outstanding in the Championship? Most definitely. Howard was just superb.
The 2004/05 season is one of the most successful and entertaining seasons Derby fans have seen in recent times. Even to this day, supporters speak about the quality of football played under George Burley and it was thanks to signings such as Tommy Smith, Grzegorz Rasiak and Inigo Idiakez. In truth, any of aforementioned could have been used in this list but it was Idiakez that made the side tick.
Much like Rasiak, no-one had heard of Idiakez when Burley snapped him up on a free transfer in the summer of 2004. I had wondered why we were bothering with a 30-year-old Spaniard who had never even been linked with an English side. Back then, there were more question marks as to whether Spanish players could make it in the Premier League, let alone the physically demanding second tier. Idiakez proved those doubters wrong.
Playing an attacking role within the side, Idiakez was the heartbeat. Everything went through him. He was comfortable on the ball and his passing was outstanding. Oh, I almost forgot, he couldn’t half take a free-kick. So good in fact, I won’t even bother writing about them. Just watch this.
Idiakez was only with Derby for two seasons but he is fondly remembered among the fans. He had sublime quality, especially from set pieces and whilst his work rate was never much to shout about, he didn’t need to work hard because his strengths elsewhere were so beneficial.
For me, Idiakez is Derby’s player of the decade. The Rams have been searching for a midfielder like him ever since he left the club. Plenty have come and gone but none have been in the same league.
Signed way back in 1997 by Jim Smith during Derby’s first season in the Premier League, Poom made his debut at Old Trafford in The Rams’ famous 3-2 win.
Poom was outstanding for Derby – a solid Premier League ‘keeper who could have played for a higher-ranking side than The Rams. He had the athleticism and aerial ability to pull off top class saves, but he also had a presence about him which all good goalkeepers have.
Poom was voted as the club’s Player of the Season in 2000 but left three years later after they were relegated from the top flight. Unfortunately for Derby fans, Poom will probably be best remembered for the bullet header he scored against them when returning with Sunderland. If any budding striker or centre half is reading this, check out this demonstration of heading.
Poom has been by far the best goalkeeper the club has seen in the past decade. The standard of goalkeeper since he left has dropped significantly and the day can’t come quick enough for a commanding presence to be back between the sticks at Pride Park.