They say pre-season doesn’t get any easier no matter how many times you’ve done it.
For Matty Derbyshire, this is his 21st since turning out at Great Harwood Town in 2002. Now, he’s gearing up for the new season at Bradford City. At 37, he is used to all the usual running drills, hill sprints and endurance tests, though that doesn’t make them more enjoyable.
“It’s been tough, it gets harder as you get older!” he tells Lancs Live with a chuckle, calling from the car after another gruelling session with the Bantams. Bradford’s players returned back on July 1 after missing out on a place in the play-off final against Carlisle United. 36 days later, they’re back at it again.
Pre-season is the chance for players to come together. Some just starting their career and some in the twilight. For the young players, it’s an opportunity to catch the eye and get a flavour of what first-team football is all about.
It gives the manager, or head coach in the modern era, a better idea of where the next crop are at. Some will be ready, most won’t be and there are those perhaps ready for their first taste of action on loan.
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That is where Derbyshire’s Blackburn Rovers journey began. A boyhood fan who came through the academy but by his own admission ‘had never been out of Blackburn’.
In the summer of ’05, Derbyshire had high hopes, having made his Premier League debut on the final day of the season just gone. But the leap to elite football is high, Rovers were arguably at the peak of their powers under Mark Hughes, and a grounding elsewhere was the next step, in his eyes.
“I spoke to the gaffer and he said it would be best to go and get some games under my belt,” Derbyshire explained. “I went to Plymouth, which is a very long way away. Before that, I hadn’t really been out of Blackburn or even travelled abroad!
“The idea was it would be good for me to show people I’m open to travel, if I wanted to have a career in the game. It was working out very well until Tony Pulis came in.
“He had his own idea, he likes a big centre-forward. The main reason was to go and play football. I was back at Blackburn for maybe a week and the gaffer said ‘why don’t you go to Wrexham’. It was one of the best things I’d ever done.
“Because of the manager there, he was good with youngsters and he wanted me to play every game. I scored something like 10 in 14 and I came back in the mix with Blackburn.”
18 years ago, Wrexham finished 13th in League Two, long before their Hollywood fame, so the step up to the Premier League was considerable. Any player will tell you that you need some luck to make it at the top level and a manager that believes in you.
Derbyshire’s showings in Wales were enough to push him into Hughes’ thoughts. The striker’s desire and hunger set him apart: “I really wanted it. I am a Blackburn fan and there is nothing like playing for your hometown club.”
His dream quickly became a reality. He was integrated into the group for pre-season, handed the number 27 shirt, a new two-year contract and thrown in at the deep end.
Rovers’ squad was awash with incredible striking talent. From the experience of Benni McCarthy and Jason Roberts to the mercurial Roque Santa Cruz, who would join a year later. Adapting from a budding youngster and lifelong fan to a serious competitor is not an easy transition.
“Every day I was trying to learn off these international players that have played more than 500 games in the Premier League,” Derbyshire recalls. “I could speak to them on a level where I wasn’t scared.
“I am a Blackburn fan but I was on a level with them. You have to look at yourself and say ‘listen, mate, I am with these guys for a reason’. I couldn’t be shy around them in training, we’re all competing for the same spot.
“I had to knock the fan part on the head. They wanted me to do well and I had to adapt to being around these superstars, if you will.
“We had a great squad, a lot of really good lads. I got on very well with Brett Emerton, he would speak to me like I wasn’t a kid and that helped me a lot.
“When you’re travelling to away games, it’s invaluable having someone who will take you under their wing. It was a great group.”
Derbyshire was in the thick of it. Training every day up against the likes of Morten Gamst Pedersen, David Bentley, Robbie Savage and the irrepressible Tugay.
Even the mention of his name provokes a reaction. “Tugay made football look easy. He was so clever on the pitch, which gave him time on the ball to see every pass under the sun. His vision was crazy, he was so good.”
Derbyshire’s first goal in blue and white came against Wigan Athletic, a close-range effort after a typically intelligent header by Pedersen into his path. “To make my debut was special but to score in the Premier League will always stand out,” he admits.
That first goal got the ball rolling and soon more followed. Derbyshire ended the 2006/07 season with nine goals in all competitions including strikes against Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United. None meant more than his first.
2007/08 followed and Derbyshire continued his upward trajectory. 23 more Premier League appearances and a new bumper four-year deal in the summer. Life at Ewood Park was glorious but it was the beginning of the end.
The ecosystem at any football club is always precarious. Manchester City’s takeover changed the scenery and Hughes would be their new manager, days after Derbyshire committed his long-term future.
Suddenly, everything changed. The backroom staff that had helped nurture and develop Derbyshire went down the M65 along with Hughes. Paul Ince was the man to replace him.
“It was difficult but Paul Ince did play me,” Derbyshire said. “I started the last five games he was there and score three or four goals.
“It was more about ‘you’re a full-time player now, you’re not a kid anymore’, I am not sure I was ready for that. I was still learning and it was difficult.”
Ince’s stint was short-lived. By Christmas the former Manchester United, Liverpool and England midfielder was dismissed and replaced by Sam Allardyce. By January, Derbyshire was out the door.
“It was because of the situation with Sam, rather than anything else,” he said. “I have always been someone who wants to play.
“I have always played for three points, I didn’t enjoy the academy because of that. Sam came in, he wanted a big striker, I had just signed a four-year deal as Mark Hughes left.
“I wanted to play. I went from first, second-choice to fifth-choice striker and I did not like it. I wanted to play and so I asked to go on loan.
“I think we need more of that. You see people that stay at clubs for four or five years, not playing games. That is crazy to me. The best thing you can do is go and push your boundaries, whether it’s next door, Plymouth or another country. It is a short career.”
Perhaps what nobody would have predicted was Derbyshire’s next move, a six-month loan to Olympiacos, sunny Greece. For a boy that had barely stepped out of Blackburn, it was quite the leap.
Rovers had faced the Greek giants in pre-season under Hughes. They were spanked 5-0 but the atmosphere and allure of Rivaldo and Co stuck with Derbyshire. Six months later, it became a permanent deal and Derbyshire’s chapter with his boyhood club was over.
Nine clubs later, Derbyshire is reunited with Hughes in the North of England. A return to the UK was never on the cards until his old gaffer pitched up in League Two, in a move that surprised everybody.
“I never thought I’d come back to England, when you’re abroad you have the sun on your back,” he laughed. “When I saw Mark went there, I spoke to Colin Doyle and said I wouldn’t mind signing for the gaffer again.
“I am not surprised that he was willing to drop. He is hungry, he’d been out for a while and he wanted to get his foot back in the door.
“Taking Bradford, it’s a massive club and something for him to get his teeth into. It gives him time to build what he wants at the club.
“He’s got his teeth firmly into this club and he wants to build something special. He has benefited and so has the club, it’s a massive club and there is always big pressure to get promoted.”
Although there is fuel in the tank, Derbyshire has clear plans on his next venture. “I’d love to be on the coaching side and get into it. Whether it’s starting from the bottom, I want to learn my trade as I did as a player. I’ll start at 15s, 16s level. Whatever it might be.”
He chuckles: “I haven’t spoken to Mark yet! I will sit down at some point and ask his opinion. He’s had an amazing career so I will pick his brain soon enough.”
And for Rovers? Well, the fan still lives inside him. He takes his two boys to the matches whenever possible and was a guest on the Ewood pitch in April. “I support the club, I look for the results. It will always be part of me,” he insists.
Optimism for the new season? Rovers finished in their highest position since relegation from the Premier League, missing out on a play-off spot on goal difference.
Jon Dahl Tomasson is building a team of hungry, young players to try and fight against the financial tide. But Derbyshire wants to see guidance for those young talents, just as he had 15 years ago.
“Maybe with a few older heads, it could have been different. Maybe he’ll go that way this season,” he outlines. “If you can get a good mix, with a few experienced guys to keep the youngsters learning.
“When I became a first-team player, you need those older players saying ‘this is right, this is wrong’. These are still kids, they need someone to look up and help them on the pitch.”