Whisper it quietly but, for Shaun Derry, tonight’s match at Meadow Lane is a really big deal, writes James Shield.
“The games against Sheffield United were the first ones I looked for,” the Notts County manager admitted. “They are a massive name, a massive club and one that, on a personal level, has a very special place for me.”
Derry was speaking as two of English football’s most iconic names prepare for the 82nd skirmish of a rivalry dating back to 1891 when the hosts overwhelmed the visitors from South Yorkshire 9-1 en route to the final of the FA Cup.
Their latest meeting is likely to be much more competitive - only 11 places and seven points separate its two protagonists in the League One rankings. But, before the action begins, Derry will pause for though and take a moment to reminisce.
“Sheffield United gave me my big break,” he told The Star earlier this week. “They were the ones who offered me an opportunity to play Championship football and really ignited my career. That’s something you don’t forget. Why I’ll always look upon them fondly.
“I was a young lad with County when they bought me and, in the space of a few days, I went from being out on a pitch in front of a few thousand to featuring in a Yorkshire derby against Huddersfield Town under floodlights. It could have been a shock to the system and in some ways it was I suppose. But I absolutely loved it to bits.”
Derry went on to make a further 82 appearances for United before joining Portsmouth in March 2000. However, his arrival at Bramall Lane 26 months earlier marked the first step of a journey which, following stop-offs at the likes of Crystal Palace, Leeds and QPR, culminated in him being appointed as Chris Kiwomya’s successor midway through last season.
County were spiralling towards relegation when Derry, a lifelong supporter of his hometown club, was handed the reins. Having preserved their third tier status, the 37-year-old has duly transformed them into promotion contenders this term.
“I grew up following County but, to a certain degree, professional sportspeople have to approach things in a different way to fans,” Derry said. “You can’t get too wrapped-up in things and have to stay, as much as possible, on an even keel.
“Mind you, when we did stay up there was a moment when I reflected on what had happened and I’m not going to deny it felt just a little bit special. Especially as we’d achieved everything as together as a group.”
United experienced that ‘all-for-one’ approach first hand when County held them to a draw 11 weeks ago. By a twist of fate, Derry credits one of Nigel Clough’s predecessors for equipping him with the knowledge required to instil an unshakeable belief in players.
“Neil Warnock has been a big influence on me. It’s strange because he was the one who sold me when I was at United but there were no hard feelings and we’ve worked together at Palace and Loftus Road,” Derry continued. “I’ve got a great relationship with him and Neil brought out the best in people like Clint Hill and myself.
“But one of the things I was very conscious about when I became a manager was not to copy anyone, even though I’ve worked under some brilliant people in the past. I was determined to tread my own path and create my own identity if I could.
“Basically, I’ve just tried to stay true to the principles I had as a player. And that’s to give everything in every match and, just as importantly, every single training session because that’s where you set the tone for what happens on a matchday. I’m fortunate because the lads have all bought in to that.”
“I’m also fortunate in that I’ve got a great assistant in Greg Abbott,” Derry added. “He’s got vast experience and being able to draw on that has been a huge help.”
Clough, who forged his reputation on the opposite bank of the River Trent with Nottingham Forest, revealed he always suspected Derry was destined to become a gifted manager ahead of November’s encounter at Bramall Lane. Like his opposite number, Clough has also inspired a remarkable upturn in fortune since taking charge of United, leading them from 21st to seventh in the rankings last season before overseeing a solid sequence of results this time around.
The visitors, fifth following Saturday’s victory over leaders Bristol City, can also reflect upon an FA Cup semi-final appearance and, more recently, a titanic tussle with Tottenham Hotspur in the last four of the Capital One Cup.
“Nigel is a great bloke and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some time with him on a coaching course a while ago,” Derry said. “Sheffield United, because of their stature, is always going to be a difficult job but no one can question what a great one he’s doing there.
“I’m sure he’s going to get United back to where a club like that should be. But we’ve got ambitions of our own here.”