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Bill's Take: Derby Should Cast A Wider Net
Friday, 20th Nov 2015 06:54 by Bill Riordan

It has always seemed to me that Derby County, at least during the time I have followed them, are a club that lives and dies by the transfer market.

We do occasionally develop a player who goes on to make a substantial contribution; over the last twenty years or so, I can easily think of Will Hughes, Jeff Hendrick, Jamie Hanson, Giles Barnes, Tom Huddlestone, Marcus Tudgay, Ian Evatt, Chris Riggott, Lee Grant, Dean Sturridge and Lee Carsley.

I am sure there are others, particularly depending on how we define a substantial contribution; but it remains a short list of names over quite a long span of years. We could go back several decades further for as long as I have followed the club, and I do not think the proportion of home-produced players would grow significantly.

This being the case, it has always struck me as odd that the Rams have never really been a club that signs many players from non-league football.

The golden age of non-league signings at Derby, as with so many other things, was the Brian Clough era. Between 1967 and 1971, Clough signed Richie Barker, a striker from Burton Albion; Jim Walker, a midfielder from Northwich Victoria; John Robson, a left-back from junior football in the north-east; Roger Davies, a striker from Worcester City and Jeff Bourne, another striker from the Burton area. All made contributions; Robson and Davies in particular won league championship medals with the Rams.

In the years since, the pace of such signings slowed dramatically: I can only think of Paul Emson, Kevin Wilson, Andy Hill, Phil Gee, Martin Taylor and Malcolm Christie that were signed from non-league football. Then during the Nigel Clough era there were Saul Deeney and Ben Pringle, who did not do much, while Jake Buxton has done well.

Ben Pringle has built a decent career since leaving the Rams, first with Rotherham and now Fulham, but did little at Derby. There may well have been some that I have missed, but I cannot think of any others who made major contributions.

What started me thinking along this line was the success of Jamie Vardy with Leicester, and his recent elevation to the England team. Vardy joined Leicester from then non-league Fleetwood in May, 2012 for about one million pounds; he took a while to settle, but is now scoring heavily in the Premier League.

This is not a new phenomenon: back in the day, Chris Waddle, Ian Wright, Stuart Pearce and Cyrille Regis all played at the highest level after starting their careers in non-league football, as did current Rams Coach Kevin Phillips and many others.

Given the dearth of English players in the Premier League, there are now probably not many apart from Vardy who began in non-League football; I can only think of Lee Tomlin, who made a big-money move to Bournemouth this summer, having played both league and non-league football with Rushden, and Gary Hooper at Norwich, who began his career with Grays, but is currently on loan at Sheffield Wednesday.

When we move down to the Championship, there is a whole host of players who began their careers playing non-league football; a partial list would include Charlie Austin (QPR), George Boyd, Andre Gray and Michael Kightly (all Burnley), Sam Clucas (Hull), Michael Morrison (Birmingham), former Alfreton player Aden Flint (Bristol C) and Grant Holt (Wigan, currently on loan at Wolves).

A number of others playing further down but who would make the list are John Brayford and James Bailey, formerly of the Rams; and Craig Mackail-Smith, now with Luton.

Also worth noting: back in April the Rams drew 3-3 at Millwall; all three of Millwall’s goals were scored by former Halifax striker Lee Gregory.

What makes the May, 2012 transfer of Jamie Vardy to Leicester more poignant for Rams fans is that the Rams, with Theo Robinson and Nathan Tyson in attack at the time, needed a striker.

They took a look at Vardy but whether the price was too high, or they did not like the look of him, they decided to take the low-risk option: they went to Premier League Wigan three months after Vardy’s move to Leicester and signed Conor Sammon.

Conor cost a bit more money, but had that proven quality: he had played in the Prem, while Vardy had previously not played league football. Now, while Vardy plays for England, Sammon is on loan at League One Sheffield United, occasionally getting a start.

Of course, I do not know where the Rams’ scouting staff spend their time, but I do believe that it is currently more fashionable for scouts to be at Bilbao rather than Bilston or Enschede rather than Enfield.

It is certainly for the manager to allocate his resources as he thinks best but over the years, there has been an immense amount of talent available for next to nothing at the non-league level, and the Rams have missed out on most of it.

If a middle-sized club like Derby County is ever going to challenge the big clubs, they cannot afford to pass up gifts like these.

Photo: Action Images

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