Today, I get to fulfil one of the best moments in my Back Of The Nest career to date.
Throughout my 31 years supporting Crystal Palace, there have been plenty of players that I have loved to watch, but a much smaller number of players who have truly engrained themselves onto me, that I hold in the highest regard. At the end of last season, I shared a little piece of that with you all, when I wrote my farewell article to Julian Speroni , someone I could honestly say means the world to me in this funny old game. I have also failed to hide my bromance for a certain Mile Jedinak! However, there are others on the 'Chewie All Time Favourites Honour Roll', and one of them recently returned to the club.
On September 4th, it was announced that former player, and Captain, Shaun Derry, had returned to the club, taking up the role of Professional Development Coach for our academy. Personally, I was elated to see him return. My Shaun Derry journey started back in the summer of 2002. I attended the club open day, that used to be held at Selhurst Park. I was working my way around, getting various autographs when I noticed someone standing around, with no one talking to him. He was in the Palace training gear, but I had no idea who he was. Autograph hunting over, I did the obligatory walk out the tunnel, and then crammed my long legs into the directors box seats, to listen to the on-pitch player interviews. A few interviews into it, and out walked the unknown man, introduced as recent signing from Portsmouth, Shaun Derry. Little did I know, that years later I would be passionately singing his name at a Chelsea victory parade(yes you read that right), and be standing at Hillsborough, watching his heroics as he led our team of warriors to both league, and eventually financial survival. His departure that summer was gutting, but I was still proud to wear his name and number on my England shirt for the 2010 World Cup, as I loved the man!
So, as I say, seeing him return, was a big plus for me. Then, when I found out that there was a possibility one of us could perhaps carry out an interview article with him, my elbows came out, barging everyone aside to volunteer myself for the job! Just like the Speroni article, if someone was going to do it, it had to be me! I had so much that I wanted to ask Shaun, I honestly found putting together questions very easy. Some of them, I have wanted to know about for a long time, and I would like to think that many other Palace fans would feel the same.
Obviously, this has been triggered by his return in a coaching role, and I planned to cover that. After two spells with us as a player however, I simply could not start there!! Before I delved into the past though, I wanted to welcome him back to SE25. The announcement of his return had been well received by Palace fans. What I wanted to know though, was how it felt for Shaun, to be back?
"I’m delighted to be back. Throughout my career playing for numerous clubs, Crystal Palace was always a standout club in my career. When you leave certain clubs you always look out for them and now that I’m back in this capacity, it fills me with great excitement."
It is a sentiment that I think all of us fans can agree with. For some players, Palace just never works out, it is one of those things. For others though, it seems to gain a place in their heart, as they do ours, and this would appear to be the case with Shaun. So, with the welcome done, it was time to get onto some of the key moments in his playing career with us, that I felt were pivotal in our history. The first of those, came during his first spell with the club. In 2004, a 1-0 Play-Off Final win over West Ham saw us secure promotion to the Premier League, a game which Shaun played in. That season had seen Iain Dowie come in as manager, taking us from relegation to promotion. It was fantastic to watch from the stands, but I asked Shaun what it had been like as a player during that period?
"As a player it was hard work, but incredibly rewarding. The six months from Christmas to the end of the season was quite remarkable regarding the turnaround in the league position. We had a group of players that had an incredible work ethic and we also had some key individuals like Andy Johnson, that gave us an incredible chance to be successful. The playoff final was a day that I’ll never forget, as you don’t get many days like that as a player. To gain promotion through the playoff’s is very special, it truly is a Cup Final."
I know that Shaun isn't alone in that thought. There is something special about the Play-Off final. Being at Wembley(or the Millennium Stadium that day), gaining promotion, winning a trophy, it is a very special day if you win, and we have been lucky enough to win three of our last four. Sadly, the following season in the Premier League would see us suffer the heartache of relegation on the last day of the season, away at Charlton. It would also see Shaun depart the club, initially on loan to Nottingham Forest, and then permanently to Leeds United.
His spell at Leeds saw him play a key part in their run to the Play-Off final, before the following season injury would rule him out from January, while Leeds would fall to relegation. Meanwhile, at Selhurst, our own struggles saw Dowie appease his family needs and move back North to Charlton, and Neil Warnock took over. However, it soon became apparent that our team was in much need of tough tacklers and leaders to take control on the pitch. With Shaun not getting game time at Leeds, it provided the perfect opportunity that saw him return in November 2007, initially on loan. His arrival, along with that of Clint Hill, had been just what us fans were looking for. I asked Shaun, what Neil Warnock had said he needed from him?
" Neil, as we all know, is a certain type of character and at that time, he felt he needed a certain type of player to help. Obviously, having worked with him previously at Sheffield United and playing against his sides, he felt he could rely upon me. We had at that time a lot of younger players in the squad, exciting players who needed a little bit of guidance on the field and I guess he felt I was that person. Obviously, I came back firstly on loan but within a couple of days we had both recognised that it needed to be as a permanent signing."
The transfer would be made permanent, and Shaun would rightfully be given the Captain's armband following the departure of Mark Hudson. There are certain players who are just made to lead our team, and Shaun was definitely one of them. Sadly though, while there were plus points on the pitch, off the pitch, we were once again falling into financial trouble, and ultimately administration. We all remember that fateful night of January 27th, 2010, when the club was put into Administration while the team were all travelling to Newcastle. The rest of the season became an uphill battle, but at the same time, brought the team and the fans even closer together. As Captain, I wanted to know how Shaun found that period, and if he felt he had more responsibility as he wore the armband?
" I always felt responsible for the team as the Captain, but that fateful night weirdly galvanised us and brought the football club even closer together. The challenges of that season took a different kind of twist because of administration, and the responsibilities as Captain became greater because of the situation we were forced into. Looking back that season, in particular it taught me an awful lot on how to lead the team."
With the points deduction and inevitable player departures, it would all come down to the 2nd May 2010, the final day of the season. We were away to Sheffield Wednesday in the relegation derby. Lose, and we were not only relegated, but most likely facing closure of the club. As a fan in the stand, it was 90 minutes of the most nerve-wracking football I have ever had, mixed with the most incredible scenes during both goals, and at the final whistle. As one of the warriors to play that day, I asked Shaun what was that day like for him, in preparation, playing the game, and the relief afterwards?
" Prior to the game itself, it was made absolutely clear what the ramifications would be if we didn’t get the required result. As players we knew we could only impact what we were good at and that was our very own skill sets on the pitch itself. Thankfully, that group of players had so many leaders, all with different types of characteristics and we felt internally that we could achieve the required outcome. Saying that, we also knew that we were up against a stern opponent who needed their own result as well. The game itself was a bit of a blur because it was so much more than just a 90-minute performance. Thankfully, it was our day and it was definitely our night too."
Shaun would depart that summer, following Neil Warnock to Queens Park Rangers. In November 2013, he would make the step into the dugout, hanging up the boots and becoming manager of Notts County. I asked Shaun how he found the transition from player, to manager?
" At this point in my career, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when my playing days were to end. As often the case in football – I didn’t envisage to be playing one week and managing the next. Notts County at that moment in time was a club in disarray, but because it was my hometown club, I had tremendous backing from the supporters on the terraces. This gave me great confidence in my own characteristics and leadership skills that I could be the man to turn things around. Thankfully, after several weeks, results did settle down a bit and the end of the season was a phenomenal experience with six wins out of nine games to keep us in League One. I must say, all the players that played a part in that sequence of games were fantastic, from numbers 1-18."
On 23rd March 2015, Shaun would part ways with Notts County, and then in November 2015 he would take up the role as manager of Cambridge United, where he would stay until February 2018. I asked Shaun, in his spells of managing both teams, what he found most challenging, and what he found most enjoyable?
"I think one of the most difficult things I had to deal with, was the fans feelings toward me at Cambridge. I had no previous affiliation with the club, and it seems there was an unrealistic expectation which was perpetuated by the media and exacerbated by a small but loud group, which made my job extremely difficult from the start. We had an excellent start to our results, rising from relegation contenders to play off contenders for two years consecutively, which was overachieving really. We Finished 9th and 11th which was higher than our resources and infrastructure would have us placed. Yet the feeling towards me was always negative, and I think that largely stemmed from the fans feeling that Richard Money had been sacked prematurely. However, at both football clubs the relationships I had with the players was always positive, as I treated every individual with respect and honesty, and the players seemed to respond to that."
The fact that players respond to Shaun, is something that doesn't surprise me. You could see during his days playing for us, that the team would listen to their Captain. Not only that, but there was a another infamous day, where Shaun's leadership skill shone through, inspiring all those around him. Every year, Palace and Brighton fans come together to play the REMF charity match, sometimes joined by legends. On 30th May 2016, Shaun took part in this match, and Palace went into half time trailing 2-0. I remember the next day reading two things. The first, was that Palace came back to win 3-2. The second, was that Shaun delivered a half time team talk, with the camera turned off, that many who witnessed it, labelled as incredible and purely inspirational. During the Marathon March last year, I spoke with someone there that day, who said it was one of the greatest moments of his life. I knew that Shaun wouldn't tell me what he said, but I did ask him what inspired it?
" The game itself really. I myself, was annoyed with us being 2-0 down and didn’t want to come off the pitch having lost. Also, as an ex-professional player sat in that changing room, I wanted to give my team an experience of a proper half time team talk. Yes, the camera’s needed to be turned off because there were some choice words, but also it was great to share that space with some brilliant people who cared so much for the reason we were all there."
With that said, I had covered the key topics from the past, that as a huge fan, I had always wanted to know the answers too! It meant that I could then move on to present day, and Shaun's return to the club. Taking up the role of Professional Development Coach for our academy, I asked Shaun what motivated him to take the role?
" Firstly, the football club itself. But also, the fact that I love working with young players and hopefully helping them develop. At Notts County, Oxford and Cambridge United, the real consistent positive I had was being able to influence and develop the players."
Now knowing why he had taken the role, I asked Shaun if he had set himself any targets he would like to achieve in it?
"The biggest challenge is if we can develop one of our own once again, to pull on a first team shirt as we have often seen in the recent past. To play a part in this will give me great satisfaction, and with the staff we have in our Academy, I fully believe we can do that again."
Having played under a variety of manager's during his playing career, I asked Shaun if there were any who he would say had influenced his coaching/managerial career?
"Obviously, Neil Warnock springs to mind, given the number of years I played under him. But as a player, you try and take the best bits from all the experiences you’ve had. I don’t think you can copy a certain individual as people will see through that, so you really need to back yourself in the style that you are most comfortable with, and which suits that particular group of players and personalities that you are coaching."
Finding himself in a coaching role currently, I asked Shaun if he would ever consider going back into management?
" Absolutely! I definitely see myself as a manager and it is absolutely important that it’s these traits, that can help me now at Crystal Palace with the role I’ve got."
Naturally, knowing he would like to manage again one day, leads on to an obvious question. Having been in the Selhurst Park home dugout as a player, could he ever see himself standing there as a player?
" One day that would be fantastic."
In football, as fans, we love it when players and managers grow to love our club. Now being in his third spell with Palace, I had to ask the tacky question of what Crystal Palace means to Shaun?
" It’s not just what it means to me, it’s what it means to my family as well. When I arrived at Crystal Palace in my first spell, I met my wife, who is a local girl. My children are now aged 12 and 13 so for the best part of their young life we have been part of the South East London community and Palace has always featured in their upbringing. My son has been in the Academy system for six years now and it’s great to be a part of that again myself."
That answer really brings home the family vibe that Crystal Palace has always had for me. As with most fans, becoming an Eagle was passed down to me by my father. I have since dragged my wife into the fold, and am working on my four year old. So for one of our former players to find Palace has had a similar affect in his family life, is fantastic. Sadly though, it brings me to my final question. To end the interview, I asked Shaun if there was one moment in his career, that stood out more than any other? Then, to be more specific, one Palace moment that stood out more than any other?
" Hillsborough, a day I will never forget."
I know Shaun certainly isn't alone there. It is a moment that for any of us in attendance, we will never, ever forget. With my questions over, the interview is concluded. It leaves me to say a massive thank you to Shaun, for taking the time to share some of these moments with us. It has truly been an honour for me, and a huge fanboy moment!
All of us here at Back Of The Nest, wish him every success in the academy, and hope we see the fruits of his labour on the Selhurst Park pitch in the near future.