It seems longer than five years since Derby County were relegated from the Premier League with the record lowest points tally of 11. Since then it has been a period of transition and consolidation under Nigel Clough, appointed as recently as 2009 but already up to fifth on the table of longest serving managers in English football as the Rams refuse to sign up to the ridiculous short-termism that now seems to be inherent in the majority of league clubs. Despite flirting with relegation in 2011, Clough has remained in charge and has been allowed to forge a young squad which has begun this season optimistic that the top 6 is a realistic aim.
Derby have started the new season solidly, gaining 4 points from their opening 3 games and also progressing from the first round of the League Cup. On Saturday, they experienced their first defeat against a Leicester team expected to challenge for promotion, but what was significant about Clough’s starting team was that only three players, Jake Buxton, Richard Keogh and Craig Bryson, were over the age of 25. Clough started with two players from his academy, Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes and were unfortunate to lose their unbeaten start, falling to an own goal from goalkeeper Lee Grant.
Hughes was watched by the scouts of several Premier League clubs and duly impressed, whilst Hendrick again looked solid in his central-midfield role. It will be down to them to provide the youthful dynamism behind Derby’s challenge this season and to show that they both have the talent to play at a higher level.
It is the 21 year old Hendrick who is the older of the two, becoming a regular in Clough’s plans since breaking in to the first team squad in the April of 2011 with a couple of substitute appearances towards the end of the 2010/2011 campaign. Then, in the following season, despite missing the majority of pre-season due to a call-up to England’s squad for the under-19 European Championships, he was handed his full-debut in a 1-0 win over Blackpool in the third game. He went on to a total of 43 appearances in a successful 2011/2012 season for him which was rewarded with a new three-and-a-half year contract and the club’s Young Player of the Year award.
It marked a brisk rise for Hendrick having signed his first professional deal just 2 years earlier after playing a major role in the reserve team’s 2010 Central League Central Section success. 2 years before that, he was making the move to Derby from Dublin club St Kevins Boys as a youth player, having overcome Osgood-Schlatter disease, a condition that causes disfigurement of the knee joint. The Irishman’s progression furthered in 2012/2013, making 45 appearances as Derby achieved a solid tenth place finish in the Championship. Having added more goals to his armoury, netting 7 on top of the 3 he hit in 11/12, he managed to finish runner-up in the race for Derby’s Player of the Season and was also named the 58th best player in the league by the Actim Index.
The midfielder lost out to Richard Keogh in the Player of the Year award whilst it was his fellow youngster, the 18 year old Will Hughes, who inherited the Young Player of the Year title from the Irishman. It was a year in which Hughes scored his first professional goal while also breaking into England’s under-21 team after appearing 35 times for Derby in the Championship. Stuart Pearce, upon calling up Hughes, described him as “technically a very sound player”. “He rarely gave the ball away in training or in the game against Northern Ireland…he’s progressing really well” said the then under-21 coach.
It has been a progression that, similar to Hendrick’s, has been sharp. Having only joined Derby has a first year scholar in 2011 after spending 4 years with local side Mickleover Jubilee, he made just 3 appearances in the Central League for the reserves after Clough noticed his “outstanding” performance in a match against Port Vale and handed him his first-team debut in defeat to Peterborough four days later. Despite the breakthrough, he had to wait until the penultimate game of the season for another appearance, coming off the bench in a 1-2 win at Portsmouth before making his first start for the club in the last game of the campaign in a 1-1 draw with Peterborough.
In the next season, Hughes, with his distinguishable jet blond hair, was ever-present for the club’s opening 38 games of the season, scoring 2 goals, and although a groin injury curtailed his breakthrough year in February, Clough saw enough from Hughes’s performances to reward him with a one-year contract extension that will see the midfielder stay at Derby until June 2016.
Both Hendrick and Hughes have started all four of Derby’s opening games in this year’s campaign and both have received international recognition for their form, Hendrick earning four caps for Ireland since his debut in February whereas Hughes has been elevated into the England under-21 set-up after making 6 appearances for the under-17 group.
Hughes, who is able to play both on the left or right flanks, and Hendrick are both predominantly used by Clough in the centre of midfield, though it is the latter who enjoys to move forward more, using his quick-feet and close control to glide past opposition players and into attacking areas, where he takes advantage of gifted vision to lay on chances for his team-mates. It is a clever run from the side areas of the pitch into the area just off the striker that has become a trademark in his play, drifting into areas of space where his fine control and nimble-footwork can be at its most effective.
Described as a “flair player” who uses through balls and mazy runs, Hughes has previously stated that he bases his game on the intricate style of Barcelona midfield duo Andres Iniesta and Xavi and the early comparisons are clear in terms of technical ability, though he is still a way-off that high standard. Using clever movement, he is difficult for defenders to mark as he glides into space to join the attack, though he can be shrugged off the ball quite easily due to a lack of upper body strength. Due to his slight physique, he can often back-off from the robust side of the game, though there is no doubting his skill and control that sees him have no trouble beating players with the ball.
Hendrick is a usual midfield partner for Hughes but is normally the platform to allow him and Paul Coutts to move forward and join the attack. Linking the play together with short, intelligent passes which keeps the side ticking, Hendrick’s job in the centre of the park can be understated. He has shown in the past that he is fully adept at going forward to chip in with his share of goals, he was Derby’s top-scoring midfielder last term, but he is mostly deployed by Clough as the disciplined cog in a 3 man midfield.
It is a record of just 5 yellow cards in a total of 98 senior appearances for Derby that suggests Hendrick is more of a ball-playing midfielder than a ball-winning one and is often better being afforded the protection that comes with playing alongside two others in engine room. Against Leicester, Clough started with a midfield two in Hughes and Hendrick, but it was not until Coutts was shifted into the centre midway through the first-half did they manage to gain a foothold in the game.
Being the younger of the two starlets, there is no surprise to see the precocious talent of Hughes being the more coveted of the duo, with Liverpool rumoured to be edging closer to a £6 million deal for the attacking midfielder. However, there seems to be a consensus within Derby fans that Hughes should be worth more than that quoted fee, a huge testament to his emerging ability that such a fee would be below the club’s true valuation of the player. It is not the first time Liverpool have been interested in the 18 year old, Clough being forced into denying links with the reds as well as Arsenal and Manchester City. Prior to that, Hughes has been linked with City and neighbours Manchester United who were aiming to lure the teenager away before his talent broke through in the Derby ranks.
On the eve of the 2013 January transfer window, it was reported that Hughes was being closely observed by at least 10 Premier League clubs, with Fulham manager Martin Jol speaking highly of Hughes, saying
“Believe me, there are probably 10 clubs in the Premier League having a look at him. If you have a good scouting system, he will always be on the list”.
Spanish champions Barcelona have also expressed an interest in the young talent, reportedly compiling a detailed report on the midfielder during the Algarve tournament of February 2012 in which he played for England under-17s.
Hendrick has also attracted glances towards his ability, gaining overtures from Aston Villa and West Brom during his impressive form. Wolves and Fulham have also been rumoured to be in the hunt for the young Irishman, but it looks like interest from higher level clubs has recently died out since he extended his deal at Pride Park.
With just a week to go until the transfer window shuts however, and with Hughes and Hendrick both settled into Derby’s midfield and ready to provide the backbone to the Rams’ bid to achieve a top 6 finish, it looks almost inevitably like they will both stay until at least January. Clough will be hoping his young Rams show good enough form to attract interest again in future transfer windows as he will be aware that a realisation of potential will benefit the club in the short-term.