We missed John badly last season, after he suffered with injuries for the first time during his spell at the club. He was in and out of the team with a thigh problem, coming back too early at one point and Nigel Clough wrote off Brayford’s season at one time. However, he returned for the last couple of matches and looked much more like his old self.
The return of a fully fit Brayford means we will once again have a top right back – and one who is capable of being ever-present, as he was in 2010/11. He’s a brave, strong defender, quick enough, prepared to raid forward and effective when he does so, making him a potential source of assists and even the odd goal.
His cracking strike against Watford, in the 4-1 win at Pride Park in 2010/11, is still one of my favourite Derby County goals, simply because Brayford showed such awareness to make the opportunity for himself and so much desire to win the ball, surging through the helpless defence before smashing it emphatically into the net.
Much has been made of the need to strengthen the attack and defence this summer, but not so much was said about the midfield, a few gripes about James Bailey’s proposed departure aside. That’s because when you consider the probable first choice starting four – Coutts, Hendrick, Bryson and Jacobs – they don’t look too bad.
With Bryson’s box-to-box energy, Hendrick’s calm passing and a bit of skill and attacking intent from either side, you can imagine us playing some pretty nice attacking football through the midfield this season – especially down the right, where Brayford will be able to link in and bomb on to his heart’s content.
The youth team conveyor belt
Signing superstars is impossible without the support of an oligarch of one kind or other, so Derby County have no choice but to try to create them through their Academy instead. Fortunately, the process of doing so has been ongoing since the start of the Clough Jr era and is starting to bear fruit already.
At 20, Jeff Hendrick has already established himself in the first team and we can expect to see a few more of our own youngsters in the matchday squad this season.
Mark O’Brien played regularly at the start of last season. He defended heroically in a 1-0 win at Blackpool, but errors started to creep into his play over an extended run in the side. This was only to be expected, as centre back is an extremely difficult position to play and not a position where you ideally want to field a teenager, no matter how promising. Nevertheless, he is clearly an asset. It’s to be hoped he can put his latest injury setback behind him and continue his progress this season.
Some of Will Hughes‘ passes during his debut start for the first team against Peterborough United simply gladdened my heart. The boy we plucked from Repton School of all places looked serene in possession and although he didn’t get the goal his performance deserved, his obvious creativity and awareness meant that he was central to much of our best attacking build-up play in the game – as well as popping up in the box on various occasions. With a little more self-confidence, he might have pulled the trigger instead of taking a touch a couple of times. He was also unlucky not to score at Portsmouth in the game before.
The 17-year old Hughes’ emergence has put him ahead of his youth and reserve team buddy Mason Bennett, who, at just 16, is built like a man, making it easy to forget just how young he is. We’ve seen flashes of his potential, but he may turn out to be one for the season after next. On the other hand, he might just burst onto the scene during this campaign – there’s no doubt that he has the talent.
Even beyond that, young defenders Josh Lelan and Stefan Galinski featured fairly regularly for the reserves last season, as did Kwame Thomas, a centre forward who has played for England U’16s.
As long as these youngsters aren’t thrown in at the deep end too early, or relied upon too heavily before their time, it’s great to know that we are becoming a club who can produce good footballers. Cashing in on talented youth products has helped Reading and Southampton make their way into the Premier League and there’s no reason why it can’t be that way at Pride Park too, eventually.
This isn’t so much something to be optimistic about, but certainly something to look forward to – the mouthwatering prospect of Jake Buxton marking Nuno Gomes.
The stylish, long-haired Portuguese centre forward has more caps and international goals than you can shake a stick at. He spent the majority of his career with Benfica, but also played two seasons in Serie A with Fiorentina, after a €17m transfer in 2000. Gomes appeared in two World Cups and three European Championships (scoring in all three). He has travelled the world, bagging goals, winning trophies galore and earning millions along the way.
But he has never, ever played against anybody quite like Bucko.
Our Jake will relish the opportunity to face Blackburn’s galáctico. At 37, Gomes won’t have the pace to worry him and I have a feeling that he may not appreciate Buxton’s ‘get in their faces and put them on their arses’ tenacity. Without doubt, the veteran striker will go down at the slightest touch, but surely there will be an opportunity to put in a ‘blood and thunder’ challenge at some point.
Let’s see if they breed ’em as tough in Amarante as they do in Mansfield!