Think back to May 2014 – but not the Wembley bit, if you can help it. At the time, it’s possible to make a case that nobody was more important to Derby County’s team than Craig Bryson.
According to my records, he scored 16 goals that season and assisted another 17, giving him a Direct Goal Involvement score of 0.351 (in other words, he scored or laid on 35 per cent of all the club’s goals that season).
When Derby served notice of the potential for a massive improvement on 2012/3 by passing Yeovil Town to death in August 2013, it was Bryson who was on the end of a much-admired gazillion-pass move to score. Then he slayed Millwall with a great hat-trick at the Den, including two strikes from long range. He created both goals in the 2-2 draw at Bolton the next week with crosses and, in the infamous match against Ipswich straight after Nigel Clough’s sacking, Bryson ran through to make it 2-4 shortly after half-time, before slamming in the dramatic late equaliser which galvanised the fans and marked the start of a new era.
He created two more, as McClaren’s official debut as manager ended in a 3-1 home win against Leeds… And the goals and assists continued to flow until 22 March 2014, when he made himself a Derby County immortal with that hat-trick against Forest, on the unforgettable afternoon when we won 5-0.
But the season didn’t end well. Having pipped the Rams to automatic promotion, Burnley decided to recruit the Scottish midfield dynamo for their Premier League campaign. Derby were understandably not keen to deal, but as the summer dragged on, the whispers from the national media got louder and louder – the club’s two-time Player of the Year was set to leave. Even worse, it was reported – and never convincingly denied by the club – that the Clarets were going to take advantage of a release clause in Bryson’s contract to buy him for an embarrassingly inadequate fee of £750,000.
But then, there was a dramatic last-minute intervention from Derby. A big new long-term contract was presented to the player – five years, taking him through to summer 2019 (by which time, he’ll be 32). Bryson signed. Burnley were thwarted.
But Bryson didn’t go on to have the season we all would have hoped for – and probably expected. He rasped in a terrific 25-yard winner at Watford in late November, but that was only his third goal of the campaign. By May, he had tallied just five goals, four of which were scored from outside the box.
With five assists to add to that, he contributed a DGI for 2014/5 of 0.101. From being the scorer or creator of more than a third of Derby’s goals – bettered only in 2013/4 by Chris Martin – he had slipped to being involved in only one in every ten.
McClaren described him as one of the ‘first names on the team sheet’ after the award of the new contract, yet he was used as a sub 13 times last season. Especially from January onwards, he was regularly left out for the younger duo of Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes, before sitting out the horrific denouement to the McClaren reign with a thigh injury.
Players rarely say anything of any interest in interviews, especially not when it’s a cosy chat for the club’s official website. However, clearly emboldened by McClaren’s departure, Bryson told Rams Player in July:
“Last season, I didn’t play my natural position, I played a lot deeper, so I found it… quite difficult to get into the box and score goals and when you’re not playing your natural position, it takes a wee bit of time to get used to…
“We’ll see what formation we play and what position I play, if I play, and take it from there.”
Remember also that an apparently fit Bryson was left out of the team for the play-off final, a game in which we could have sorely used his attacking dynamism, as QPR sat back and challenged us to break them down. I say that with the benefit of hindsight, of course, but even on the walk up Wembley Way, I remember assuming that the player was unfit when I heard the team. He looked fine when he was introduced from the bench.
I think it’s fair to say, then, that Bryson did not mourn McClaren’s departure. But given the major investment that has since gone into bolstering the midfield department, he will now certainly feel like a man with a very big point to prove. I’ve always considered him to be an exemplary professional with serious ability at this level, so for him to come back facing such stern competition for a place is great news for Derby County.
Even without him, it’s been hard to know who would be left out of the midfield – now, Clement’s selection conundrum intensifies even further. What is clear though is that a revved-up Bryson, itching to prove his importance to the team and allowed the freedom to recreate his magnificent attacking form of 2013/4, could very easily make a massive difference for Derby this season.