The Richard Keogh years are over at Derby County

The Richard Keogh era at Derby County is over.  And now that the shock has abated over the manner of the serious injury which has ended his season and possibly his playing career, I’m surprised to find that I feel strangely relieved that he will no longer serve as one of the most high-profile emblems for our team and club.

Keogh made it to #19 on the list of the Rams’ all-time appearances list and had he not clambered into the back of Tom Lawrence’s car that night – a lapse of judgement so chronic that it is mind-boggling – he could have gone on to breach the top ten, by surpassing Steve Powell’s tally of 420 games.   Anybody who climbs past Powell gets into the company of men from bygone eras – Sammy Crooks.  Jack Parry.  Steve Bloomer.  Then it’s a top three from Brian Clough’s day – Roy McFarland.  Ron Webster.  Kevin Hector.  Keogh could have taken his place among those names.  But he was not able to do it and in truth, he would have been an incongruous, ill-fitting addition to that hallowed list.

He might play again, of course, for Derby or elsewhere.  His contract runs until the summer of 2021 and a provisional return date of January 2021 was set in the aftermath of the crash.  But that is a long, long way off for a player who is 33 already.  Phillip Cocu cannot count on Keogh as an option for the start of next season and Derby will have to recruit around his absence, possibly even as early as the next transfer window.  The club will simply move on while Keogh embarks upon a long and gruelling rehabilitation process and his time as a key figure – almost “Mr Derby County”, as Chris Smith phrased it in our post-court case BlogCast – has been curtailed, in the most disappointing manner imaginable.

Keogh has made more than 350 appearances for Derby County since Nigel Clough signed him from Coventry City for £1m in 2012, which breaks down to less than £3,000 per game.  Compare that in terms of value for money to some of the other, far more expensive signings made in more recent years and you’ll find that…  No, in fact.  Just try not to even think about it.

When we consider the rollercoaster of madness which unfolded throughout Mel Morris’ ‘roaring tens’ at the helm and Keogh’s integral part in it all, it feels fitting that his debut was one of the most bizarre games in the club’s recent history – a league cup exit against Scunthorpe, which the Rams led 4-1, only to draw 5-5 after extra time and lose on penalties – and that his final game before the ‘alcohol-related incident’ was just as preposterous – the grand larceny of a 1-1 draw at Elland Road, for which Derby didn’t turn up until the 92nd minute, then hilariously turned into prime Brazil for 30 seconds.  From the ridiculous to the ridiculous – with the occasional moment of the sublime – the Keogh years at Derby were certainly never dull.

You always knew that he had a mistake in him, even when he went for runs of games without making one.  He was not particularly quick, or commanding in the air and barely ever scored goals, but he worked hard on his game, particularly to adapt to the short-passing style that most of his Derby managers favoured.  His ‘loose racehorse’ runs from the back became the stuff of cult legend – fun to watch, without any end product, until, of course, at Elland Road in the 2018/9 play-off semi-final second leg, he galloped through a vacated midfield and executed a perfect first-time pass to set up Jack Marriott, sending the Rams to a Wembley final for the second time in his seventh season with the club.  

He was almost never injured, almost never dropped.  His temporary consignment to the bench by Gary Rowett – after an horrific 4-1 home defeat by a Sunderland side who went on to be relegated – lasted only three matches before he was brought back into the fold – after another horrorshow defeat in his absence, this time at Nigel Clough’s Burton.  

Barring a miraculous return, 2014’s Wembley play-off final will probably now remain the defining game of his time at the club.  For the record, Keogh never deserved sole blame for the Zamora goal.  Craig Forsyth and Jake Buxton should never have allowed the cross that came across the box, which Keogh could do little more than effectively ‘set’ perfectly for the journeyman striker.  But the shock of the loss was undoubtedly pinned on Keogh by many devastated supporters and negativity followed him around for seasons to come.  

Not this season, though.  By this year, I genuinely felt that the tide had turned for Keogh and his presence was valued by the vast majority.  There was no contest when I polled Twitter to find out who the fans thought our best defender was – Keogh won by a mile.  The delight we all felt when he thrashed home that penalty at Old Trafford last season, or when he set up Marriott for the best goal in Derby’s 21st century at Elland Road, these were magical moments. 

But other than great memories for the supporters, ultimately, those moments did not lead to any tangible, meaningful reward for the club – and that has very much been the story of our decade. 

I’m not saying that the ‘close, but no cigar’ years were Keogh’s fault – managers came and went every season from 2013/4 onwards, good money was thrown after bad, poor decisions made by those at the top.  But all the way through, Keogh was there.  Wagging his head as he strode forward, or chased back after faster, younger opponents, like-I-saying his way through the occasional interview – for a captain, he was not a regular presence on media duty, as BBC Radio Derby’s Chris Coles confirmed for us in the BlogCast.

As Chris told us:-

“He wore his heart on his sleeve and the interviews he did were often… when Derby weren’t doing so well. Curtis Davies in the team now is a Derby County dream, because they know that they can wheel him out whatever the weather and he’ll brilliant… Whereas when Derby were hammered by Brentford [this season], Richard came out and he was still absolutely furious and because of that, there’s not much value in interviewing him, because he’s just angry… So I think they needed to be a bit cuter with Richard and just take him out of the firing line.”

We are about to enter a new decade and the 2010s will go down as a time of disappointment, bad judgement, even calamity at times and all of those things are encapsulated in the incident which has effectively ended Derby’s Keogh years.  The Wembley goal wasn’t his fault and he never deserved the blame for it.  In this case, he has only himself to blame.

When you’ve been a part of the furniture for so long, despite a semi-permanent atmosphere of chaos reigning, perhaps after a while, you start to feel too comfortable.  Like you have a certain licence and can take a few liberties.  What happened that night was wholly unacceptable and for the club captain to have been so complicit in the wrong-doing was shocking.  Keogh will know how badly he let himself, the club, the fans, his family down.  And even in his disgrace, he must know how lucky he is, because things could have turned out considerably worse for him than they did. 

The idea of him not being around anymore was something that had honestly never occurred to me.  He wasn’t far away from a testimonial, which is rare indeed in these days of journeymen who pack their bags and move on every two or three seasons.  But while thanking Richard for the memories – some of which will make me shake my head and bring a rueful smile to my face for years to come – right now, I can only focus on the future for Derby County and the people who are in a position to help us.

The 2020s are about to start – and who knows what this new era in the history of Derby County will bring.

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