There are only three English born strikers currently able to ply their trade in the Champions League, the pinnacle of the European club game. Manchester United’s Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney will spring to mind straight away – but Matt Derbyshire of Greek double-winners Olympiakos is the least obvious.
Having burst onto the scene with his hometown club Blackburn Rovers during the 2006/07 season and then with the England Under-21’s at that summer’s European Under-21 Championships, Derbyshire’s progress has slowed somewhat. As a late developer however it is too early to write him off.
Derbyshire’s route to Europe’s premier club competition has not been conventional. It was not until the age of 17 when he was plucked from the ‘Football in the Community’ department at Ewood Park, and the first-team of now defunct non-league club Great Harwood Town to join Blackburn Rovers as a professional.
Impressive performances for the reserve and youth teams at Rovers led to a brief taste of Premiership football before being sent out on loan to the likes of lower league Plymouth Argyle and Wrexham. While Derbyshire endured a frustrating lack of opportunities with Plymouth, his spell with the Welsh club proved fruitful as he netted 10 goals in 16 games.
It was with Wrexham that Derbyshire was able to display the qualities which convinced Mark Hughes he had a future at the highest level. Early in 2007 – aged 20 – Derbyshire made his big breakthrough at Blackburn. Initially used as an impact substitute he scored his first Premier League goal at the turn of the year. Further goals followed and with them a place in the starting line-up and critical acclaim – most notably from the studio pundits in a BBC televised FA Cup game against Luton in which he grabbed two goals.
By the end of that term Derbyshire had kept more established strikers on the sidelines featuring in the UEFA Cup and an FA Cup semi-final – finishing the season with a total of 9 goals
The slim forward possesses the burst of pace to take him beyond even the quickest defensive line, which is necessary in any modern top-flight front-runner. Allied to this he has a good eye for goal, an impressively strong shot and a wide variety of finishing, from the simple tap-in to the long-range Goal of the Month contender. His first goal for Blackburn against Wigan, and first goal on the opening day of the next season against Middlesbrough illustrate these contrasts perfectly.
Having scored on his England Under-21 debut against Italy in the first game at the new Wembley he was part of the squad for that summer’s European Under-21 Championships. Unfortunately the young Lions were eliminated at the semi-final stage by Holland following a marathon penalty shoot-out. Derbyshire was called on to take two spot-kicks – scoring his first only to see his second saved.
The following season at club level was less impressive as many of Matt’s appearances were as a substitute and often out of position on the right. He only managed 5 goals but being a local lad and a Rovers supporter since childhood he remained a great favourite with the Ewood faithful.
With Hughes departing for Manchester City in the summer of 2008 Derbyshire had a new manager to impress in Paul Ince – while continuing to compete with the likes of Roque Santa Cruz, Benni McCarthy and Jason Roberts for a place up front.
A poor start to the season saw Rovers struggling at the wrong end of the table and Derbyshire’s progress also stalled. Despite another five goals by the New Year it was clear his style of play did not fit into new manager Sam Allardyce’s plans for survival – as he lost out to players of a more physical presence up front.
It was still something of a surprise when Derbyshire did move on in January it was to Greek champions Olympiakos. Given the reluctance of many British players to move abroad to sample different cultures and styles of football – it was a bold move for a player approaching his 23rd birthday.
The Lancastrian threw himself into the experience and became a cult hero in the process. He netted six goals in 10 games including two in the Greek equivalent of the FA Cup final. It was a dramatic game in which Derbyshire was introduced as a substitute and inspired a late comeback from two goals down to level the score at 3-3. The game was decided on penalties during which he scored again. The transfer was made permanent during the summer for a reported fee of £3.5 million.
The transition from non-league to Premiership footballer and an ability to adapt so quickly to life in Greece speaks volumes for Derbyshire’s character. He has shown he can handle frenzied atmospheres and grab vital goals on big occasions when it matters. This bodes well for his future as he looks to make to take the next step – catching Fabio Capello’s eye from afar.
Unfortunately since his transfer Derbyshire has not had the opportunity to display the talent and instinct for goal in the Champions League which might make him an England contender. A groin injury has rendered him unavailable so far this campaign – but with Olympiakos almost guaranteed a place in the knock-out phase Matt Derbyshire could yet receive the chance to shine on the biggest stage in Europe.