Kop Star: Stephen Darby

Kop Star: Issue 7
Right Back

Irrelevant of which side of the fence you chose to perch during the ‘˜flooding of the Reserves’ debate, there is no doubting, with the number of players fast-tracked to our reserve side, that it is tough times at Kirkby at the minute, if you are trying to break into the set-up at Melwood.

Certainly, whether you choose to believe that buying an elite group of young players from all over the World ensures that only the cream rises (as depicted very nicely up in North London), or if you decide like Brian Reade (columnist for the Mirror) that;

‘œ’¦ There is a war raging between Melwood and the Academy, which is very disturbing, mainly because it is stopping local lads coming through. Lads who, unlike half the team on Wednesday [12/11/08, vs. Tottenham in the Carling Cup], know what it means to pull on a red shirt’

It is an argument that could rumble on forever, and to be honest it already feels like it has been longer than that. One thing even the most blue in the face (on either side of the debate) could not dispute, however; it is becoming increasingly difficult for ‘˜the next’ Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Jamie Carragher or Steven Gerrard to make that step-up.

A player who makes up a quarter of the mere 14.3% of reserve team members ‘˜born and bred’ within the Merseyside boundaries is captain Stephen Darby (pictured above in the pre-season friendly vs. Hertha BSC Berlin).

Despite coming from a family whose hearts lay on the other side of Stanley Park (although he’d have you believe he’s always shunned their evil ways), Stephen was signed to the Liverpool Academy at Under-9 level by Steve Heighway (who played a major role in all of the afore mentioned players rise to legendary status) and has never looked back.

A decade later and despite not yet earning a first team start, this career already has the taste for silverware generously laden upon its young lips.

DarbyIn 2006 a stunning 3-0 win at Anfield was enough to overcome a brave Manchester City comeback in the second leg, to win the FA Youth Cup 3-2 on aggregate. Darby (pictured below lifting the trophy) was the team captain that season, and played out of his skin in his natural right-back position in both games. It was the first time Liverpool had won the trophy since 1996, when none other than Jamie Carragher played in the fullback slot, while a very young Michael Owen kept the bench warm.

Twelve months further on, and the increasingly skilled fullback was repeating the accomplishment, this time against the red half of Manchester. Liverpool this time round had to go to Old Trafford in the second leg, trailing 1-2, Darby (shown with the lads after winning penalty is converted) showed his versatility starting the game at centre back, and held out to keep a clean sheet against a United attack lead by Danny Welbeck. A young Liverpool side showed great character on the day, and Robbie Threlfall made up for his own goal in the first leg by scoring the only goal of open play, and then netting the winning penalty. Making Liverpool the first team to lift back-to-back FA Youth Cups since an Arsenal side consisting of Steve Sidwell, Jérémie Aliadière, Justin Hoyte, and Jermaine Pennant et alii.

During the course of these two memorable victories, Stephen earned himself a regular place in the Melwood set-up under new gaffer Garry Ablett. Taking the opportunity with two grateful hands, he put in some very solid performances despite being only seventeen and in no time found himself as the skipper of the Reserve side.

In March of 2008, the reserves flew out to compete in the (apparently) prestigious Dallas Youth Cup, in which they slaughtered everything that dared stand up against them, and thus recieved their first bit of silverware under Darby’s captaincy.

They didn’t have to wait long for the next piece however, as after romping to the Premier Reserve League North title by a clear thirteen points from just eighteen games they then took apart a strong Aston Villa side by three goals to nil to become National Champions for the first time since its conception.

Darby (shown below with the trophy) again played the full game, leading players with first team and international experience, with the assurance and intellect of a man of twice his age. Commenting on that game, This Is Anfield’s Broomy also seemed impressed:

‘Think back to his man of the match performance against Aston Villa in the Reserve play off final where he faced experienced Premier League calibre of Shaun Maloney and Wayne Routledge but neither were able to get past the Liverpool skipper, he denied both players time and time again with a series of impeccably timed tackles’

However, as with all young players the Ultimate goal is to break into the first team and Stephen (who during his time with the reserves has been given the nickname ‘œsteady-Eddie’) has begun making strong inroads towards this goal already. At the age of just eighteen, he achieved a call-up to the first team squad for the 2006 Champions League game against Galatasaray S.K.

He had to wait a while for his taste of first team action, but made his first appearance in a competitive match as a substitute in Liverpool’s League Cup fourth round defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on November 12, 2008. Shortly after, he also popped his Champions League cherry, against P.S.V. Eindhoven in December, again appearing from the bench.

Stephen has been on the fringes of the first team since then, and played a major part in our last pre-season campaign, where his performances during eight outings earned the praise of boyhood hero Jamie Carragher. Speaking to liverpoolfc.tv Stephen commented “I was on holiday in America with my girlfriend and I got a phone call saying I’d be with the first team in pre-season. My stomach sank because I was nervous and excited. I couldn’t wait to get back,” said Darby;

“You learn so much, especially on the tactical side of your game. For me as a defender, working with people like Jamie and Sami Hyypia is unbelievable. It was great to hear what Jamie was saying about me, but you have to keep your feet on the ground. My family, friends and the people here help to do that. There is still a lot to improve on ‘“ you can always improve your game. At the moment I think I need to work on my strength. At the end of the day, I would swap 100 pre-season games for one in a competitive match with the first team. That’s what I dream about.”

This rapid progress onto the fringes of the first team earned him the ‘˜Ian Frodsham Young Player Of The Year Award 2008’ in recognition of both the progress he has made on the pitch during the those 12 months and the excellent way he continues to conduct himself off it.

In addition, during those 12 months, Darby was warranted a place in England’s squad for U.E.F.A. European U19 Championship qualifications alongside Liverpool teammates Jack Hobbs, Craig Lindfield and Adam Hammill.

On the pitch, Stephen is a mix between an old-fashioned fullback, who can tuck in and cover for the centre halves when the team is under the cosh, and a modern full back, which is willing overlap the winger and put balls into the box.

However, those attacking techniques, such as crossing, threading passes, and shooting are some of the skills that Stephen will have to train hard at if he is ever to become Liverpool’s first choice No. 2.

However, ‘Broomy2’ believes the boy is brimming with potential:

‘You always know what you are going to get with Darby. He is always worth a ‘seven’ in the match ratings. Captaining the Reserve team to both Regional and National titles last year, Darby showed great leadership qualities clever distribution of the ball coupled with clever positional sense. Darby is less heralded than Insúa but if called upon, I am sure he would step into the first team unfazed. When he stepped up the first team during our pre-season campaign, Darby showed the ability and self-belief needed to succeed at Liverpool. Its easy to make parallels between Darby and former Red Steve Finnan, however, there are a few areas of the pitch needs to improve on, going forward is one area Benitez will be looking to see Darby improve on.

Many have commented on Stephen’s slight build, an area that he has strived to improve on this season but he has showed he is more than capable of holding his own. He impressed in the 10 minutes he got at Tottenham and also when he came off the bench against PSV in December, he looked comfortable and put in steady displays, showing he will not be overawed if called upon to step into Benitez’s first team 11, if and when first team chances come along”.

TIA’s ‘Kid Viravax’ believes there are comparisons to be drawn between Stephen and vice-captain Jamie Carragher:

‘I like to think of Stephen Derby as a ‘Future Carragher’. Every match i have seen him play for the reserves, and his limited time he has graced the first team, he has always given a performance similar to that of Carragher – never the most technically gifted but unrivalled in making the decision, going in for that last-ditch tackle and not stopping until the 90 minutes are over.

He is reliable, and never puts in a bad performance. A ‘bad game’ for Derby means he is on the same level as most other right-backs, but they are rare. Consistency and Effort appear to be the rules that his performances follow.

Similar to Jamie, he always manages to be missed out when people come to think of the greatest in that generation, but there is always going to be the same question hanging over his head – “Would he be so good if he didn’t play for HIS club?’ It’s a tough question to answer, but either way Carragher’s game is raised to the next level because he cares so much about the team he is in, and Derby is exactly the same’

Similarly, to Carragher, Stephen’s pace and acceleration are slightly lacking too, when compared to the current breed of en vogue fullbacks being brought to the Premier League.

I am sure however, if you pulled Stephen up on this, he would quote the great Johan Cruyff ‘œwhen you see a player sprinting on the pitch, he left too late’. Because Darby’s greatest asset on the pitch is the mental edge he seems to have over the opponent, his reading and knowledge of the game is simply exceptional for a boy of his age.

TIA forum member ‘Zoky’ agrees the mental side of Stephen’s game is his main strength:

‘I think Stephen is professionally a real example to all the young players we have at the club. I love watching interviews, trying to see something in those lads and try to, and I love what I see in Stephen when he talks. Dedication, concentration, knows a lot about the club, and very cool-headed. You can see why he is the captain; he does things the Liverpool way. Being a player he is, it is simple that he was made to be a right back, and that is probably the position he’s played all his career so far.

Very good timing for a tackle and decision making for such a young lad, who is physically, some would say, not strong enough, but I think he copes with it just fine. He has just determined to go out there and play football in a simple way. In games, he has played with the first team he has already showed he can cope with the pressure, and is not afraid.

Although he might be a bit weak, he gets stuck in, but what I like about him is that he doesn’t allow to let the game take him out of control. He likes to wait for the opponent to make his first move, and with a good sense of reading the game, very good footwork (also when going backwards), he simply doesn’t let the winger to drive him crazy.’

Having recently signed a new contract (along with midfielder Jay Spearing), Rafa clearly has first-team plans for young Stephen Darby, and being my favourite reserve team player, I for one think he is ready to make that step now.
What do you think? Does Stephen Darby have what it takes to be a future KopStar? Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks To: Matt, Broomy2, Kid Viravax, Aero and Zoky.