Shaun Derry: The moment the dream died

Why did Shaun Derry leave the Old Trafford pitch so calmly after his red card following Ashley Young's dive? Because, he tells Ian Herbert, he was in shock that the pinnacle of his playing career had just been shattered

You're only the second person to ask me that. The first one was my wife," says the Queen's Park Rangers midfielder Shaun Derry, and it is when he answers the question of how it really feels to be sent from the field of play at Old Trafford after 13 minutes – whether you speed up the walk, where you find a hole in the lush turf to swallow you up – that you appreciate the immensely personal cost of the Ashley Young swallow dive which two weeks ago earned Manchester United and Derry penalties of very different kinds.

Derry would feel fury soon enough and, when that mist had cleared a little, he would sit beside Joey Barton in the Old Trafford dugout and point out to him that Paul Scholes, not Wayne Rooney, is the United player who needs man-marking. But his preoccupation on that long walk off was to hold the moment; to savour the last seconds on the pitch, even though he knew his parents were up in the stands somewhere, watching perhaps the pinnacle of his hard, 14-year career reduce to dust.

"Take away the promotions and the good games and individually that day was the highlight of my career," explains a man who has had to wait until the age of 34 finally to prove himself a player of Premier League pedigree. "So I wanted to take my time when I'd been sent off. Sample an atmosphere of some kind, because ultimately there's not going to be a lot of occasions where I'm going to play at Old Trafford ever again. It might not ever happen again. I wanted some sort of memory of the situation, of me being a player at Old Trafford, being captain. It was a bad one, maybe, but I didn't want the whole thing to be dazed... a blur in my mind."

Because a blur is what it had been in the 30 seconds or so it took for him and Young to brush together, Young to crash to earth and the referee, Lee Mason, to issue a red card. "I was baffled by Young being on the floor because the amount of pressure we put on each other was so minimal. To see somebody on the floor was... well... a shock to me," Derry says. "I thought something else must have happened – without me knowing. So I was thinking: 'Have I kicked him?' That is why I reacted how I did – just going gently off the pitch and down the tunnel. I didn't realise what I'd done."

It was when he had reached his club's video analyst, at the TV monitor in the tunnel, that he realised what he had not done and the anger licked around him like flames. "That's when you're thinking: 'Hang on a minute. I've just led a Premier League side out at Old Trafford. My parents to see me being captain. All that's gone.'"

Derry can rationalise a little now. He relates some "very stable comments" Gary Neville made a couple of days later, about very good players going down in the box over the years. His reluctance to denigrate any fellow professional – which will later lead him to tell me that he thanks God he had been substituted before words passed between his team-mate Anton Ferdinand and Chelsea's John Terry at Loftus Road in October, so obviating any request to assist the Metropolitan Police in their criminal investigation into Terry – extends to him extending the benefit of the doubt to Young.

"I never felt Ashley Young tried to cheat me," he says. "Just to gain an advantage for his side as he did again [the next week] against Aston Villa." His sympathy for Ciaran Clark, the penalised Villa defender, was more substantial than Clark probably imagines. "He tried to get himself back in a position where he was stable on the ground. It was very clever play to find the leg, to go down. Clark wasn't in the wrong at all."

The diving controversy raged on yesterday, though in truth that is insignificant to Derry now; a distant landscape when you consider that at stake when Tottenham Hotspur visit Loftus Road today is Derry's right ever to play at Old Trafford again. There has been some elation this season and none greater than Derry scoring his first goal in six years in an extraordinary win against Liverpool last month. "It gave us the belief that anything can happen." But it's been a desperate time. "I'm hoping at the end of the season we can look back and look at the season in a number of ways because just at the minute it's been... it's just... you are forever climbing mountains," Derry reflects.

He didn't think he would be clambering them at all, given what happened when he finally made it to the top flight, as a key player in the Crystal Palace team Iain Dowie led to promotion in 2004. Derry's Premier League experience was a solitary start and six substitutes' appearances. "I was 26 and I thought it was the absolute perfect age to get into the Premier League," he says. "But Iain Dowie had his own view and I didn't fit the criteria for what he wanted in midfield." That one start came in a 2–1 home defeat to Manchester City, deployed out of position in left midfield.

"I've spoken to Iain a number of times since then and he's held his hands up and said he made his mistakes back then, but football's always changing. As one door closes another one opens."

Initially, it was the one marked "Leeds". The door that bestowed Derry with some pretty vivid relegation memories which have come flooding back in recent weeks. The look in the eye of the receptionist and the club handyman when you walk into training on the Monday after another defeat. "They haven't got any say in their future. We have," Derry remembers. "These last weeks have been as intense as that. Leeds was a grand club. A huge football club, slipping into League One." Once down there, his own relations with Dennis Wise turned so sour that Derry began the 2007-08 season unable even to get a squad place in the third tier. His thirties were approaching and his career seemed to be in decline.

Which was when Neil Warnock – the manager who had shipped him out of Sheffield United at the age of 22 when, as he has admitted, he "perhaps had a bit too much to say for myself" – offered him salvation as he began the job of rebuilding Palace.

"I told [the chairman] Simon Jordan, 'His legs have gone, but he'll keep us up,'" Warnock recalls. "Then I signed him again at QPR, thinking we'd get a few games out of him to give us some experience. He finished up playing nearly every game and now he more than holds his own in the Premier League. He's got better each year. He's simply a good pro. He always had a good brain, now he looks after himself on a daily basis. He has a fitness programme. He does his weights. He gets his rest. A good pro."

Warnock could have used more of that ilk because, while Swansea City and Norwich City continued to do what they knew, the more showy players Warnock appended this summer – Joey Barton, Shaun Wright–Phillips, Armand Traoré and Jay Bothroyd – did not deliver for him and Mark Hughes arrived in his place.

"As time goes by you can get caught up with people," Derry says. "I'd worked with Neil for four years and that's a long time in football. We let him down. But as time has progressed we've seen a different manager and his different qualities." Warnock was one for motivation, driving on every aspect of the club, "everyone grit your teeth, get the job done, this is what's expected of you, go and perform", as Derry puts it. Hughes is about sports science, delegation, "a lot more meetings, more training drills we need to take on board". Derry looks like prime management material in the making and you sense that he loves all this modernity.

We may know a little more by tonight about whether it will prove to be enough for another year in what Derry calls "the promised land". The most searing memories of his first are the Liverpool miracle and the Terry-Ferdinand controversy, the consequences of which he escaped. "To go against a fellow professional, it doesn't sit right with me. It just doesn't. To give evidence against someone else – it's not how I see football."

And then, despite everything, there is the memory of playing United – home and away the best side Rangers have played, to his mind – and Rooney, the best of that best. "He only has to look at certain players and he gets a reaction from them. The aura he possesses on a football field is huge. And he probably only played at 70 per cent of his full capabilities when he played against us," Derry says. "United seemed to know exactly how to win. They knew exactly what it took to win. We said before the game, 'Strip away their stadium and history and you are playing against 11 men'. But you can't. You can't strip away from it, because that is what makes them and they are a force on a different level to any other."

Make no mistake. Shaun Derry wants to go back to Old Trafford.

My Other Life

"I'm a bad golfer. I like it – but I am a bad golfer!

"I've got two children – a four-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl – and family life with them and my wife, Jolene, to me is everything. "Because of where I live in Kent and where we're situated here at Queen's Park Rangers, I spend more time away from them than I would like.

"We're in a village of probably 1,500 people in Kent and, to be honest, not a lot happens there. That's the way I want it!"

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