Matt Derbyshire: 'I've got the beach, the pool... you can't pop out in Lancashire and find that'
It was a wrench for Blackburn boy Matt Derbyshire to join Olympiakos but, ahead of his Champions League debut tonight, he tells Simon Hart he's loving Greek life
Tuesday 23 February 2010
You can take the man out of Lancashire but you can't take Lancashire out of the man. Matt Derbyshire may have developed a taste for Greek cuisine since arriving in Athens a year ago but talk of the local pies gets short shrift: "It's not a Holland's meat and potato, is it?"
The Little Englander act is just that with this likeable Lancastrian, whose gamble of swapping the Blackburn Rovers bench for the promise of first-team football with Olympiakos has already brought a championship medal and a starring role in Greece's greatest cup final. Now fit again after a hernia problem, the former England Under-21 striker will carry on his adventure tonight by taking his place at European football's high table for the first time in Olympiakos' Champions League last-16 meeting with the French title holders, Bordeaux. "It will mean a lot," Derbyshire says. "Our main concern is the league but I won't lie, I am looking forward to playing in the Champions League. It's going to be fantastic."
If good things come to those who wait then Derbyshire is due a memorable debut in a competition in which only four English forwards have played this term (Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge). The 23-year-old sat out the group stage when he endured "the worst few months of my life". After undergoing surgery in July, he suffered a recurrence in September and only re-emerged in January. Yet his scoring instinct remains intact, as he has hit three goals in five starts since his return. "I'm not back to my best but I'm getting sharper," says Derbyshire, who featured as the central prong in a three-man attack – with the Newcastle United old boy Lomana LuaLua on his left – in Saturday's 1-1 draw at Ergotelis.
English footballers have had mixed fortunes abroad yet Derbyshire has never let the door open to self-doubt. "Being in a foreign country, as soon as you start to doubt yourself that's it, you're finished," he says. "I believe that I can play here and all the guys at the training ground know I can play."
Nobody at Olympiakos would disagree, given his scoring feats after arriving on loan in January 2009. He hit five goals in seven games to earn himself a four-year contract – together with a place in Olympiakos folklore after also netting twice in an epic Greek Cup final win over AEK Athens.
With his team trailing 2-0 in front of 70,000 spectators at the Olympic Stadium, Derbyshire's close-range header narrowed the deficit within two minutes of his coming on. Deep into stoppage time, he struck again with a header to make it 3-3 before he left the field with concussion: "I got knocked out scoring my second. I was completely dizzy." He looked on as the teams drew 4-4 but Olympiakos won 15-14 on penalties.
For Derbyshire, brought up close to Blackburn in Great Harwood, it vindicated his decision to leave his boyhood favourites. It had been a "wrench" but, after starting in only 31 of his 86 outings for the club, he was thirsty for football. "There's no point being in the game if you're not going to play," he says. "It's all right picking your wages up but what have you got to show for it? You want to be winning medals, you want to be scoring."
The Ribble Valley feels a long way away when you step inside Derbyshire's modern, three-storey home in Kavouri, a friendly, beachside district, 12 miles south of Athens. There is a swimming pool at the back and the Aegean is a stone's throw away. "They love it," Derbyshire says of his fiancée Melissa and their toddler twins. "It is a great place to bring your family up, especially when you have two young boys. You've got the beach, the pool, you can't just go out in Lancashire and do that."
Derbyshire is picking up the language on the training ground – "I know quite a lot of basics, which is helping" – and has taken to the food; he enjoys gyros (kebab with chips, tomato, onion and yoghurt) and has taken in the Acropolis with the kids.
Olympiakos are the best-supported club in a country with 11 sports dailies – three focused on the 37-times champions – and Derbyshire was taken aback by the passions they rouse. "They treat you like a god. I have never seen fans like these. I'd heard about Turkish fans but the Greeks are fantastic. After my operation I had so many people helping me with my shopping into the car."
They are less welcoming to opposition players. "It is quite intimidating," Derbyshire says, and this evidently serves Olympiakos well in Europe. They have recorded five straight home wins in this season's Champions League, including a 1-0 defeat of Arsenal. They will need more of the same to better Laurent Blanc's Bordeaux side, who claimed more points than any other team in the group stage. "The home game is massive. To win and get a decent lead as well would be good," Derbyshire says.
The expectation level at Olympiakos has been an eye-opener for Derbyshire: "You get to see how the Man Utd and Arsenal boys look at each game. Here the pressure is on to win every game. That pressure drives you on." He is learning in other ways too. "In training we concentrate on technique, so definitely my technique has come on," he says. His education will go up a notch tonight on club football's biggest stage.
English abroad: Five living the life
*Darius Vassell Ankaragucu
Former Villa striker (29) has hit just three goals in 15 games against a backdrop of political upheaval at Turkish club.
*Jermaine Pennant Real Zaragoza
27-year-old joined Zaragoza on a free from Birmingham in July and has featured in 20 of their 23 league matches.
*Colin Kazim-Richards Toulouse
Former Sheffield United winger (23) is on loan to Ligue 1 side after things went sour at Fenerbahce when he lied about a night out.
*Tony Stokes Ujpest
23-year-old managed only three minutes in the West Ham first team so moved to Budapest last season.
*Kenny Pavey AIK Solna
Former Millwall trainee (30) recently got a new contract in Sweden after helping AIK win the double.
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