Stoke satisfying Duberry's hunger following bitter finale to life at Leeds

Centre-back rediscovers authority - and happiness - after turbulent times at Elland Road, writes <i><b>Phil Shaw </b></i>
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is a plot that even Footballers Wives might have rejected as too fanciful. If the allegation made by a former Leeds United executive is true, an ex-director planned to get Michael Duberry off the payroll by sprinkling his pasta with cocaine so that he would fail a drug test. Now a pivotal figure in Stoke City's push for the play-offs that lead to the Premiership, the towering, shaven-headed defender recalls the story with a wry smile, saying: "It's a good job I don't like Parmesan."

It is a plot that even Footballers Wives might have rejected as too fanciful. If the allegation made by a former Leeds United executive is true, an ex-director planned to get Michael Duberry off the payroll by sprinkling his pasta with cocaine so that he would fail a drug test. Now a pivotal figure in Stoke City's push for the play-offs that lead to the Premiership, the towering, shaven-headed defender recalls the story with a wry smile, saying: "It's a good job I don't like Parmesan."

After everything he saw and heard during his five years at Elland Road, Duberry is inclined to believe the "coke" claim (which the individual reputedly behind the plan has dismissed as "ludicrous"). While annoyed that his mother should have been upset, the 29-year-old Londoner refuses to let it affect a fresh start with Stoke that continues today when the Championship's 11th-placed team receive relegation-bound Rotherham United. Instead, he is drawing on the inner strength he developed at Leeds in the face of difficulties that would have broken other players.

With his first club, Chelsea, he enjoyed an outstanding initial run in the side under Glenn Hoddle's management, many observers touting him as a potential England international. He became marginalised by the advent of Stamford Bridge's first high-profile foreigners, but when David O'Leary, no mean centre-back himself, paid £4.5m to take him to Leeds in 1999, it looked likely to be the making of Duberry.

He became embroiled, however, in the trial of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate when his team-mates were accused of assaulting an Asian student. Duberry, who they persuaded to pick them up, was charged, and later acquitted, of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. In the re-trial, he became a prosecution witness and received threats against him.

"The main thing was to make sure there was no backlash against my children," he explains. "I was getting threats myself, but I never changed my routines. I didn't stop shopping or going out, even though I might not go into a night-club and stand in the middle of the bar.

"My family helped to give me the strength to make the right decisions and I came out of it a stronger person. I'm still good friends with Bow and Woody. I speak to them regularly. Woody is a wiser person, too; he has learned how to conduct himself. It was a harsh lesson but I feel I've learned how to avoid getting in that sort of trouble again."

Stoke, who took Duberry on loan last autumn and signed him on a free transfer a month ago after he settled with Leeds over the remainder of his contract, are savouring what the Yorkshire club's followers seldom witnessed. He always had power, pace and aerial ability. Now, to the satisfaction of the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, he is also playing with confidence and authority, as well as enjoying his football the way he did as a nine-year-old striker with Enfield Rangers (when his cup-winning goal was captured on video only for his father to tape Superman over it one Christmas).

"It's always easier to play with a smile on your face. The faith the manager has shown in me has boosted me up. I needed that. No disrespect to others I've played for lately, but I've not had that in a long while. I thought I'd give it a chance at Stoke rather than sitting and doing nothing at Leeds. In any job, it's good to feel wanted and valued."

Performing outside the top division for the first time (apart from a loan spell at Bournemouth as a teenager) has restored his "hunger". "You start to take things for granted," confesses Duberry. "As a young player I assumed I'd always be playing in cup finals and big games."

Which, indeed, he did for Chelsea, pocketing European Cup-Winners' Cup and League Cup winner's medals as well as England Under-21 caps. Hoddle had used him as one of three defenders flanked by wing-backs, encouraging him to break forward. In those days, Duberry was bracketed with Sol Campbell as the future of English defending. Then Ruud Gullit took over, switched to a 4-4-2 formation which restricted his forays and brought in the France pair of Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf.

"I tried to learn from them and raise my game to their level, but I wasn't getting the platform to showcase it. I never resented Marcel or Frank at all. I just wish that Luca [Gianluca Vialli, Gullit's successor] had had a bit more about him and dropped them when they didn't play well."

Leeds presented an exciting new challenge for Duberry. "The whole squad was about the same age and had similar interests. There would be 10 of us going for a meal together. People got in an hour early for training just to have a laugh together, then stay an hour afterwards to chill out together. You don't find that kind of camaraderie very often.

"But we needed to win something, or keep qualifying for the Champions' League, to maintain continuity and keep the money coming in. If we'd grown together, the potential was huge, but the squad was ripped apart. A lot of episodes went on when I was there, yet I don't see it as wasted time. I played with some fantastic talents at the top level in Europe. I improved as a player - and came away with some great friendships."

Towards the end at Leeds, though, even Duberry's natural enthusiasm and resilience became strained. "It's frustrating when you work hard during the week and there's no end product in the form of a match. I was playing in the reserves at rugby league grounds before a few hundred people. You try to be professional but it does get disheartening."

Ken Bates' take-over proved the catalyst for his departure, the former Chelsea chairman deeming it pointless to pay him a reported £24,000 a week but not play him. "Old Batesy saw I needed to move on," he says, beaming broadly. "That's twice he's got rid of me now! The only shame was that the story [about spiking his food] left a big cloud over my departure, although of course that's no reflection on Ken Bates."

The player known as "Doobs" pronounces himself "happy again" at the Britannia Stadium, while Pulis is delighted with his influence on the Championship's meanest defence. In Duberry's 19 appearances, Stoke have conceded 12 goals and kept nine clean sheets. "I've still got a lot to offer and believe I can get back to the Premiership. I don't go upfield as much as I used to. I know my limitations - I'm not a Rio [Ferdinand] who can spray the ball around - but I do play to my strengths.

"We pull together as a team at Stoke. There's a nice, jokey, relaxing vibe during the week, which switches to intense on match day. We're just quietly going about our business, hopefully sneaking up on a few more fancied clubs. We've got two massive home games now [the second is against Cardiff City next Tuesday]. Though we've had a blip in getting only one point from the last two away games, we can still do it."

Comments