The perception of Major League Soccer as a gentle grazing ground for superannuated Premier League footballers is easy to form, not least at Tottenham Hotspur where fans have seen Jermain Defoe follow Robbie Keane and Carlo Cudicini's trail to North America. Yet for another Spurs old boy, Simon Dawkins, it was a spell in the States that actually revived his career in this country.
It was during a two-year stay at San Jose Earthquakes that Dawkins, now a Derby County player, gained his first taste of regular first-team action after injury had stalled his development at Tottenham. The fact that before joining Derby in October the 26-year-old winger had only ever made two league starts in English football – on loan at Leyton Orient five years earlier – underlines the significance of his time across the Pond.
"A lot of players do it towards the end of their career," he tells The Independent. "They want to go there because obviously the lifestyle is a lot better there, playing in the sun, but to me it was about getting games and progressing, and I did that under my coach, Frank Yallop. I owe a lot to him."
Dawkins, who joined Spurs at 13, had come close to a first-team breakthrough under Martin Jol. "When I was about 18, I had a four or five-month period on the bench for every game and he said, 'Just wait your turn, it'll come,'" he explains but instead, early in 2009, he suffered a torn patella tendon that left him thinking he "maybe wouldn't be able to play again". His subsequent release by Tottenham that summer marked the start of a spell in career limbo: after completing his rehab, trials with several clubs – from Celtic to Strasbourg via Bournemouth – came to nothing and he ended up training back at Spurs Lodge at the invitation of Tim Sherwood, then part of Harry Redknapp's coaching staff. "He spent a lot of time with me before and after training trying to get my sharpness back," he says of Sherwood's help, which eventually yielded a new contract.
Serendipity then smiled on Dawkins when David Beckham turned up at Tottenham during the MLS off-season in January 2011. "David is the reason I went out in the first place. He was training with Spurs at the time I was looking for a loan move. He was friends with Frank Yallop who was manager at LA Galaxy when he first moved out there, so he took me on loan." Over the 2011 and 2012 seasons Dawkins played 53 matches and scored 14 goals under Yallop, the former Ipswich Town defender, helping the Earthquakes win the 2012 Western Conference before losing in the MLS Cup play-offs to the Galaxy of Beckham and Keane. "I enjoyed it so much. After I did my second year, I had a lot more options."
Back home, he spent the tail end of last term at Aston Villa – making four substitute appearances – and opportunity knocked again this autumn. Before heading to San Jose, Dawkins had also had a trial with Dutch side FC Twente, then under Steve McClaren's management. "Money issues" meant a proposed loan fell through then, but McClaren came back in to make him his first recruit for Derby on a two-and-a-half year deal. "He always had me in his thoughts and once he took the Derby job he called and told me to come down and see how I fitted in," Dawkins said. "It has been great to have someone like that coaching you, giving you the freedom to play. I'm just growing as a player every day." The wide attacker adds McClaren's coaching has already improved his defensive game: "I don't think it was very good before coming to Derby but it has got a lot better since I've been working under him."
To date Dawkins has made 22 appearances and struck three goals for a team chasing a Premier League place. Third in the Championship, Derby have had a hiccup of late, with just one point from their last three games, but Dawkins remains upbeat. "We just need to find that little bit of form again where we were putting teams away around Christmas time and hopefully this is the time now," he says. He has kept the Californian optimism but how is he coping without the sunshine? "That is a hard one really," he laughs, but it is a price worth paying to be finally making his way in the English game. "I realised being out for that long how much it really meant to me," he adds. "You just want to enjoy it every time you step on the field. That is what I am doing and I will do that for the rest of my career."