Igor, Derby's one-word wonder

Stephen Brenkley meets the Croat who is stamping his mark as player and captain
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It falls to few sporting stars to be recognised solely by their first name. There was Martina, of course, there was Arnie and, before them, with definite article added to emphasise his special mastery, there was The Don. And now there is Igor. No further elaboration is required by a growing band of followers.

At Derby County he is a folk hero. Fans discuss him with deep, abiding affection. It is precisely a year since Igor Stimac arrived at the club from Hajduk Split, in his native Croatia, for what is known in manager- speak as a steal at pounds 1.57m, and about 11 months since the surname was rendered superfluous.

"I love it," he said after training on Friday. "It's a different culture with different people, but you know there's no real difference wherever you go. If you comport yourself properly, then the team and the crowd will respond." Comport isn't a word which often leaps out of the footballers' thesaurus, and it is a measure of how Igor has embraced not only the culture but the language.

He had learned English at school but found he understood hardly a word on landing in the East Midlands, undone by accent and dialect. "The television people came and asked me to go to the cinema with them because they had heard that's where I learned. I would have liked to go to the cinema but the story isn't true, so I'm afraid I couldn't go along with them. I learned English by listening all the time and then speaking."

He has learned so well that at the start of the season the Derby manager Jim Smith asked him to be captain. It has enhanced rapport with both colleagues and spectators.

The only Igor, if any, of whom most Englishmen might once have heard was the fellow who went round in The Bride of Frankenstein stealing brains for the Baron. The later Igor merely picks the brains of opposing forwards. He is comfortable in the tackle and on the ball, a calm sweeper with distinctive daring.

Derby County were beaten 5-1 on his debut appearance in early November last year but he made an immediate impression by scoring, so far his only goal. The side then proceeded to go 20 games unbeaten and gain promotion. "When the gaffer asked me to be captain," he said, demonstrating that he has also swiftly grasped soccer players' vernacular, "it was a big honour for me. I was ready to be captain. I did it in Split and I think I know how to show players to get confidence. I also think they believe in me."

Igor is grateful for the advent of Paul McGrath alongside him in the Derby defence - and he thinks this will ensure Premiership survival. The pair will, he is certain, combine well. Their experience will be telling for those in front of them. At 28, Igor was often the oldest member of the side last season.

The arrival of his compatriot Aliojsa Asanovic has pleased him too. Derby's second Croat has been mightily creative in midfield and while Asanovic's bespectacled, studious face does not look as if it belongs to a footballer, it speaks volumes for his cultured play.

"I urged the gaffer to buy him," said Igor. "We were friends and team- mates for eight years and I knew he was available for a good price. It was good that the deal was struck before Euro 96 because the price would have gone up largely afterwards."

As yet, Asanovic is feeling his feet off the field and his friend acts as interpreter. Only in one regard does Igor himself not feel at home: he has been booked six times this season and will begin a three-match ban after the game against Liverpool today. The cautions have arrived partly, he feels, because he is still not fully fit after a back injury, but also because in Croatia (and apparently in Spain, where he played for Cadiz), referees do not object to discussing matters with players.

"But never mind. This is the most exciting football in the world in England, and your players are behind only those in Italy. It is just the tactics that are bad." He may improve them. The singular Igor is here to stay.