ONE DAY Shaun Derry plans to sit down and start writing a book. If he ever finds the time to pick up a pen, Leeds United will be all over it; front and centre in the story of his career.
Derry says Leeds were a club where he would have played forever. Yorkshire was a county where he and his family would have happily lived for longer than they did.
“I’ve always been on record as saying they’re the biggest club I played for,” Derry says. “The proudest moment of my career was pulling on the shirt before my debut at Elland Road.”
On that basis, his recollection of three years at Leeds is a glaring contradiction. The tale is grim in parts and ridiculous in others; strangely so for a retired midfielder who felt he was forced to leave in 2008 and has never regretted his decision to move north in the first place.
It began for Derry in 2004 when Leeds didn’t quite sign him from Crystal Palace. In every respect, that deal was done. United announced it formally and Derry completed a medical at Thorp Arch. “I was already in my training kit,” he says. “I’d passed the medical and I’d done the contract. I was driving home to pick up my wife and make the move up north.”
The rumour went that David Pleat, Tottenham’s former director of football, kyboshed the transfer by advising a member of United’s board not to invest money in Derry. Whatever the motivation, Leeds pulled out. “I never discovered the reasons but something bizarre went on,” Derry says. “One minute you’re trying on training gear at Leeds, the next minute you’ve gone to Nottingham Forest on loan.”
Kevin Blackwell, United’s manager at the time, was unimpressed and continued to argue that Derry was worth signing. When the Yorkshire consortium passed control of Leeds to Ken Bates in early 2005, Derry become one of Bates’ first signings. “They were a club in transition,” Derry recalls. “New signings were like a weekly occurrence. People seemed to be joining all the time. It was unusual but exciting in its own way.”
Leeds weighed into the transfer market in preparation for the 2005-06 season; more heavily than they ever would under Bates again. Rob Hulse signed permanently from West Brom and Robbie Blake, Steve Stone and Richard Cresswell followed. The investment was enough to clear the way to the Championship play-off final after a season which Derry remembers as “very productive.”
The last-gasp failure and defeat to Watford during the final in Cardiff in May 2006 came to be Derry’s biggest disappointment. He was one of the few players who emerged from a 3-0 loss with credit, though his clumsy concession of a second-half penalty summed up the afternoon.
“No other game made me feel like that,” he says. “It was disastrous, my biggest disappointment by a mile.
“I’ve got my own views about what happened. The bottom line is that none of us played well, that’s the truth. But the manager (Blackwell) brought Paul Butler back into the defence even though Paul had been suffering from a calf injury. I thought at the time and I still think now that it knocked us a bit.
“Paul by his own admission probably needed another couple of weeks to be fit. We changed a back four which in all honesty had been pretty decent against Preston in the semi-finals. I don’t think that was a good move but it doesn’t explain how badly we played.”
Clubs who lose play-off finals try to use their defeat as a staging post for future seasons. Watford reached the Premier League last season two years after falling short at Wembley. In the aftermath of Cardiff, Derry expected Leeds to make amends quickly, failing to appreciate the true extent of the financial state United were in.
“For want of a better phrase, the play-off season was s*** or bust,” Derry says. “I see that now. The club had thrown money at the team but the debts and so on were getting so big that we needed to go up there and then.
“Blackwell was sacked and he left behind a bunch of players who he’d signed. Dennis Wise came in and made some big decisions – big decisions like getting rid of Butler and (Sean) Gregan. For a time I thought Dennis would be good for us but it all went badly wrong.”
One of Wise’s first calls was to strip Butler of the captaincy and replace him with Kevin Nicholls. Derry was named vice-captain in a very obvious show of faith.
The breaking point for Derry and Wise, not that either of them realised it, was an innocuous injury sustained by the midfielder in a 3-1 defeat at Stoke while United were diving towards relegation. “I took a kick on the heel from Mamady Sidibe,” Derry says. “That’s all it was – a little kick.
“I genuinely thought I’d be back fit in a week but the bone started to calcify. It took three operations and 10 months to get me to a position where I could think about training. It was a horrendous period for me personally and in that period my relationship with Dennis broke down completely.”
Derry says he was frustrated by what he calls the “wrong way” in which “good people” were being treated at Thorp Arch. “I was the sort of character who stood up for myself,” he says. “That caused friction.”
Nothing caused more friction than ‘molegate’ – the infamous incident in which Wise accused an unnamed player of leaking his line-up to Crystal Palace before Palace’s defeat at Elland Road in February 2007.
Speculation reigned and Derry was wrongly implicated by many. A former Palace player, he was and still is close friends with Danny Butterfield, Palace’s central defender. An angry Wise said the player responsible would “never play for this club again.” Derry never did.
“When you put all the pieces together, it was made to look like me,” Derry says.
“Everyone put two and two together and came up with five by accusing me. But I wasn’t responsible.
“To be honest I don’t think ‘the mole’ even existed. It was ridiculous – just an excuse, another bizarre event that pushed players out of the club. That’s my opinion.
“I was devastated by all that because I’d never leak the team. I just wouldn’t do that. I got the PFA and my agent involved but it was hard to handle because the speculation was everywhere. My name was being dragged through the gutter.”
It was again 10 months later when Leeds and Derry finally came to part company. Derry was technically fit by the end of 2007 but he remembers being able to train for only 25 minutes a day. Palace wanted to sign him regardless and Wise allowed Derry to leave on loan, despite the feeling that the midfielder would be a useful asset in Leeds’ pursuit of promotion from League One.
The initial loan was agreed without argument but problems developed when Wise ran short of midfielders around the turn of the year. He asked Derry to return early from a deal which included no recall clause. In a voicemail, Derry told Wise that he owed Palace manager Neil Warnock better than a sudden departure. Palace in any case were promising to sign him permanently and stuck to their word.
“I was really torn,” Derry says. “I didn’t want to play for Dennis but a big part of me knew Leeds needed help and it went without saying that I wanted to play for the club. Again, it was difficult.
“People will talk about loyalty but it does work both ways. I wasn’t shown any by Dennis and I knew that in different circumstances he wouldn’t have bothered with me. I felt I owed Neil Warnock. I had to be loyal to him.
“It was the right decision to go but a horrible one at the same time. From a footballing point of view I went on to play with QPR in the Premier League and to captain Palace. It worked out really well. But Leeds were a club I could have stayed with forever. Those were the quickest three years of my life.”