By Mahesh Johal
My first assessment of Stephen Darby was at the Crown Ground, Accrington. It was one of those disappointing matches City fans had seen before. In front of us was beatable opposition. The fans travelled in their numbers, but yet again City were unable to produce the goods. Starting his second league game for the club, Darby was substituted after 65 minutes. He did nothing wrong, but for some reason I did not feel confident watching him. I remember thinking he looked fragile and lacked the attacking intent demonstrated by left back James Meredith.
The thing that really worried me was the sense of déjà vu. For some reason, he reminded me of Robbie Threlfall. Products of the Liverpool Academy, both won back to back FA Youth Cup Finals. The Liverpool Academy has produced some of the great names of our generation. Their scouts can obviously spot talent. In Threfall’s case, they saw his technical ability. His set piece prowess and ability to pick a pass as his key attribute.
Whilst his career at City started well, Threlfall’s form quickly dipped. He appeared devoid of confidence in attack and very suspect when defending. Unfortunately he did not make the grade at Valley Parade. But, his technical skills will always find admirers and it is no surprise that Morecombe have taken a chance on him. With Darby in mind, I was initially unsure what his key attribute was and what he could bring to this team.
Darby had a very successful youth career at Liverpool, captaining both academy and reserve team. An England U19 player, he lifted the FA Youth Cup Trophy as captain in 2006, and returned a year later to help Liverpool retain the trophy. A staunch Koppite, Darby struggled to progress into the Anfield starting eleven and soon found himself loaned out to several League One clubs. I originally saw the signing of Darby as a positive move. With the constant injury problems to Simon Ramsden, Darby offered a younger alternative and someone with solid league credentials. Together with Rory McArdle, City had strong competition for places.
Darby did not see much playing time after the Accrington game. But as the case has been for several players this season, the League Cup proved to be turning point in his season. Ever present in every cup competition, Darby has only missed two cup games this season. His goal against Burton set up the 4th Round tie against Wigan. His performance at the DW Stadium was magnificent and he nullified the dangerous Jean Beausejour during the second half and extra time. He also kept his nerve to score one of City’s four penalties that night. Since that match, he has not looked back. A regular in the side, his confidence has grown with every game.
Whilst I originally felt unnerved watching him, Darby has proved to be a corner stone of this City team. A smart player, he reads the game very well. He knows how to defend and when to attack. In my opinion there are two examples which epitomise Stephen Darby as a player. Both against Villa away, there was his crunching tackle on Gabriel Agbonlahor and his energetic run that set up Garry Thompsons shot (that hit the cross bar).
Darby is a committed and strong tackler. Not reckless, his tackles are the one that get fans excited. The reaction from the North Stand after that tackle on Agbonlahor is a case of point. He also offers the team an attacking option from right back. Not gung ho, he seems to pick the correct times to support his winger.
All in all, Darby is a very solid and consistent footballer. If one thought that Rory McArdle was underrated, Stephen Darby may be even more so. He goes about his business quietly and efficiently. It is here where his key attribute and contribution to the team lies. Darby’s consistent performances are the foundation that this City side can build on.
If we can get some of our ‘star players’ to produce the same consistency as him, there is still a massive chance that this season could finish with the promotion we all crave.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus