‘Jim Smith believed in me’: Dean Sturridge on becoming a Rams goalscoring machine

The below interview is a transcript of our podcast with Dean Sturridge, recorded in June 2018.

– Dean it’s a pleasure to see you again – and you’re still working in football?

– That’s correct – in another capacity now. I’d love to be out there on the field with the quality of play – and the wages players earn! But now I try to help out behind the scenes as a mentor/agent. We’ve got a company called Sturridge Sport Management and I’ve been involved for a couple of years. I’m generally out there on the shop floor, but the best bit is definitely mentoring players and trying to guide them down the right path.

– It’s more than 20 years since you had that breakthrough season in 1995/96 – do you still get recognised and asked about it by Derby fans when out and about?

– Yes… I don’t want be modest. It’s a family name which is synonymous with football so I get the odd question about myself, my nephew Daniel, my brother Simon… but now Daniel has picked the baton up from myself and surpassed what I did in my career and definitely become the best Sturridge!

– A few Derby fans might disagree with that….

– Well the fact is I never represented my country and he has, so if you use that as the barometer, he’s the best Sturridge. Hopefully he can put his injury worries behind and have a great season.

– You were fondly remembered for that 20 goal season when you helped Derby get promoted, but you’d actually joined the club a few years before that – in 1991 as a trainee – and you had to wait a while before you gained a regular first team chance initially.

– It was a bit off the cuff in terms of me signing for Derby. I’m a Birmingham lad and had gone around the Midlands clubs – Villa, Birmingham, Coventry – and probably wasn’t as focussed as I could’ve been in becoming a footballer. I thought it was inevitable and that I’d become one because of my brothers, so I didn’t channel my professionalism in the right way.

I got distracted. I left school but because I wasn’t focussed enough, I didn’t know which club I was going to, to become a trainee. But a scout for Derby (Jim Thomas) told me to go for a game, that he’d told Derby, but becoming a trainee at Derby initially was precarious. I could’ve been on the dole because I didn’t focus enough at school.

– Derby fans assume you exploded onto the scene but it wasn’t actually like that at all, was it? You had to earn your right to play, there was a lot of hard graft and hard decisions to make before you, quite frankly, got your act together?

– The big change was going from Birmingham to live in Derby – it was only a 45 minute journey, but as a 16 year old it can seem daunting in terms of moving home, meeting new people in new situations, having to integrate in digs. I remember going in to digs – there was five or six of us, we had a landlady, and the hardest part initially was I was used to Jamaican food and my mum cooking chicken, rice and peas, but this lady was cooking pork, corned beef and potato, and it became a running theme that there were a few black lads in these digs and we’d throw our food down the toilet!


You’re going from a household where you’ve got great food and nice surroundings that you’re used to, to a room with four or five others lads and having to get on with them and adapt to the food, regimented waking times and the professionalism of being a footballer, so it was all change and most importantly, because I wasn’t perceived as one of the best players in the academy – I still had the Sturridge name – but I had to prove myself to people who’d ask, ‘Are you as good as Simon?’. The coaches believed in me but it was hard to get yourself in that pecking order and show you deserved to be at that level.

– You only played a handful of games for Derby in those first few seasons and went out on loan to Torquay – what were the most valuable lessons you learned in those early stages of your career?

– It was a wake up call. I was part of a football family, so I thought, ‘My brother’s done it, so I can do it’  – but then you realise it’s not easy. There’s a lot of politics in footballer lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Everyone sees the match day, but from Monday to Friday you’ve got to be professional, and I wasn’t as professional as my brother Simon was at the time. He’d train, come home at 2pm, and put his pyjamas on and sit on the settee. That wasn’t my style! I liked to talk the streets with my mates, maybe meet a lady here or there, and I wasn’t as focussed.

Being allowed to go on loan to Torquay was a wake-up call because Roy MacFarland told me in his office, and there was a lump in my throat. I went back home and told my partner at the time, ‘I’ve been allowed to go out to Torquay on loan’, and it was around Christmas when you normally spend time with your family. I thought if Roy MacFarland had seen that I needed this, maybe he’d seen that I wasn’t being as focussed as professional as I needed to be.

I looked at it as a rejection at the time, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I went to Torquay, played first team football, realised at a lower level you have to wash your own kit and boots, so it was a total eye-opener for me in making me realise how much I loved the game and the level I wanted to play at.

– The season after, Jim Smith took over – how big a factor was he in you breaking into the first team?

– Extremely important. In the close season I was out of contract, so I knew I had to prove myself to him and Steve McClaren in pre-season. I knew they’d looked at my record, seen I’d scored some goals in the lower divisions and reserves and maybe thought privately, ‘Has he done enough?’ So I knew there were other players ahead of me in the pecking order – Mark Stallard, Darren Wrack, young lads I was competing with.

The way I performed in pre-season, they started to take a bit of notice of me, and that’s when they talked about giving me a new contract. They said they didn’t want me to leave and that’s why Jim Smith was a big influence, because he saw something in me and believed in me. I remember his line, he told me, ‘Don’t cut your nose off to spite your face – sign the contract and you’ll be on the bench in the first game of the season.’ True to his word I was on the bench, came on for the last 15 minutes and acquitted myself quite well.

– One of your best assets was your pace – was there a point in your early career when you realised you were faster than the average centre back?

– I probably knew it from the age of 10. My family was competitive – whether it was board games or ‘kerby’, or racing to the chip shop, that’s what we’d do regularly. Simon was fast, Michael was fast, so sometimes they’d give me a head start – but not too much – and that was when I knew I had the ability to run.

– What changed in Derby’s promotion season to make you so prolific?

– Focus. As a younger lad I got waylaid and distracted and didn’t realise it at the time. That season more than any other, I was totally focussed and obsessed with scoring goals, we had a great team spirit, there weren’t arguments in training. It was well known that in previous seasons we’d had big money signings who were probably nice individuals, but when they came together it didn’t click. Tommy Johnson, Craig Short, Marco Gabbiadini, Gary Charles – there was an abundance of talent.

The group of players Jim Smith bought, like Gary Rowett, Dean Yates, Sean Flynn, along with players like myself and Lee Carsley, it was a great mix in that everyone got on so well.  Igor Stimac was crucial too – it was his arrogance and confidence (arrogance in a nice way!). He had that belief which transmitted through the team and influenced everyone to be that little bit calmer in possession. He created a culture of confidence and strength.

– The defining moment of that season was the penultimate game against Crystal Palace – what do you remember when Paul Simpson put you clean through?

– I always had a signature finish – a side foot whip, I’d always aim for the side netting. I always had the attitude of, ‘I’m going to score’, and even during good times and bad in your career, there were times when I didn’t score as many, when I got in the box, I wanted to score. I wanted to be the one who had his name sung by the fans. You have to have that strong mentality and can’t worry about missing.

It was my favourite goal from that season because it was the most important. In the week leading up to it we went away and when I was at the bar – I’d had an average time the last few games – Robin Van Der Laan was telling me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re the man’ and ‘It only takes one moment’. I was doubting if I’d even start but he said he believed in me – he was a great captain because he made time for people. Because of that I was really confidence on that day, and convicted I’d contribute in helping us win the game and get Derby into the Premiership.

– What were the celebrations like afterwards?

– The party started in the changing rooms! Ron Willems was there with a cigar in the bath – he passed it to me, I had a puff on it and started choking! We had a night at an Italian restaurant in Littleover, ate, played music and drank the place dry.

– The season after you hit the ground running and scored Derby’s first ever Premier League goal. How did we manage to adapt so quickly?

– Part of it is the momentum from the previous season, when you’re used to winning games. You go in with an attitude of thinking you can beat anyone. We’d be on the coach to games and I’d be saying, ‘Tony Adam? Who’s he! He won’t be able to handle me.’ Igor would be saying, ‘I’m going to shut out Ian Wright’ and Darryl Powell would be saying, ‘I’m going to smash Patrick Vieira’, and that was our mentality.

Leeds was an eye-opener initially and we went 2-0 down – you could tell the quality within minutes, the way players receive the ball, the way they see pictures on the pitch. It was like going from draughts in the Championship to chess in the Premiership! You might have the athleticism, but if your brain isn’t working fast enough, you can’t use it.

– We can’t talk about that season without talking about the goal you scored against Arsenal at Highbury. Describe it for us again.

– I think it was Sean Flynn who got the ball on the halfway line – I was in a wide area where I knew I’d get more space and an opportunity to shoot. I controlled it on the chest – even though that wasn’t the strongest part of my game – and the ball landed exactly where I wanted it to. I touched it past a defender and struck it.

People say it was a bit of a thunderbolt, and goals definitely look better when they hit the crossbar and go in, so that was the nicest part. It was one of the highest feelings I’d had on a football pitch, because of the build-up, Ian Wright being my hero and it being built-up in the papers. Ian Wright shouted across to me before the game, ‘Deano, good luck for the game, make sure you score!’ That was the icing on the cake to score in that fixture.

– When Jim Smith introduced Paulo Wanchope, what was your impression of him?

– When we trained with him, we thought he had magical moments, and also moments where we said, ‘Has this guy played the game before?’ He was erratic but you knew something was there. In the first couple of weeks he came into the changing room, his name wouldn’t be on it and he’d storm out the changing room, so we knew he had confidence. I realised I’d have to look over my shoulder as he clearly though he could play alongside me or instead of me. He was good in training and had certain attributes, and he had a huge belief in himself.

– How did it work when it was you, Wanchope and Baiano up front? Did you have a translator, or talk to each other much in training?

– It’s the universal language of football! That’s how it panned out, it just happened naturally. When all three of us were at our best we really complimented each other – Paulo had the presence and unpredictability, Baiano with his football intelligence and his touch, and myself with my pace and directness it was a really good blend. At the start it was electric, but after that it did become a game of egos and the dynamics of us as a trio didn’t flow and quite fulfil its potential.

I had some injuries too which didn’t help. Baiano and Wanchope were great signings, but in terms of what they brought to the football club, Stimac, Asanovic and Eranio were great. They brought a game human element and had great technical qualities.

– Were there any particularly difficult characters in that dressing room?

– Strikers always have an ego – I said that about myself. We all had huge egos and I found that out at other clubs. What happened with myself, Wanchope and Baiano happens at other clubs, it’s just the life of a striker. Whether it’s Kane, Defoe or my nephew Daniel – you want to be the man at the club, whose teammates are trying to get the best out of your qualities, who scores the goals. All three of us wanted to be that man, and you can’t have that.

– There was a change of stadium at that time too – how would you describe the Baseball Ground as a place to play?

– Enjoyable. Very taxing on the legs because it was so muddy and patchy in the middle part of the season. It was exciting watching games there as an apprentice, and it always seemed like an intimidating atmosphere for the opposition. It was a very poor playing surface and very draining – you knew the opposition wouldn’t enjoy coming there. For us, the feel good factor of know we might have one up on the opposition gave us confidence. Earlier on in my career, seeing Derby players like Ted McMinn, Dean Saunders, Mark Wright at the Baseball Ground was a great education of what it took to be a top professional.

– Who did you get on best with at the club?

– Lee Carsley was always number one. We came up through the ranks together at Derby and still speak to one another now. He’s had numerous jobs in the game and we regularly knock our heads together, he’ll give me tips on a player and we’ve reminisced about ours digs days and ups-and-downs.

The night in 1995 when we beat Birmingham away 4-1, I scored and Lee was one of the best players on the pitch, I was walking down the tunnel and we noticed the scouts who didn’t sign us for Birmingham, and we told them, ‘You could have had us!’ I had a good relationship with numerous others too, like Darryl Powell, Deon Burton and Igor Stimac. The foreign players who came into the club though – Igor, Stefan Schnoor, Jacob Laursen, they introduced a more professional outlook where it wasn’t all about socialising after training and more about eating the right food, and they brought a certain technique to training – Stefano Eranio had us doing ‘rondos’ for the first time – and that was unheard of at the time.

We were ahead of the curve, and Steve McClaren and Jim Smith were a big part of that. From Monday to Friday we analysed the opposition, closing off their game, sending them into certain areas where they weren’t comfortable, and that gave us confidence. He’d then show us how use our strengths to exploit their weaknesses. The preparation was first class, and gave us the opportunity to get promoted.

After the first few games in 1995/96 we were in the bottom six and feeling sorry for ourselves, but Steve McClaren still said to us, ‘We will get promoted, because we have so much belief in you as a group.’ The coaching staff had more belief in us than we had in ourselves at that stage, but that helped us get promoted and then consolidate in one of the best leagues in the world.

– What are your top three goals?

– My favourite, because of the spotlight, the occasion and the way it’d been built up, would be the Highbury goal. Ian Wright was my hero, we were in the Premier League and it got a lot of exposure. The most fulfilling in terms of being in a pressure situation, was the Crystal Palace goal (in April 1996).

The record books say Sunderland won the league, but Jim Smith said at the time we should’ve won it, and although it’s still a great achievement, with the ability we had in that squad, we should really have won it. In the end it got to the penultimate game to achieve promotion but it shouldn’t have got to that stage. The third would be Arsenal again, at home this time. I managed to show the pace I’m renowned for me, held off Petit with my low centre of gravity, then as Seaman came out, I chipped it over him and that illustrated how confident I was.

– You were linked with a move to Arsenal – was there any truth in it?

– A certain amount. My agent made me aware Arsenal were one of numerous clubs who were interested in buying me at the time (in 97/98), and it contributed to me making the wrong decision of going on the transfer list. It’s the only time I’ve done it and I was naive to listen to what was being said around me.

Ultimately, Lionel Pickering had so much belief in me – he’d advocated for me getting in the first team as a youngster – he dug his heels in so I didn’t leave Derby for a ‘normal’ price. He put a price of £7m on my head when most clubs were thinking £4-6m, and that was why I didn’t leave because no-one was prepared to pay the fee.

– It must’ve been a wrench to leave when you did eventually go (to Leicester in 2001)?

– It taught me a lot about agents, because it all happened from a throwaway comment. I was playing against Leicester for the reserves, scored a couple, and said to Garry Parker (their reserve team manager), ‘I’ll come and play for you if you fancy me…!’, and saw his eyes light up and he passed that on to Peter Taylor.

Things had run their course at Derby, I’d been there 10 years, had a good innings, but it was a bit stale and I needed that carrot and to be at a club where they could see the positive aspects of my game. I wasn’t playing regularly and felt I’d outstayed my welcome, I wasn’t enjoying the game and needed a change. I was in the last few months of my contract so the fee was low, and I was basically my own agent, I instigated the move myself.

– How do you find the agent work day-to-day?

– When I retired I went into media, thoroughly enjoyed it, but after that with my family’s footballing experience, I felt I had enough to help footballers in guiding them. You have politics, phone calls and battles, which isn’t the best part but you have to go through it. I enjoy talking to players about their game, analysing them, and then seeing them soak up my opinions on the game and putting it into practice. It’s the most amazing feeling ever.

– Are they aware of the career you had?

– Some are, others say, ‘Dean who?’ More often that not it’s the players’ parents who’ll recognise me. I’ll guide them and help, but at the same players should make their own mistakes, and then I’m there as a shoulder to cry on and tell them where they can improve. You can’t always relate it to your own career and say, ‘This is what’s happened to you’ – you need to evolve with the game. With social media now, players are under a lot more intensity than I ever was.

– What’s stopped Derby getting promoted in recent years?

– Confidence. It’s the best attribute I had, and I know Derby are synonymous with hitting a brick wall in February and not getting over the line, maybe it’s a mental block but it’s happening year after year. It’s the belief and strength of character to know you’re good enough to achieve that promotion, so I’d put it down to that.


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