Derby County’s perfect start to the season, their best for 106 years – has been helped along by three former graduates of the ASE programme.
Jeff Hendrick and Mark O’Brien have both come through the Rams youth system while James Bailey developed his talents at Crewe before moving to Pride Park last summer.
Midfielder Bailey was a permanent fixture in midfield last term and he was joined in the Rams engine room towards the end of the April by Hendrick.
His fine form led to a call-up to the Republic of Ireland squad that reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Under-19 Championships this summer. He has since received recognition at U21 level.
But it is his compatriot O’Brien, whose contribution has really caught the attention of many seasoned observers at Pride Park, if not only for the way he has courageously battled back from two major injury scares in the last two years.
Aged 16 years-old and still a schoolboy he had already tasted Championship football and it seemed the world was at his feet. That was to change in the summer of 2009 when a defective heart valve was identified during a routine cardiovascular screening.
Initially he was told the operation could be done in two-years time. That schedule was drastically brought forward – he went under the knife just two weeks later.
A period on the sidelines followed and his recuperation seemed complete going in to the 2010 – 11 season, however, injury struck again this time in the form of an ankle problem that wrote off much of last year.
Finally back and fully fit, he did enough during pre-season to catch the Manager Nigel Clough’s eye during pre-season and was drafted in to play against Birmingham City on the opening day. He has not looked back since.
Academy Manager, Darren Wassall is better placed than most to judge O’Brien’s progress as a former member of the Derby County Centre-Half club:
“He’s done remarkably well if you consider what he’s had to contend with,” said Wassall.
“For a central defender he’s not the tallest player you’ll come across but he’s got a fantastic spring and he reads the game well.”
“If he had been fit I’m sure he would’ve played a lot more first-team games by now but he’s got back in during pre-season on merit and carried that form in to the league season”
An ever-present so far this season and with his injury troubles seemingly behind him, O’Brien is now eager to make the most of his time back on the pitch.
“It was a big shock really to be told you need open heart surgery,” said O’Brien.
“I felt fine and it wasn’t something I ever expected to have to do. That said it needed to be done and it’s great to have that and the ankle issue out of the way.”
“I’m keen to make up for lost time and I enjoy it every single time I go out on the pitch and play a game for Derby County, whether that’s at First-team or Reserve level.”
“We’ve made a great start to the season but there are plenty of tough games coming up and it’s now a case of just taking it game by game and continuing to do what we’ve done in the first four league games, he added.”