BACK in the 1980s, ‘You’ll Never beat Des Walker’ would echo round the City Ground in tribute to Forest and England’s most rapid centre-half.
Yet there was one person who could outsprint him. Someone who did it every single day in training. That man was Derby County boss Darren Wassall.
“Darren was phenomenally quick,” said former Forest team-mate Steve Stone. “He could give anyone five yards and, before you knew it, he was snapping at their heels. I never saw anyone get away from him.”
In 1992, Wassall was even entered as Forest’s representative in the Rumbelows Sprint Challenge, a tournament held at Wembley on the day of the League Cup final.
In the heats, he’d clocked 11.92 over 100 metres, and that was wearing full boots and kit. Sadly for him, Forest were playing in the final, so he never got the chance to compete for the £10,000 first prize, ultimately won by Swansea’s John Williams.
Yet, if Wassall – who’d come through Forest’s ranks as a junior – had the tools to forge a top-flight career, his body was never up to the task.
A debutant at 18, the Birmingham-born defender had played for just six months when he fell during a game at Man City and fractured his spine. Out for 18 months, his ‘rehab’ was hardly what the doctor ordered.
“Back then, anyone who was injured was taken by our old bus driver Albert down to Quarndon to do all the maintenance work in Brian Clough’s garden,” recalled Wassall. “I used to be sweeping thinking ‘I’ve got a bad back here!’ but Cloughie used to say ‘Wassall – it’ll either cure it or keep it’!”
Various other problems followed, hardly helped by the irregular starts as a result of Walker’s consistency.
“I saw Darren as the long-term replacement for Des,” said Clough in his autobiography. “But he was so injury-prone. I remember how he once went jogging in pre-season to give himself a start and finished up with blistered feet that turned septic. He was out for three months!”
Apocryphal or not, the story sums up Wassall’s luck. A five-year stint at Derby yielded a Division One winners’ medal but just 98 league appearances.
A £150,000 switch to Birmingham in 1997 went off like a rocket, with Wassall playing 17 games on the spin.
Then he returned to Forest in a City shirt and ruptured his achilles in a challenge with Kevin Campbell.
“I had five operations on my achilles,” he said. “It took the surgeon three attempts to find out exactly what had gone wrong.
“So, for three years of my contract, I was having an operation, then a bit of rehabilitation, then another operation.
“By the fifth operation, I knew in my heart of hearts – and the physio knew, too – that I couldntt really sustain training full-time and being at the standard that was required to be a First Division footballer. I never played for Birmingham again.”
Having claimed on his insurance, Wassall was prevented from playing professionally. Bad news for him, but music to the ears of old pal Nigel Clough, then managing part-time Burton in the Southern League.
Asked to help out, Wassall laced up his boots. Little did he know it then, but it would prove his first step on the road to the Pride Park hot-seat.
Five years later, Wassall was asked to take charge of the Brewers’ youth team. He was a natural leader, as John Brayford – the Sheffield United defender who came through the ranks at the Pirelli – attests.
“I owe everything to Darren,” said the 28-year-old. “I’d been released by Man City and basically given up football as an impossible dream. But Darren spotted me playing Sunday League, gave me a trial and it all went from there.
“I was working in a paper shop at the time. I used to get the train from Stoke and he’d pick me up from the station every morning.
“He’s a brilliant, brilliant coach. His man-management is spot on and he does everything he can to make training fun. Those days when I was 16-18 are probably some of my most enjoyable.
“He put together 11 cast-offs. Nobody knew each other, but he moulded them into a great team and a lot of us have gone on from there.”
Proving that was no fluke, Wassall then followed Clough to Derby County as academy manager and nurtured highly-rated starlets like Will Hughes, Jeff Hendrick and Mason Bennett. Jamie Hansen is the latest to roll off the production line.
“Darren hates losing,” said Clough in 2009. “He will give everything to be a winner and that’s what I want to see ingrained in the squad. On top of that, his passion and enthusiasm for finding local talent is unrivalled. Derby are lucky to have him.”
Now, the Rams have him front and centre, promoted to replace the sacked Paul Clement with a brief to play more expansively.
Already, Bradley Johnson has hailed his motivational techniques. Cyrus Christie spoke of a side with greater intensity, confidence and freedom. Brayford is not surprised.
“This was always his ambition, to got to the next stage,” he added. “I think he’ll handle it. It’s just in his nature. At Burton he was someone the players held in high regard. I doubt that’s changed.”
*This article was originally published in The FLP on 28 February 2016.