by Chris Dunlavy
SHAUN Barker said an emotional farewell to Derby County fans this week in a star-studded testimonial at the iPro.
Barker, 33, suffered a catastrophic knee injury against Nottingham Forest in March 2012 that required four operations and put him out of action for over three years.
Despite battling back to appear for the club’s Under-21s last season, the centre-back was released by the Rams in May 2015 and subsequently forced to retire.
But on Thursday night, the former Blackpool man laced up his boots one last time as a legends side featuring the likes of Igor Stimac, Seth Johnson, Steve Howard and Marco Gabbiadini took on Derby’s current crop.
“It was huge honour, a great game and a fitting way to say goodbye,” said Barker, who scored two penalties in his side’s 10-9 victory.
“I’d planned to do 45, maybe 60 minutes. In the end, I managed to last the full 90 so I’m absolutely knackered!
“It’s the culmination of four years of wanting to play football. To play with the Under-21s here was very emotional and a huge, huge moment for me. But to be back at the iPro, in front of a big crowd – I’m very proud.
“This all happened because I didn’t get a chance to say farewell to the fans last year. I haven’t played for four years and I’ve been away for nearly a season so to get nearly 10,000 people turning out just shows you what a special bunch they are.”
Highlights of the evening saw Gabbiadini being stretchered off by Tom Ince and Johnny Russell, Barker picking an 11-year-old from the crowd to take a penalty and a return for 20-year-old starlet Will Hughes, missing since the opening day of the season with a serious knee injury.
“It was nice to finally play with Will,” said Barker. “I saw him get nurtured from a very young age and go from strength to strength.
“He’s been a huge miss for the club this year. He’s such a talent. Everything seems to be in slow motion when Will’s on the ball. Seeing him come back was a big moment for the club.”
Other Derby favourites who played in the game included Paul Peschisolido and Horacio Carbonari, and Barker thanked all those who turned out at just 12 weeks’ notice.
“I was delighted to get so many people from different eras,” he said. “The idea was for dads to sit with their sons and daughters and say ‘I used to watch Gabbiadini or Michael Forsyth when I was your age’.
“It’s funny because when the older lads first come into the changing room, they all go ‘Just give me ten minutes, I’ll be happy with that’.
“But once they’re out there, it’s impossible to get them off. They were on their knees at times but I know they enjoyed it. It was a great celebration of the club.”