SHAUN Derry never took many prisoners as a player. And as the dust settled on Notts County’s amazing escape from relegation, he wasn’t about to start pulling any punches as a manager.
Bottom and adrift when he took charge in November, the 36-year-old has kicked the Magpies into shape, with six wins from their final eight games meaning a final-day draw at Oldham was enough to secure another season in League One.
A boyhood County fan who came through the ranks at Meadow Lane, Derry shed tears of joy on the pitch, hailing his players for saving “not just a club but a community”. But in the cold, hung-over light of the morning after, Derry’s elation had been replaced by a simmering anger at the state of his beloved club.
“The supporters of this club have been let down,” said Derry, who abandoned a playing contract at Millwall to become County’s ninth manager in five chaotic years.
“And that’s not me pointing the finger at past managers by any stretch of the imagination. Everybody has to take responsibility for what has happened to Notts County, the board included.
“It’s been an accumulation of mismanagement throughout and that boils down to the players as well.
“I’ve been in and around plenty of difficult situations – administrations, relegations, everything that goes with it. And I’ve been involved with too many managers to even list.
“But no matter what happens, you’ve just got to stick in there and keep your own qualities, your own focus. As a player, you set your own standards.
“Players are very quick to push the excuse button aren’t they? And as much as we should quite rightly hail staying up as a fantastic achievement, these players have to take a very close look at themselves in the mirror this summer.
“They have to say ‘Hang on, have I done everything – absolutely everything – to warrant being called a success?’ And if they’ve got high standards, they’d have to say ‘Probably not’.”
Derry knows a thing or two about poor standards. During his time at QPR, Hoops’ chairman Tony Fernandes was taken for a ride by agents and advisors, leading to the arrival of disinterested mercenaries on astronomical wages.
The subsequent rifts and divisions – with the likes of Jose Bosingwa and Chris Samba paid ten times more than Derry or Clint Hill for barely lifting a leg – resulted in what Harry Redknapp called “the worst dressing room I’ve ever seen” and relegation from the Premier League.
“That QPR dressing room was like the wild west,” said Derry. “Punch-ups, arguments, people not speaking to each other – everything was wrong.
“And on a smaller scale, this place was the same. It’s just that the Indians weren’t as big as the ones at QPR.
“QPR was on a grander scale in terms of finances, and in terms of the characters and reputations. But even then I always had my own way, my own ideas on how I would combat that situation. That’s why Notts County didn’t frighten me.”
And why he immediately took a scythe to the squad, shipping out some 11 players on loan by the end of January, including the likes of Enoch Showunmi, David Bell and Danny Haynes.
“Me and Greg (Abbott, Derry’s assistant) spoke about how to approach the first day, the first week, the first game,” says Derry.
“In doing that we found we are very similar in our characters – he was a very honest player and so was I. And that’s what I wanted from the team. I wanted genuine performances.
“I suppose I just tried to judge characters really. I tried to make tough decisions on who I wanted to be part of it.
“And I had to know which players had decided for themselves that they didn’t want to help my cause.
“I don’t think we got a point for the first four games. You quickly work people out and I very, very definitely worked people out that first month.
“With the greatest respect, I edged away from those bigger characters and tried to bring in people who had an appreciation for the club. Of course, there were two or three performances that were far from what I wanted. But generally I felt that the fans got value for money and a group of lads who gave them everything.”
Most of those players – Hayden Mullins, Jack Grealish, Callum McGregor – were loanees and have now returned to their parent clubs. And that means Derry must now set about building a squad in his own image.
“The best manager I ever played under was Neil Warnock,” said Derry, who will register as a player next season ‘for emergencies’.
“And the most important thing he taught me was that you must be able to rely on the players in the dressing room.
“Yes you need talent. But it’s just as important to have the type of player who’ll run the dressing room for you.
“Without that, you can never be sure of what’s going to come out of it. So I need to make sure above all else that the players I bring here are the right type.
“New players are definitely what’s needed. We need to get the most out of the budget, get players who are a lot more hard-nosed to the rigours of League One football.
“Because I felt that we were quite a soft touch when I came here in November. They rolled over so easily, and that can’t happen. League One is a grind. It’s a fight.
“We weren’t fully equipped for that when I got here. Next year, I want to make sure we are.”
And after the miracle, time to reflect on a job well done. “I never envisioned going straight from player to manager,” added Derry.
“But I’m glad it’s happened the way it has, and that’s it’s ended well.
“It’s been full-on, it’s been frantic, I’ve been learning on the job. This has been some education, it really has. And as an achievement, keeping this club up it’s right up at the top with anything I did as a player.
“Now I’ll have a few days off and try and look forward to next season…perhaps from a sun lounger!”