“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”, would perhaps be the perfect phrase to sum up George Thorne’s quest to become a professional footballer.
It has been far from plain sailing for the 22-year-old in recent years as he’s recovered remarkably from two serious career threatening injuries.
Having battled through genetic ruptures of both of his knee ligaments during 2013 and 2014, the ex-West Brom man has relished his return to first-team football this year and is now a vital cog in a side aiming for promotion to the Premier League.
Thorne admits the Rams’ catastrophic end to the previous campaign, which saw them fail to snatch a play-off spot after contending much of the season in the Championship’s top-two, has given the club an added incentive and extra venom in their pursuit of top-flight football.
Eight victories from their opening 15 fixtures, including an unbeaten streak of 10 league games, has given Paal Clement’s side the desirable start and momentum to achieve their goal.
And ahead of Friday night’s trip to arch-rivals Nottingham Forest, Shoot spoke exclusively to Thorne about his personal struggle with injury, Derby’s Premier League goal, and Clement’s impact at the iPro Stadium.
Last season, Derby missed out on a play-off spot after being heavily involved in the automatic promotion race. How would you sum up the 2014/15 campaign from a player’s point of view?
“Disappointing. It was probably a learning curve for us. For myself, I didn’t get a lot of football last year because I obviously had the injury that kept me out. I probably rushed back a couple of times and that was a learning curve for myself in that sense. But it was a massive learning curve for all the lads and the manager at the time because we didn’t really know how to handle being at the top, I guess. At times we should have changed our formation and tactics, we probably got it wrong at the time. Hopefully this season, that will make us stronger when we get to that point and when we need to grind results out.”
You are currently fifth in the Championship, one points behind the leaders. How would you sum up Derby’s start?
“We had a very bad start. In the first five games; I don’t think we won enough games, we didn’t pick up enough points. Again, we were a bit unlucky with our results because our performances warranted a bit more. But after the first international break, we went on an unbeaten run and won a of of games, so that is a very good turnaround. We are confident at the minute. We are in a good place. The majority of the squad is fit and we are feeling confident going into each game now.”
Last month’s thunderous strike against Huddersfield Town was your first goal since May 2014. How good did that feel?
“It felt very good! I have been trying my luck in the last few weeks. So to see one go in was very good. But it was even more important that we got the three points which kept us climbing the table. Scoring goals are the moments that you are probably going to remember the most. I said straight after the game, that the most important thing for me was the three points. I don’t score many goals, so with the club picking up three points, I’m going home happy and I am sure the lads and fans are too. Obviously to get on the scoresheet, I was delighted. It was a good goal and I’m sure I would love to get a few more of them.”
What is the club’s aim come the end of the season – is it a top-two finish, or the play-offs?
“I won’t beat around the bush, we want to get promoted. It is going to be difficult, it won’t be easy. But from every player here, right up to the top with the chairman, we want to get promoted. Hopefully we can do it this year, we will be pushing to do it. Our recent performances show that we have got a bit of character and that is something we haven’t had in recent years. But now we can grind out a win and feel solid at the back. We know we are always going to score goals with the front players we have got here, so we are in a good place. It is still early days, but we are looking to keep the momentum going and, as I said, we want to get promoted.”
You originally joined Derby on loan and the final game of that spell was at Wembley Stadium in the 2014 play-off final defeat to Queens Park Rangers. Just how hard was that to stomach?
“Even being on loan; it was very hard to stomach because I have always said that we have got a very good dressing room here. From day one, I felt part of the group. Considering how well we played leading up to the play-off final and even in the play-off final, it was very tough to take. A few of the boys were emotional, rightly so I believe. For me, it was obvious where my future was straight after that game and here we are today another year down the line. Happy days!”
What was it about Derby that convinced you it was the right club for you to make the switch permanently?
“I saw the ambition [of the club] when I came on loan. The philosophy of the club and the way we play football suits me down to the ground. I believe it will make me a better player. I enjoy playing here and it is important to be enjoying your football. We enjoy passing the ball and having some attacking flair. As I said, I saw the ambition and the chairman was clear about the route ahead. I knew the ability that we had in the dressing room and I was pretty confident in the direction that the club would go. I wanted to be a part of it.”
Just a handful of days after signing, you were unfortunately ruled out for nine months after suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury. How devastating was that for you?
“Yeah, it wasn’t ideal! Once I did the injury, the specialist said to me, “It was genetic”. It was [always] going to happen; both of them were going to happen at some stage in my career. You are seeing an awful lot of those injuries at the minute and I am sure quite a few of them are genetic. So in that sense, I am pleased that they are out of the way and hopefully that is the back of it. But obviously at that moment in time, it was devastating on a personal note. I always try to find a silver lining and, for me, it was so close to after when I signed [for Derby] permanently I thought, “What if I hadn’t signed in time?”. “What if I had done it at West Brom?”. I probably wouldn’t be sat here today. Because I knew how tough it would be and how long the rehab would be, you have to start thinking positively as soon as you can.”
You have suffered a handful of long-term injuries. What keeps you motivated during the long lay-offs?
“Throughout the rehab, all you can do really is reminisce about the times we have had and memories you have got of those successful feelings and great moments that you have had in the game. That will get you through a lot of it. When you are actually in the swing of things, the weeks start to go by and before you know it, you are up on your feet and you have got a pair of boots on again! Once you are up and doing things; physically moving about, it starts to go quicker and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Your team-mate Will Hughes suffered a similar fate – being ruled out for at least six months on the opening day of the season. Have you been helping him by giving him tips and advice?
“I am always speaking to Will. He is always around the building. As I said, we are a very close group and the first few weeks were always going to be the toughest for Will. I made him aware of that. He is flying to be fair. He is doing better than how I was doing so hopefully that can continue. He is in a good place and we have brought in a few new medical [members of] staff from on top of what we had last year, so he has got even more people to look after him and our facilities here are fantastic at the moment – that will be made available to him. I think he is nearly half way now through the six-month period. As I said, it will start to tick over and he’ll be able to do more and more. Hopefully it won’t be too long before he is back out with us.”
Just how talented is the 20-year-old?
“He is a very talented footballer. He has got the ability to control the game’s tempo and he is a very cultured left-footed player. Over the years, he has got more physical about himself. He is a massive loss for us; there is no doubt about that. He would be for any team. He is one of those players; that if you give him the ball, you expect him to keep it. Those moments of magic that people are seeing, it comes good for us and there is no doubt that we will miss that until he is back out there with us. But one thing we have got this year is a very strong squad. So that is credit to the chairman [Mel Morris]. He has spent some money and has brought in some very good players. We brought in Bradley [Johnson] and Jacob [Butterfield] to our midfield and they are two very good players. So we are alright at the moment; we have good depth in the squad and we have got a very strong bench as well. You are looking at all the game changers, people that can come in and be just as good as what we have on the pitch. We will be alright; Will will be alright, and he’ll be back with us soon and we look forward to him being back with us.”
After being restricted to just three games last season, what is your personal aim this campaign?
“I want to play as many games as I possibly can this year. I think I have played over 10 so far this season, so I am en route and I feel very good at the minute. I want to find form and maintain form as best as I can. Most of all, I want to play a key role in a successful Derby team.”
Paul Clement was Steve McClaren’s successor here at Derby. What have you made of his impact at the club so far?
“Yeah, it has been very positive. It is quite refreshing. From day one, he made it clear that we will maintain our philosophy, but we will work hard and learn a bit more about what else we can add to our games. We have a number of formations that we can go to if needs be. As I have said, he has added a few very good players and we are very confident in our own squad. He is a good man manager and a very good coach and obviously he has been at some top clubs, so the stuff that he has picked up is very good to learn from. It is very refreshing and we feel very confident under the new manager.”
Having coached the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, have you seen his experience with those elite clubs been replicated on and off the pitch at Derby?
“I guess in his man management you can see that because it is not all about football [all the time], he likes to talk to you and you will see on the pitch when he is coaching, sometimes it is the little details that make up the finer margins. All these little things contribute to the success that he has had at being at the clubs that he has been at and that is good for us to learn from.”
Chris Martin is again Derby’s top goalscorer so far this season. How crucial is his impact up front for the club’s Premier League quest?
“Very crucial! He is our striker. He is our go-to guy for the goals and the man we rely on to pick up the majority of our goals. The way we play, it suits Chris down to the ground as well. The way he brings in players and holds up the ball, our attacking players will run on off him and join in with each other. I think Derby is the perfect fit for Chris as well. He is fantastic. Long may it continue for him to score goals for us and it is our job to make sure that we keep on providing him the chances for that.”
You visit fierce rivals Nottingham Forest on Friday evening. How excited are you for the East Midlands derby?
“Obviously it is exciting, it is a fantastic occasion! We feel like we are in a good place at the moment. But to be totally honest, it hasn’t really crossed my mind too much. We take it a game at a time but, as I have said, we are on a good run.”
Are these the fixtures you highlight and look forward to the most when the games are announced before the start of the season?
“Yes, obviously you take note of the arch-rivals. It is a very good rivalry between us and Nottingham Forest. You always look at the Boxing Day fixtures and the New Year fixtures because that always takes an effect on your Christmas Day possibly, so naturally those are the ones you look at. Maybe also the first game of the season and the final day of the season. Then your rivals – just a brief look really.”
You have recently been spotted modelling for a local Derby menswear store. Did you enjoy that experience? Is that a potential career path you could follow after football?
“It was good, yeah! I mean I don’t think I was too good at it to be brutally honest with you. It was for a local company around here and they provide our suits. So myself and Bradley [Johnson], we could do a favour for them and we were happy to do so. I think Bradley pulled it off a bit better than me. I don’t think I will be having a career in modelling!”