Craig Bryson 2013/14: A Season Primed for the Premier League

Since their infamous 11-point Premier League season in 2007/08, Derby County have without a doubt been the most successful club not to make it back to the top flight. Eight consecutive top 10 finishes, four of which saw them reach the play-offs between 2012 and 2020, and still that seemingly cursed points record has repelled them from returning in the years since.


Throughout this time, a number of Derby players have staked their claim to be in the too good for the Championship, not good enough for the Premier League category – Tom Ince, Jeff Hendrick, Chris Martin and Matěj Vydra to name a few – but whilst those players had a crack at making the step up away from Pride Park, there are others who weren’t afforded the privilege despite showing Premier League pedigree in a Rams shirt.


In relation to a standout season for a player that otherwise went somewhat under the radar during his time in England, that statement could not be more accurate. Having already established himself in the second tier following his arrival in 2011, Craig Bryson had an exceptional breakout year in 2013/14 that, alongside an ever-growing list of names, could and probably should have given him the chance to pit his wits against the best players in the world at the level above.


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Going into the summer of 2013 on the back of a 10th-placed finish, Derby had their sights set on reaching the top six and had their transfer business pretty much done by mid-July with manager Nigel Clough looking to bolster their already strong foundations. Through a familiar face in Lee Grant, former loanees Craig Forsyth, John Eustace and Chris Martin, and Dundee United’s Johnny Russell in keeping with a Scottish theme, they were shrewd in making an early statement of intent. 


Only time would tell whether these signings would have the desired impact on the club’s trajectory towards the top flight, but it certainly stoked a fire in Craig Bryson, a fellow Scot who wasted no time in tearing out of the blocks. The midfielder opened his account in a 3-0 win away to Yeovil Town on match day four of the season, before continuing his form away from home emphatically with his first career hat-trick, two of which were scored from outside the area in a 5-1 victory over Millwall.


Incredibly, this was County’s first hat-trick in a league game since 1996. But whilst Derby were seemingly blowing teams away on the road, they earned one point and scored just one goal in their opening three home fixtures to put them in seventh place with six games played.  This tendency to trounce teams was indicative of a promotion team, however, when Nigel Clough was sacked on September 28th just three matches later after a draw and two defeats – the second of which was away at rivals Nottingham Forest – it was clear that their inconsistency had to be stamped out if they were to get anywhere close.


Steve McClaren took a seat in the stands to watch his new team face Ipswich Town, as Darren Wassall took charge and trusted Bryson with the captain’s armband for the first time, with usual skipper Richard Keogh suspended. The former England manager would’ve been forgiven for sneaking off and never returning at half time with the visitors 4-1 to the good.


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The team clearly had quality and were great to watch on their good days, but lacked leadership and grit to turn things around when games weren’t going their way. This was the match where it quickly became apparent that McClaren and Bryson could both be the ones to provide that.


The soon-to-be boss had not long returned to his seat after a rousing half-time team-talk when Bryson charged through the centre of the pitch to latch onto Mason Bennett’s pass and claw one back to set the tone for the second half. The 26-year-old was then involved in a neat passage of play which saw Will Hughes’ cross turned home by Jamie Ward on the hour to set up a grand slam finish.


As the Tractor Boys sat back and soaked up the pressure emitting from an increasingly impatient Pride Park, Bryson was a constant source of urgency, waiting to pounce on any mistake. So when a corner on 88 minutes bounced invitingly around the Ipswich penalty area, it was almost inevitable that the Scotsman would be first to react, slamming home his second of the game to rescue a crucial point for the Rams.


With that result and the impact McClaren immediately had, a spark was ignited through the club once more, and when they earned four wins from their next six, including their first two on home soil, Derby were finally back in the play-offs with momentum firmly on their side going into December.


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That dramatic draw with Ipswich on October 1st now signified two months since Bryson found the back of the net, but he was still the driving force from deep that knitted together a more dependable defence with an increasingly devastating attack. Keogh was the more vocal leader, but Bryson was the orchestrator for a lot of the technical brilliance in the team, waiting to pick up the slack when needed. 


It didn’t take much longer for the Scotsman to get back in the goals when Derby travelled to Wigan Athletic on December 1st. Three minutes in, his 25-yard free-kick whistled past the wall and Lee Nicholls in the Wigan goal to set the Rams on their way to a 3-1 victory thanks to three first-half goals.


The trip to Wigan was the third game in a run of eight wins and one draw, during which Bryson contributed a further four goals and two assists as McClaren’s men cruised into the automatic promotion places by the turn of the year.


Derby started 2014 with two defeats to Wigan and Leicester which saw them drop to fourth, but the loan signing of Patrick Bamford from Chelsea soon gave them a much-needed boost. The 20-year-old striker scored five in his first seven games, the third of which set in motion a comeback from 2-0 down at home to Yeovil, with late goals from Chris Martin and of course Bryson, showcasing County’s steel once more. 


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A 3-3 draw at Birmingham City followed the 3-2 win over Yeovil, but the goals dried up drastically from then on. The Rams won their next three games by a 1-0 scoreline, but picked up two points from their next four matches without scoring in the lead up to a reverse fixture with Nottingham Forest that had huge repercussions at stake. 


Derby were in third with 10 points between them and the top two, whereas Forest sat in sixth, needing a win at Pride Park to cut the deficit to three points between them and their goal-starved East Midlands rivals. Following a 14-match unbeaten run, Forest had also hit a patch of bad form. No win and just two goals in five set up a potentially drab affair. 


Alas, this barren spell became pent-up attacking aggression for Derby, who quickly came into the ascendancy. When Martin’s blocked effort on six minutes bounced towards the edge of the penalty area, Bryson battered his way towards goal with the determination that even two deflections couldn’t deter as he fired home the opener. 


Just after the half-hour mark, incisive play by Bamford and Martin created an opening in the Forest defence before without even needing to look, Martin rolled a pass towards the penalty spot. Inevitably, Bryson had left his marker once more to steam in and score his second. 


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Derby’s delight continued a few minutes later when Jeff Hendrick beat Karl Darlow with a smart finish to send the hosts in at half time 3-0 up, and it didn’t take long for the fourth to fly in from Jonny Russell’s left foot in the second half.  The win was all-but confirmed, the sustained bragging rights that come with a win of such magnitude were already cemented, but Bryson still wasn’t done with etching his name into club folklore forever.


After Bamford was brought down in the area, nobody was taking away a famous hat-trick from him, and his convincing penalty sealed a very convincing win. However, second-placed Burnley earned a 3-0 victory over Charlton to keep Derby at bay by 10 points with nine games to play, but the win against Forest gave the Rams a nine-point safety cushion of their own from their rivals in seventh.


Automatic promotion looked increasingly out of reach with Burnley extended an unbeaten run to 15 at Charlton, but Steve McClaren’s men were gaining strong momentum heading towards the play-offs.  Two defeats in the next three drew Derby further from the leading pack, with QPR moving above them into third, and David Goodwillie’s goal for Blackpool less than 15 seconds into Derby’s following fixture looked to compound their misery, but Bryson wasn’t about to let any dip in form be sustained. 


Chris Martin equalised 90 seconds later with a goal which proved to be the catalyst for Derby’s Bryson-led battle back into promotion contention. The marauding midfielder found himself in space down the left flank twice in the following 15 minutes, delivering an inch-perfect low cross for Bamford to steer home in the first instance, before the striker’s support wasn’t afforded to him five minutes after, so instead he shifted inside Craig Cathcart with ease before finishing past Matt Gilks at his near post to turn the game completely on its head. 


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That ability to battle through tough games at the business end of the season saw the Rams win four – two of which they had to come from behind in- and draw one of their final five matches of the regular campaign, setting them up perfectly for the ever-unpredictable play-off run, starting with the semi-final against Brighton. 


The Seagulls were hosts for the first-leg and wasted no time in bombarding Lee Grant’s goal until Jesse Lingard opened the scoring with 18 minutes played. But Derby had been down many times already this season, and from that goal right through to the 89th minute of the second-leg they showed tremendous spirit in scoring six uncontested goals to blow Brighton away and book their place in the final at Wembley.


Harry Redknapp’s Queens Park Rangers were all that stood between Derby and a return to the Premier League, and after a patchy run of form which saw QPR lose eight of their last 18 in the Championship before they squeezed past Wigan in extra-time in the semi-finals, the Rams were without doubt the favourites, and played through the early stages like they knew it. 


Chances came and went as frustration built, but the belief that they could win was always there, and when Gary O’Neil was sent off for the R’s on the hour, that confidence skyrocketed.  Now you may have noticed that there has been no mention of Bryson in the play-offs as of yet. This is because he suffered a slight injury which kept him out of the semi-final second-leg, and despite his return for the final, McClaren opted to start with him on the bench. 


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It took 67 minutes for McClaren to roll the dice as Derby’s domination hadn’t yet broken the deadlock, and immediately Bryson gave the game a lift. Minutes after coming on, he stung the palms of Rob Green with a fierce low strike, he then stretched QPR twice with blistering byline runs, creating the best two chances of the match for Martin and then Simon Dawkins, neither of whom could reward his outstanding work with a goal. 


Bryson offered everything he could in a 25-minute cameo in unfathomably high pressure proceedings, but it ultimately wasn’t enough time. The game stretched and QPR came out of their shell as full-time neared, and their new-found nothing to lose attitude took Derby – in particular Richard Keogh – by surprise. The centre-back’s slip in the 90th minute presented Bobby Zamora with a golden opportunity to be the play-off hero, and for the second time in his career, he took it. 


Whether Bryson making McClaren’s eleven would have made the difference can never be proved, but the Scotsman showed in a short stint the infectious tenacity and willingness to win a game on his own that he had provided countless times throughout the season. 


Even with 20-goal striker Chris Martin on the pitch from start to finish, the Rams were lacking the firepower to get over the line. Bryson finished the season with a league tally of 16 goals and 14 assists from 47 Championship matches, play-offs included. The absence of an almost ever-present was always going to hinder Derby, not simply for his goal contributions, but for his mentality and his leadership across all three thirds of the pitch. 



Unsurprisingly, Bryson was named in the PFA Championship Team of the Season, earning the Jack Stamps Trophy – Derby County’s Player of the Year award as well. There weren’t many players who deserved to be on a promoted side more than the midfielder, but as Derby knew all too well, the brutal nature of the game could so easily strip you of such a privilege. 


Four years on, it was almost fitting that whilst Bryson did go on to earn top-flight promotion during his time on Derby County’s books, it wasn’t in the white and black of the Rams. A loan spell at Cardiff City was all it took, although the Bluebirds didn’t afford him the opportunity to play in the Premier League. 


The triumph came in the seventh of Bryson’s eight years in English football, all of which were in the second tier, and whilst he came closest with Cardiff, the 2013/14 campaign gave the clearest indication that he had Premier League pedigree. Though this will no doubt play on his mind, the memories and the legendary club status he gained from that magical season – crowned by that famous hat-trick in the derby – are certainly worth settling for.


By: Brad Jones / @bradjonessport

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / John Walton – EMPICS / PA Images