Republic of Ireland international Richard Keogh talks to Damian Dolan about Derby County’s top-flight ambitions and his love of defending
While the footballing world drools over the goal scoring exploits of the likes of Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah and Sergio Agüero, Richard Keogh just loves putting his head in where the boots are flying. It comes with being an old school centre back.
The Derby County captain and Republic of Ireland International can’t help then but raise a chuckle when reminded of his recent quote ‘I love defending’. But that statement couldn’t have been closer to the truth.
While more accomplished than most at bringing the ball out from the back (no hoofing it into Row Z for Keogh), he remains a defender first and last, a protector of his goal, and as such has a healthy obsession with keeping clean sheets.
“That’s my job; I enjoy defending. I get as much [satisfaction] from blocking a shot or clearing one off the line, as I do from setting up a goal,” says Keogh.
“Coming out with the ball is a strength of mine, but I just love defending. And anything I can add with the ball is a bonus.”
Keogh and Derby have been doing a lot of that lately, keeping clean sheets that is. Gary Rowett’s side boast the second meanest defence in the Championship, behind table toppers Wolves, and a run of just four goals conceded in their last 11 league fixtures has gone a long way to propelling the Rams to second in the table.
“A lot of hard work’s gone in to it by the manager (Gary Rowett) and the players – it’s no coincidence,” said Keogh.
“The spine of our team has a strong middle and a lot of experience and strength. We’ve been ticking along nicely.
“When you’re on the kind of run we’re on at the minute every time you step onto the pitch you’re always in the game.
“But we’re not getting carried away and we’re always trying to improve. That’s been our mantra this season. Results breed confidence, and confidence is a big thing.”
Derby’s form in the first half of the season means that while there may be no World Cup finals to look forward to for Keogh and his Ireland teammates in the summer, he could yet find solace in leading the Rams back to the Premier League.
It’s ten years since the club, which the late great Brian Clough once took to dizzy heights, last graced the top flight. In that decade they’ve twice suffered at the cruel hand of the Championship play-offs.
Derby’s last dalliance with the Premier League (2007/08) conjures no less painful memories. The club was relegated by March and finished the season with just one win to its name and the lowest-ever number of points, just 11.
The latter was before Keogh’s time – he joined from Coventry City in 2012 – but he still has the scars of the Rams’ play-off final defeat to 10- man QPR in 2014, when Bobby Zamora’s 90th minute winner broke Derby hearts. Derby had finished the season in third.
And two years later they lost 3-0 at home in the first leg of their semifinal with Hull, only to win the return game 2-0. The comeback that nearly was.
“We played so well, not just in that game against QPR, but that season. Football can be a cruel game at times, but just because you play well on the day doesn’t mean you automatically deserve it,” recalled Keogh.
“Against Hull we left ourselves too much to do, but to play like we did in the second leg was a credit to everyone. Arguably we should have got an equaliser. [Craig] Bryson missed a good chance, and if we’d have got that there was only one winner.
“However, Keogh believes the experiences of both campaigns have improved him as a player.
“It makes you more determined to become a better player and to achieve something that you want to achieve. To get promoted with Derby would mean a lot to me.”
Rowett is Keogh’s sixth manager during his five and a half seasons at the club. He has also played under Nigel Clough, Steve McClaren (twice), Paul Clement, Darren Wassall and Nigel Pearson. Despite the revolving managerial door at Pride Park, each has seen fit to make the Irishman the bedrock of their defence, while only (Clement) opted not to give him the captain’s armband.
The one consistency therefore at Derby over the past six seasons has been the presence of Keogh at the heart of the Rams’ defence. As a consequence, milestones have come and gone, most notably passing 250 appearances for the club.
It’s Rowett, who was appointed Derby manager in March 2017, that Keogh credits with changing the club’s fortunes around this season, having finished the 2016/17 campaign in mid-table obscurity.
Rowett, who was sacked as Birmingham boss in December 2016, brought in defender Curtis Davies and midfielder Tom Huddlestone, both from Hull City, in the summer. For Keogh, this is now a far more experienced Rams side than the ones which came close to promotion in the past.
“We’ve brought in players who’ve been there and done it. In the past, we didn’t really know how to handle it [the pressure], and the introduction of these guys has helped us,” he said.
“He [Gary Rowett] spoke to us all in pre-season about things we needed to do better as a team, and we’ve worked really hard on that and it’s shown throughout the season.
“We’re looking really solid as a team, we work very hard for each other and there’s a good atmosphere around the group. And we’ve got quality.”
Since taking over, Rowett has forged a Derby team which can adapt to any situation, and find a way to win by hook or by crook. For Keogh, that’s key.
“We can win in different ways. We can soak it up, we can counter teams, or we can have the ball and dominate,” said Keogh, who started his career at Ipswich Town and Stoke City as a trainee.
“It’s a sign of a good team that when you’re not playing well you can get a point away from home, or nick a goal at home when you need three points. It shows character.
“Brighton and Newcastle weren’t always at their best last season, but they scored at crucial times, they dug in when they needed to and they kept clean sheets when they weren’t playing well. We’ve evolved into that kind of team, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
More than half way through the footballing marathon that is the Championship season (Derby have played 26 of 46 league games), the Rams sit 12 points behind leaders Wolves.
But while it may seem that Derby are embroiled in a race for second, and the remaining second automatic promotion spot, Keogh is refusing to give up the hunt just yet with so many points still to play for.
“They’ve got a big lead, but in the Championship you never know. When you play that many games, if they lose a couple and we win a couple, you can easily claw it back. Nothing’s done in January,” he said.
“But we just need to keep focusing on ourselves, stay positive and keep doing the right things.”
They’ve done plenty of things right so far, but for Keogh the ghosts of promotion near misses past prevent him from fantasizing too much about testing himself in the Premier League for the first time. But he would love the chance.
“Every player wants to play there. I feel that my game is good enough for that level, but it’s about having that opportunity,” he said.
“It’s definitely something to strive for. It’s the best league in the world and you want to test yourself. Hopefully we can do it this year.”