JAKE Buxton has beaten off competition and silenced those who criticised his signing from Burton Albion to establish himself in Derby County’s team.
He has become something of a cult figure in the eyes of many Rams fans, but remains very much a reluctant hero.
His value to the team is made clear by the facts. He has appeared in all of Derby’s games this season and has started 35 of the 37 fixtures.
What the facts do not reveal is the level of consistency displayed. No Rams defender has been more consistent than Buxton.
I recall interviewing him the day he signed for Derby in May 2009. He was manager Nigel Clough’s second permanent signing, and not really a surprise given how well he had served Clough at Burton Albion.
Buxton was fully aware of the battle he faced. He told me on that first day: “I just want to try and play as many games as possible.”
He has made 117 appearances for the club, not bad value for a free transfer, and his tally would be higher had it not been for injury. Only Craig Bryson (119) of the current squad has played more games.
“I came into the club as sixth-choice centre half,” said Buxton. “Not many Derby fans had probably heard of me or knew who I was and every season since I have been here bar the summer just gone, the club has signed a £1 million centre half!”
Buxton, typically, is more comfortable talking about the team than himself.
When pushed on why he thinks fans have taken a shine to him, he replies: “I think they can see that I give everything I’ve got and I want this club to move forward.”
He has grasped his opportunity with both hands. Zak Whitbread, on loan from Leicester City, is having to be patient and Michael Keane returned to Manchester United at the end of January because he could not break up the partnership of Buxton and skipper Richard Keogh.
Has Buxton surprised himself?
“You always have that belief in yourself but it is about being given the opportunity,” he said.
“With the previous manager (Nigel Clough) and the manager now (Steve McClaren) it is quite tough for them to go into a season saying ‘I’ve got this lad from non-league and he is going to be my first-choice centre half’.
“Each year the management has had to strengthen in the centre-back area and they will probably look to strengthen again in the summer.
“I just give my all and conduct myself in the right manner around the club.”
Buxton came through the youth system at Mansfield Town and made his first team debut in October 2002 in a Football League Trophy match against Crewe Alexandra. He was named captain in the 2006-07 season, one of the youngest in the country.
Mansfield were relegated to the Football Conference at the end of the 2007–08 season and Buxton joined Burton on a free. He helped the Brewers to the Conference title and was named the club’s player of the year.
Unfairly given his progress, he has carried the label of a ‘non-league player’ in the eyes of some people, despite playing only one season at that level. Does the tag frustrate him?
“No, not at all,” said Buxton. “I had one season at Burton and we got promoted, top of the league. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but I was named player of the division. I don’t really have to come out and say stuff like this.
“I had one year there, it was like football rehab for me. I had 10 years at Mansfield and got a bit lax and going to Burton put me back on my toes, got my guard back up and I realised I had to scrap for everything. It was a good lesson. I will never forget those days.
“I was very lucky that I joined Burton Albion when they were at the peak of non-League. The stadium was geared up to be in the Football League and we trained at the FA Centre.”
Buxton’s determination in both penalty areas is one of his qualities. He has scored 10 goals in a Derby shirt including five last season – a healthy return for a central defender – but only two so far this season.
Another of his qualities seen this season is an ability to ping an accurate diagonal pass.
There is actually a Twitter account named “Buckenbauer”, a play on Franz Beckenbauer, the legendary cultured German defender.
Given his splendid bushy beard, Buxton is more buccaneer than Beckenbauer.
A fashion statement? “I don’t know about that!” he smiles.
“My little lad Beau, who is nine months old, likes it and so I’ve kept it. The players love it as well.
“The missus hates it, and her mum hates it as well!
“The lads say I ‘ve got to keep it. I shaved it off the night before the Wigan home game and we lost. The lads battered me. I then shaved it for the Chelsea game because we were on TV, and we lost.
“But if you are going to start interviewing me about beards and that, I’ll shave it off tonight!”