In today’s game of football all players at elite level are expected to be comfortable in possession. Having the confidence and ability to start attacks by ‘bringing the ball out from the back’ is an essential quality in a modern day centre back, shown by the £80 million transfer of England international Harry Maguire from Leicester City to Manchester United in 2019, a world-record fee for a defender. On 31 October 1995 Derby County signed Igor Stimac, a 28 year old Croatian international defender, from Hadjuk Split for a fee of around £1.5 million. Igor was the epitome of a classy defender, with his on field presence and leadership key to the success that immediately followed for the Rams.
In his autobiography, Jim Smith regarded Igor as ‘definitely one of the best signings I have ever made’ and described his transfer to Derby:
‘Stimac was a defender who was highly regarded in Europe and quite frankly I thought I had no chance of getting him when I heard he might be available. I could not believe a player of such high quality would want to come to a club which at that time was below halfway in a minor English league. We were approached by an agent who informed us that his club Hadjuk Split were prepared to let him go because they were in considerable financial difficulties. We then spoke to his manager, who flew over to England and established that he would indeed come to us if we could come up with the £1.5 million. I decided to put it to the chairman. ‘We’ve got to have him because he will take us up,’ I urged. Mr Pickering got the board together and they came up with the money that allowed us to go ahead with the deal. We met, convinced him about the club’s ambitions, agreed his wages, which were the highest the club had ever paid, and the signing went through without a hitch.’
Igor’s supreme confidence, often interpreted as arrogance, came across clearly in his first press conference at the Baseball Ground when he said, in broken English, ‘I come here because of Jim Smith and I want to go with Derby County into the Premier League.’ Off the pitch, life in Derby did not get off to the best of starts when Igor crashed his car on his second day in the country driving on the wrong side of the road.
The Rams had made a poor start to the 1995/96 season and things did not improve when Igor made his debut away to Tranmere Rovers on 4 November 1995 in a 5-1 defeat, although he did score Derby’s consolation goal. In a 2019 interview with the EFL Podcast Gary Rowett, a former teammate of Igor’s, described his first impressions of the Croat in that game: ‘I was playing right back at the time and Igor was the right-side centre back, and every time I turned round he was in a very unusual position for a centre back! We lost 5-1, but you could see his class and see how good he was as a player but you just felt as a two in a back four, he probably wasn’t suited. Jim (Smith) changed formation to a back five, and it just clicked.’
Igor’s home debut was in the next match against West Bromwich Albion which Derby won 3-0, Marco Gabbiadini scoring twice and Dean Sturridge netting from the penalty spot. Jim Smith made an important change to the team’s formation that day which involved Igor:
‘I decided to change things around and make Stimac the main man in a new system. I went to three at the back with him as a sweeper and brought in Ronnie Willems behind the front two of Sturridge and Gabbiadini. We worked all week on a 3-4-3 formation and the whole thing just took off. We beat West Brom 3-0 and Charlton Athletic 2-0 in successive home games and then had a massive 4-1 victory at Birmingham City. That was the game that told me how good we could really be but by then I also fully realized just what a gem we had in the Croatian. I should have guessed what kind of man he was when I asked him, ‘Do you prefer to play on the right or the left.’ He just threw me a look to say, ‘Look, you daft bugger – I can play anywhere you want.’ Stimac was simply magnificent – a charismatic character who played with poise and great assurance. He took the team to a new level of class, composure and confidence on the field’.
The victory against West Bromwich Albion was the start of a 20 game unbeaten run, and 10 wins from the next 11 games, which ended with a 3-0 defeat at Sunderland in March. Derby finished the season in second place after gaining promotion in the famous 2-1 win at home to Crystal Palace, Igor playing a precise ball from defence into Paul Simpson, who played in Dean Sturridge to score the opening goal.
In an interview with Rampage magazine (issue 3, February/March 1998) Igor expressed his surprise that his early comments about achieving promotion were not taken seriously: ‘I felt very good about Derby County from the start and settled in very quickly. But I was surprised because no-one took me seriously when I said I wanted to go with Derby into the Premier League as soon as possible. Sure, we were in 17th place then, but I was very serious’.
It wasn’t common at the time for teams to have a pre-match huddle, but this was something that became a regular occurrence once Igor had joined the Rams. Igor explained that it stemmed from an idea of the assistant manager: ‘Steve McClaren has been doing it with us in the dressing room during the warm-up and I decided it would be good to repeat it just before kick-off, so we can all switch on from the first minute. It is very important to say something, anything, to get our minds on the game. It gives us all more confidence so we can deal with what is to come by feeling we are all together.’
During his time at Derby, it was common to see Derby’s number 6 calmly striding out from defence with the ball to the cries of ‘Igor! Igor!’ from the stands. However, Igor spent several long spells out of the team with a back problem. It was this problem that kept him out of the side for the final seven games of the 1996/97 season, including the famous 3-2 victory at Old Trafford and the final game at the Baseball Ground against Arsenal. In the Rampage interview, Igor was keen to stress that it was not an injury but ‘an illness called disc hernia, and the only way to relieve it is to exercise every day, train regularly in the gym and to swim every day to relieve the pressure on the nerves so I can keep playing’.
Igor’s final game for Derby County was at Elland Road on 20 March 1999, a 4-1 defeat to Leeds United. He was sold to West Ham United in the summer for £600,000 where he would stay for two seasons before returning to Hadjuk Split to finish his playing career in 2002.
On the decision to allow Igor to move on, Jim Smith recalled: ‘I felt we had the best out of Igor. He had been instrumental in Croatia reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in 1998, playing in every game in spite of having a back injury before the tournament, but he only made a limited number of appearances for us when he came back and in my opinion was no longer giving us value for money.’
Despite making under 100 appearances for Derby County, in 2009 fans voted Igor as part of Derby’s All Time X1 team as part of the club’s 125th anniversary celebrations. His importance to the team has not been forgotten by fans and Igor remains a modern-day Rams legend. He has since embarked on a managerial career, including his native Croatia between 2012-2013, and is currently managing the Indian national team.
In total Igor Stimac played 93 games for the Rams, scoring three goals. His playing record was:
1995/1996 – 27 games, 1 goal
1996/1997 – 21 games, 1 goal
1997/1998 – 22 games, 1 goal
1998/1999 – 14 games, 0 goals