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In the mould of Roy Keane and learning from Wayne Rooney - The remarkable rise of Jason Knight

Still a week shy of his 20th birthday, one of Irish football’s brightest prospects is attracting significant Premier League interest.

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CENTURIES OF ACCUMULATED history and myth will tell you the rise of a Knight is not meant to happen quite this quickly. 

Although not 20 until next week, Jason Knight has made three senior international appearances and played more than 60 first-team games for Derby Country. No Irish international has made as many first-team appearances in English football as a teenager since Robbie Keane. 

This is not the guild’s convention. 

Any heralding of Knight has hitherto been muffled by the loud clamour around the likes of Troy Parrott, Aaron Connolly and Caoimhin Kelleher, but it is being heard now. 

Premier League interest raises the volume – Burnley are most interested in Knight; West Ham and Crystal Palace are too – and the man rejecting the overtures turns it up further.

“Jason Knight will not be leaving this football club”, was Wayne Rooney’s blunt response this week. 

Rooney praised Knight in his very first interview as a Derby player at the start of 2020, and one of his first acts as permanent manager was to give Knight the captaincy in the absence of Curtis Davies and David Marshall. 

“He is very similar to the way I was at his age”, said Rooney.

“I was a player who believed at 20 that I should be captain of Manchester United. I told Alex Ferguson that in the Champions League against Roma away, and I know Jason Knight is exactly the same. He’s a manager’s dream. He fully deserves it, whether he’s 19 or whether he’s 30.” 

swansea-city-v-derby-county-sky-bet-championship-liberty-stadium Rooney and Knight. Source: Nick Potts

It’s a remarkable rise: Knight is captaining a team coached by Wayne Rooney at the end of teenage years that started with family trips to watch Rooney at Old Trafford.

“We have watched football all our life, and watched United and Rooney” says his older brother Kevin, who is exactly eight years Jason’s senior, to the day.

“Now seeing my little brother going out and hugging him and shaking his hand as if he’s one of the lads is mental. Even my friends are on to me, and they can’t get over it: I’m there talking about my brother and Wayne Rooney as if it’s Jim and James down the pub.”

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The family are steeped in football and, more precisely, Cabinteely FC. Both of Jason’s parents played football in their younger days, and both played in a 2019 testimonial game in honour of the club’s late kitman, Michael ‘Locker’ Davis. 

Kevin is the eldest of four brothers, is Cabinteely’s record appearance holder and continues to play for the club today. Younger brothers Conor and Rhys are playing in the club’s academy, which is where Jason came to prominence. 

Like his brother, Kevin left for England at the age of 16 – in his case joining Leicester City – but the move didn’t work out as envisaged and he returned two years later to sign for Bray Wanderers. 

“He was a lot more driven, or a lot more focused”, says Kevin of his younger brother. “He had a drive, and when he wanted to do it, he would just go and do it. And if he didn’t get it, you would see it would ruin his whole day and his whole weekend. He’d just be an angry little fucker for God know’s how long.

“Sometimes I would be like that, and sometimes I wouldn’t. I think that’s the difference between making it and not making it. It has to hurt you, if you want it that much. And he did. 

“There’s a plethora of differences between us, but the main difference as to why he is there and I’m here is definitely mental.” 

He has technical quality too. Name your midfield position and Jason Knight has probably played it. He has played in a midfield three for Stephen Kenny, and has also popped up in a more advanced position off the right. 

And for Derby, he’s been picked on the left wing; as a number 10, an eight and a deeper-lying six in midfield; and to the left of a front three. 

Beyond his technique, the more impalpable virtues of desire, professionalism and a deep total and uncomplicated hatred of losing were the most recurring in the interviews conducted for this piece. 

“What stood out to me was this desire to win”, says Eddie Gormley, Assistant Coach at Cabinteely who coached Knight in the academy along with the late Andy Rice.

“He just had an incredible desire to win games, even in training he didn’t like getting beaten. That’s something you can’t coach. You can coach players to play in a particular way and you can work on their technique and all the things that go with that, but as an individual, I think you’re born that way. Some people just hate getting beaten.” 

“He was a joy to coach”, says Republic of Ireland U16s coach Paul Osam.

“If you saw Jason coming in you knew, ‘Right, I’m not going to have any problems today.’ There are other fellas coming in and you’re thinking, This guy is coming in and he is giving out, he has pink boots on, and will want a rub before he goes out, but Jason was no frills. He came in, he got the job done, he wanted to know how to improve, and then see you until the next time. He was just a joy.” 

Osam made Knight captain of an U16 team featuring Adam Idah, Troy Parrott, Barry Coffey, and Nathan Collins, and then picked him as the Player of the Year. 

“He wasn’t massively vocal in the dressing room, but he led by example. He was Roy Keane-esque, in the way he went about his business”, says Osam. 

The Keane parallels are frequently drawn. Justin Walker, a development coach at Derby, has likened Knight to Keane, and that’s the name Gormley reaches for when I ask. 

“I don’t know Roy Keane, but from hearing certain things, I think Jason has that winning mentality. He expects players to be professional, to work hard, and he doesn’t accept standards being dropped. That is a great trait he has.”

Osam adds further to Knight’s professionalism. 

“He was extremely professional. He ate properly when he was with us, and he rested when he was told to rest. You’d tell lads go up to their rooms, ‘Have a rest and we’ll see you back here at 4pm.’ You’d see some lads wandering about the corridors and in each other’s rooms. They are kids, so you understand that. But with Jason, he would just go to his room. He was very compliant with everything he was asked to do.” 

That sheer focus has benefitted Knight since moving to Derby at the age of 16, to which his brother attests from personal experience. 

“A lot of people don’t think the the downtime you have to deal with when you’re over there”, says Kevin. “People just think, ‘You’re a footballer, you just go over there and play football’, but it’s not like that.

“You are on your own and you have to figure out something to do to keep your mind occupied. Once your mind starts drifting off football to other things is when you start losing focus, you can forget your reason for being there, which is kind of what happened to me.

“He focuses on what he needs to do and doesn’t let other things occupy his mind as much as I would have.

“My living situation at Leicester wasn’t great – there were two three-story houses put together and there were 16 of us all on top of each other. There was no space, and I struggled seriously badly with homesickness, which I never realised was a thing until I went over there. 

“It’s monumental to get over something like that, so that is why I have so much respect for what he does.” 

stephen-kenny-with-jason-knight Stephen Kenny with Jason Knight at an Irish U21 training camp in 2019. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Before he left for Derby, Knight was promoted to training with Cabinteely’s first-team, impressing to the point a few of the senior players asked Gormley if Knight could play that Friday night.

One player took Gormley aside after a session and gravely said the teenager’s involvement had led to bullying at training: Knight was flying into tackles against guys twice his age. Gormley tried his best to talk Knight into curbing his instincts, but didn’t have much luck.

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It has proved likewise at Derby. During one of Knight’s earliest sessions with the first team, the squad were playing a small-sided game hemmed in by wooden panels, during which Knight flew into a tackle and took the ball along with one of the outer panels, smashing through the wood. The club paid for its repair and considered it a pretty worthwhile expense.  

Knight joined the club as a 16-year-old in 2017, and really began making waves with the U18s in the 2018/19 season, as a central midfielder in a Derby side that won the U18 Premier League. 

He flew home at the end of the season, but he wasn’t long off the plane when his phone rang: Derby frantically rushed Knight back to England, as Frank Lampard wanted him in the first-team squad for the Championship play-off semi-final with Leeds.

He didn’t make it off the bench for the semi-finals nor the final play-off defeat to Aston Villa and never actually played under Lampard: he made his first-team debut under Philip Cocu the following season. (Lampard, though, is understood to have mentioned Knight’s name to an unmoved Chelsea hierarchy soon after he was appointed manager.)

Knight has missed just 18 of the 80 games Derby have played since, taking the armband for the first three games of Rooney’s tenure.  

Rooney wants more goals and assists from Knight, but his numbers thus far – nine goals and nine assists in 65 games – is a decent return for a teenager in a struggling team. Derby finished mid-table last season and are now mired in a relegation battle this year, just two points clear of the drop zone having played more games than all of those over their shoulder. 

The club has also been beset by financial problems and Knight has captained the team at a time players have been owed wages, though that issue has reportedly been settled this week. 

Eddie Gormley missed Knight’s senior international debut against Finland last October as Cabinteely were training, but Kevin was given the night off to watch his brother. The family gathered around the TV and waited until the clock struck 83 minutes to see Jason make his senior debut. 

jason-knight Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Kevin played at underage for Ireland too, and was part of an U19 team along with Matt Doherty, Jeff Hendrick and John Egan that qualified for the European Championship semi-finals in 2011. 

“We have so many Ireland jerseys between the two of us, they are everywhere, falling out of drawers”, laughs Kevin. “And they all say ‘Knight’ on the back so we don’t know whose is whose!” 

Jason will likely be adding a lot more to the pile over the coming years. 

“I always tell him I am jealous when he comes back”, says Kevin when I ask the question. “Who wouldn’t be? It’s not an animosity, but it’s just a case of, ‘I tried to get what you now have’, and while I am so proud of what he has done, I can’t help but be a little jealous as well.” 

Having established Jason Knight’s most prominent characteristics are his focus and his desire, I spent a while trying to figure out where they come from. Perhaps, as Gormley says, they are innate and can’t be learned.

Or maybe they come from the example of his older brother; is Jason making sure he will succeed in England where his brother did not? 

“I never heard him say I want to be ‘the next such and such’, but if we are going to put it down to someone, I’ll say, yeah, it was me!”, laughs Kevin.

“Who doesn’t want to be their older brother? And who doesn’t want to be better than their older brother? 

“Publish that. That he’s doing it all for me!” 

Regardless, Derby and Ireland look likely to benefit for some time to come.

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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