On Tuesday Fikayo Tomori was named Derby County’s Player of the Season, so what better time to speak to the defender about his development since moving to Pride Park on loan.
Tomori has been at Chelsea since the Under-8 age group, and after winning plenty in our Academy teams he made his senior debut for the Blues on the final day of the 2015/16 campaign against champions Leicester City.
The 21-year-old was at Hull last season and Brighton before that, but it is at Derby that he has really flourished, capping a superb season in the East Midlands by winning the club’s Player of the Season award. He has already appeared 49 times for the Rams under the guidance of Frank Lampard and Jody Morris, and is hoping to finish strongly by helping Derby grab the final Championship play-off place.
We spoke to Tomori about the areas in which he has improved this season, what it’s been like playing under and alongside Chelsea legends, and first, his personal prize…
Congratulations on your award Fikayo! You must be delighted…
Yeah! It’s good on a personal level to win the award. It shows I have been doing well on the pitch and that has been recognised. It’s been a good year.
It came as a little bit of surprise. I wasn’t really expecting to win anything but it was a nice surprise! I have a great relationship with the Derby fans. From the first day I got here they have been welcoming to me. They have supported me in the games where I haven’t done so well, or the team hasn’t performed as well. Home or away they support us and that has helped me out. I’m very grateful they voted for me.
Looking at the season as a whole, in what ways do you think you have improved as a player?
It’s my first full season in the Championship playing centre-back. I have been learning that role and playing in a different sort of system to what I have played in so far in professional football: different positioning, different tactics. It’s been a really good learning curve for me in my development as a player, and I think I have learned a lot and definitely got better.
You’ve been playing left centre-back for Derby, whereas previously in your career you had been a right centre-back or a right-back. What’s that been like?
Playing on the left side I have been forced to use my left foot a bit more, but I don’t see that as a problem and I think I have done well in that position. I’ve been adding more to my game, things like switching the ball with my left foot. Stuff that I probably wouldn’t do on the right side I have had to do this season, and it’s made me a better player.
How have you fitted in to Derby’s passing style?
You have to be confident to receive the ball and pass it. There’s a lot of rotation going on between the midfielders and the forwards. We just try to do what the manager tells us every week; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but we all know what we are trying to do. It’s been a good season and there have been games where our passing has been really good.
In the Championship in some games you need a quicker build-up and a switch of play to break down a team. The manager and Jody have been helping me add different styles of passing to my game, whether that’s short passes between the lines, breaking lines by finding the winger or the attacking midfielder, or going in behind to the striker. There are different types of movement they have been helping me with. I have tried to listen to it.
You’ve been virtually ever-present this season. How have you handled the workload?
It’s been difficult at times, especially around the Christmas period where you don’t really get time to train, it’s just recovery, play, recovery, play, but I have learned how to look after my body and how to manage myself a lot better this season. Training is good but games are where you can really improve and show your development. Playing so many games I have been able to do that.
What have you made of the Championship this season?
Every team has a difficult style. Some have a short passing style, some like to go longer, some teams sit off, some press. Having to adjust to every team and to different strikers as well has been a good learning experience.
How has your relationship developed with your centre-back partner Richard Keogh?
He’s played 600 games in his career, 300 for Derby, so he has a lot of experience to share. From the first day I got here he has been vocal on and off the pitch, helping me if the ball is one side, telling me to get over, and having that voice in your head during games is a great help. It would have been a lot harder if he wasn’t there. It’s been a good partnership.
You’ve had Ashley Cole to your left at times in the past few months. What’s he been like to play with?
In his time he was the best left-back in the world, so having someone like that who I have looked up to for so long, and am now playing with, is surreal. You can tell just from the way he speaks he is a top player, and he is a good guy as well. He has been helping not only me out but the whole team. In games he is always talking and you can see he is a good professional.
And tell us about Mason Mount’s season...
The period he was out we missed him quite a bit. He’s got a bit of a spark. He likes to take the ball past people in midfield. His energy and his runs in behind from midfield are natural to him, and not something a lot of people can do. He’s had a good season and he’s a top player. I have played with him since I was about 15, and to spend my first full season as a centre-back in the Championship and his first full season in the Championship together has been good. We have helped each other a lot. Having Jody there as well, and Chris Jones [the former Chelsea fitness coach] too, helped us settle in.
At Derby you have a squad with a blend of youth and experience. Has that helped the balance of the side?
Yeah definitely. Sometimes in the dressing room people are talking and there are stories about stuff that happened when we were about six or seven years old and they were playing! Tom Huddlestone has played in the Champions League, Nuge [David Nugent] has played for England, Curtis Davies as well, Scott Carson’s been at a World Cup, and having all those heads in the changing room has really helped us. I think we’ve helped them a bit too as we’ve added a bit of youthful vibrancy! We have bounced off each other.
And what’s it been like working with Lampard and Morris?
When Derby first called me and said they wanted to take me on loan, the first thing I thought about was the gaffer. He is such a legend, not only for Chelsea but for England and in the whole world. There is that automatic respect for him because of what he has done in the game. You can see the way he wants to play: to press, to be good on the ball, to rotate, to be attractive and to be difficult to beat. For us to be fighting for the play-offs in his first full season as a manager is great and we want to achieve promotion. Hopefully that’s what will do at the end of the season.
What have been your individual highlights on the pitch?
Probably when I scored against Norwich and we won 4-3. That was a crazy, crazy game. I hadn’t really had a game like that in my career before. To score was brilliant.
Also when we beat Manchester United in the League Cup at Old Trafford. We played so well. To win on penalties in such a big stadium is something you dream about.
And you played against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, too…
Yeah that was also amazing. It was different because normally I have a Chelsea shirt on! Them allowing me and Mason to play was surreal and something we wanted to do. Unfortunately we didn’t get the win, but for our experience and our development it was priceless.
The Championship season is reaching its climax. What have Derby got to do in the play-offs?
We have just got to win our games. It’s in our hands. It’s all about getting results at this time of the season, and that’s what we’re focused on doing.