Skip to content

Inigo Idiakez exclusive interview: Why Derby was best year of his career, tough love at Leicester, and life in Mexico

In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, former Derby County midfielder Inigo Idiakez explains why moving to the Midlands led to the best year of his career, shares his regrets about his return to the club as a coach, and gives us the lowdown on life in Mexico

Inigio Idiakez during his time as a player at Derby County
Image: Inigio Idiakez pictured during his time as a player at Derby County, a time he remembers fondly

Inigo Idiakez is a long way from Derby. But in the Mexican sunshine, it is the name of his former club that takes him back to his happiest days in football.

He had turned 30 when he turned up in the East Midlands but soon won over the supporters. "It was the best year of my career," Idiakez tells Sky Sports. "Hearing 24,000 sing your name at every corner. The relationship with the fans was incredible."

Idiakez, now 49, is still surprised that the move happened at all. "The trial was horrible," he admits. "I had just had an operation and I was not fit. I did not play well and I was sure they would not offer me anything because, honestly, I was really bad."

Inigo Idiakez in action for Derby County
Image: Inigo Idiakez had an explosive impact in English football with Derby County

George Burley must have seen something that day in 2004. "They offered me a two-year contract straight after the game." He proceeded to win Derby's player of the year award, scoring nine goals from midfield as he inspired the club to a fourth-placed finish.

"In the first three games, I scored two goals. That was lucky because I settled and the fans were amazing with me. Confidence is everything. I was taking corners let alone free-kicks and thinking to myself, I am going to score from here. I had never felt like that."

He is reflecting on his career over a coffee in Cancun, the city in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula that is home for now. He has spent the past year as head coach of the local team, playing in the country's second tier. Such is this football life. "I thought Cancun was for holidays," he laughs.

"I do go to the beach and sunbathe. My youngest daughter came to visit me a couple of times. But I had the sunshine in Alicante as well. I am here in Cancun to do a job. I go to the club early and I prepare like a professional. I want to improve as a coach."

Also See:

The job has brought satisfaction - and frustrations. "I have seen an improvement in the players. They are fitter, they can run more, and technically they are better. But after working in England for seven years, everything here in Mexico is very slow."

His coaching break in England came within Leicester City's academy before briefly returning to Derby as assistant manager to Nigel Pearson and then playing a small part in Luton Town's extraordinary journey as the assistant to Graeme Jones there.

There might have been more moves given his many connections. There was a talk of a switch to Watford to work with his former Real Sociedad teammate Javi Gracia in 2019 but the fact that he was already at rivals Luton made the circumstances awkward.

Before that, in 2016, he was close to a move to Wolves when his old boss at Rayo Vallecano Julen Lopetegui was on the verge of taking over first time around. Unai Emery, who had Idiakez's brother on his staff at Villarreal, recently considered him for a role too.

The relationship with Emery goes back to their teenage years at Real Sociedad. "He was a tricky winger, really quick, really good," recalls Idiakez. "But he was unlucky with injury. At the big clubs, there is always another one coming who is better than you."

He discovered that for himself when Xabi Alonso arrived. "The first training session, he was incredible. It was like, who is this guy? Every time he got the ball he passed it to the right player. We were near the bottom of the league but he changed everything."

The manager who signed Alonso was Welsh coach John Toshack, having also blooded Idiakez in an earlier spell with the club. "He gave me the opportunity when I was really young. I had an injury and he had the patience to wait for me. He gave me confidence."

The blend of British and Spanish influences was a precursor for what was to come, a thread that has continued to run throughout his career as player and coach. He took to England quickly. "Some say living in England is horrible but I never had that feeling."

At Leicester, where he took his first coaching steps with the academy players, he acknowledges that his demands were still a shock to the youngsters. "The first two weeks were really difficult with the players and staff because I am really straight," he explains.

"If we are going to train for two hours then we train for two hours. One in 1000 kids make it so we can laugh and joke afterwards. When we train, we train. I found players coming late. Players not training at 100 per cent. The attitude was that everything was OK.

"The introduction of my voice was shocking for the players and some of the coaches as well. But I had the support of Jon Rudkin, the director of the academy. He told me that he had my back all the way so I could do whatever I thought I had to do to improve things.

"The manager was Nigel Pearson, who had been my manager at Southampton, and he was the same. That was important because I had the manager and the director of football supporting me. After two weeks, it was amazing. Everyone wanted to train."

He has fond memories of two future England internationals. There was Ben Chilwell. "Physically, he was incredible." Harvey Barnes too. "We worked a lot on body position, picking the ball up in space. Every Thursday, we worked on his positional play."

Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall also impressed. "He was small but intelligent. If you asked him to do extra training, no problem. His family were amazing. His mother would be asking questions because he just wanted to improve. I really like him. He can be a player."

Inigio Idiakez during his time as assistant at Derby County
Image: Inigio Idiakez during his brief time as part of Nigel Pearson's coaching staff at Derby County

This work earned him the trust of Pearson and led to a move to Derby alongside him. The assumption at the time was that this was because of Idiakez's status as a fan favourite at the club, but the intention for him to be part of Pearson's team was there regardless.

"We were going to go to Aston Villa. Then Nigel called me and said, 'I think you are going to be even happier now. We are not going to Aston Villa. We are going to Derby.' I was really excited to go there. But they did not give us the time to change things."

Eleven games into the Championship season, owner Mel Morris got rid of them both. "Nigel came back from a meeting and told me they had sacked him. Five minutes later they called and said they were sacking me too. I did not like the way they treated me.

"We tried to help the club but Mel Morris was difficult to work with. Nigel is very direct with everyone and you have to leave the manager to it and let him change things. If you cannot do that then you are better off finding another one."

Inigio Idiakez during his time as a coach at Luton Town
Image: Inigio Idiakez was part of the staff that took Luton Town up to the Championship

It took Idiakez to Luton and a "fantastic experience" with Jones, now part of the coaching team at Newcastle. "He was very good tactically. I learned a lot from him. It was more like the Spanish way, a focus on keeping possession, so it was incredible for me."

Far away in Mexico, the hope remains that one day the opportunity will come for him to manage in England himself. "Even in League One and League Two, the football there is amazing, the fans cheering."

A love kindled in Derby endures.

"I had that experience as a player," he says. "I would like to have it as a manager too."

Win £250,000 with Super 6!
Win £250,000 with Super 6!

Another Sunday, another chance to win £250,000 with Super 6. Play for free, entries by 4:30pm.

Around Sky