For all that Curtis Davies is trying to do what he’s done for 21 years and just “focus on the game”, the centre-back admits it’s hard not to think about everything around it. Those walls he knows so well; those stands he knows so well; that pitch he knows so well.
“I’m hoping once I cross the line it’s just a game of football but, when the adrenaline drops, and I say goodbye and give everyone a clap, I might be emotional knowing I may never walk out of there as a player ever again.”
Davies is going back to Derby County for the first time since leaving for Cheltenham Town in the summer, having never had the chance to say goodbye on the pitch. He also knows it may be his last ever game there. At 38, he is the second oldest outfield player in English football after Thiago Silva, and admits he is considering retirement.
There are many strands to that long time in the game but one stands out, and it emotionally swirls around Pride Park this Saturday at 3pm.
It is how, even relatively late in a career, a club can come to mean so much to a player. It is how, for all the perceptions of the modern game and its money, a player can completely embrace what a club does for a community; what it means. Davies arrived at Derby when he was 32 but he willingly says it’s the club he most identifies with, and he speaks about them in the way a one-club man might. There’s authentic emotion.
If the last few years of Derby’s history displayed many of the game’s modern issues, from competing amid the financial stretch to ownership and the very running of clubs, Davies’ part in that showed the good of the game: “the togetherness”, as he puts it.
It was about much more than the football. And it’s why Derby fans love him for more than the performances. Davies stood up for the club and its people at a time of huge uncertainty.
“I had my longest time at any club there but my role transcended what happened on the pitch,” he says. “I had a bigger role in terms of the leadership around the whole place, when everything was going on with the administration and all these potential buy-outs.
“No one was really getting answers. People weren’t sure about their jobs so they didn’t know where they stood. It was the idea they weren’t sure when it was going to happen. People are panicking and thinking about whether they need another job. That was the worrying part for people at the training ground, people around us, they’re the people we were really worried for.
“I wasn’t trying to make myself important, it was just the fact I had done a lot of media and was asked questions. I will always give honest answers and the honest answers were we hadn’t been told anything.
“It was my way of doing almost a war cry, give us answers, people care about this club.
“It’s the heartbeat of the community, you become part of the fabric of it.
“It’s one of the original Football League clubs so for it to potentially go bust - and we all just sit here and wait for it to happen - I wasn’t willing to accept that.”
It’s revealing that Davies puts this memory, a time that was full of such “frustration” and uncertainty, above the fact he has done something that puts him in football’s record books. The centre-back scored a goal in football’s oldest showpiece, having struck for Hull City in the 2014 FA Cup final.
They might have lost that game to Arsenal, but there was immense pride in it as well as tangible achievement. Every time someone even glances over the list of finals, there is Davies’ name. That still doesn’t mean as much to him as Derby.
“It's because it was total emotion, and emotion for the club,” Davies explains. “It was a belonging. I will always look to Derby as a positive memory, regardless of football.
“Whereas the emotion in the FA Cup was all individual. As much as I was scoring for Hull City and we could have won the game, in the moment of scoring I was that kid in the playground that has been playing ‘cuppies’ or whatever you want to call it.”
Davies laughs, referencing a game most would know as a group of kids all playing into one goal and scoring in consecutive rounds until there’s only one player left.
“In that moment, it was like being back there, an out-of-body experience - like I’d just scored the winner in cuppies. The reaction and the celebration is very much that. Selfishly, it was all about me.”
Derby was about something more.
As to whether there will be more in his career, Davies will decide at the end of the season.
“I’ve always said I want to retire on my feet, not my arse,” he laughs. “I didn’t want to be on the bench looking in. I don’t mind the mentoring role but I want to do it from on the pitch.
“I know my body would withstand another season but it's the idea of do you slog another season and hang on or do you maybe retire on your own terms and go into a new field.”
That was why Cheltenham made sense at the end of last season, after not playing that much for Derby but feeling he had more games in. It was while relaying a conversation at his new club’s training ground this week that Davies also showed what a new career might be, should he decide to retire in the summer.
The 38-year-old has a real instinct for clearly articulating perceptive insights into how the game is played. It fits easily into either coaching or punditry. That comes across as he reflects on the huge changes to defending that his own career has traversed.
When he started, it used to be about centre-halves dominating their individual space. It’s now about totally submitting to the system.
“I was actually having this conversation yesterday with a few of the lads,” he says. “When I used to get a video, it’d be a tape and it’s just ultimately you watching the whole thing and trying to find your bits. There’s no cutting individual clips.
“Now, even the youth team at Derby have analysts for under-12s and under-14s. It shows how far the game’s evolved in terms of that information that, one, you get on your own play and, two, when we break down the opposition.”
It is what has better enabled more systemised play, too.
“The challenges are so different,” Davies explains. “When I started off in League One with Luton Town, everyone plays 4-4-2. It’s usually big man, quick man. That’s the way it would be, big man flick-on, quick man gets onto it. Even as you go up the levels, a lot of teams were still playing two strikers. There weren’t that many playing 4-3-3.
“So, as a centre-back pairing, you’re going one to one against the two centre-forwards.
“Now, it might be a front three, but the two of them are literally standing on either touchline so you’re having to keep your full-backs in. The attacking threat more comes from the positions you get taken into, rather than the actual players you’re defending against.
“It’s all about structure now. It’s all about the way, by being in certain positions, that allows a teammate to get onto the ball. It’s no longer a case of ‘this guy’s running the game, I’m going to kick him up and down all day long’… unless a manager tells you to do that!
“But it’s not just about taking charge. It’s about finding space and another player over. It’s about structure, about everyone knowing exactly their job and the job of the man next to them. So, if I played any position on the pitch, I would have known what I was doing. Everything’s automatic, and your thought process, not to say we’re robots but more in terms of once you get the ball in one position I know my passes are A and B. That allows anyone to step into the system.
“It’s why, with centre-halves, and it’s similar with keepers, we’re talking about what he’s like with his feet, not if he can defend. We see it more and more now that possession is a form of defence.”
Davies laughs as he talks about how it’s so different to battles with Kevin Davies and Didier Drogba when in the Premier League.
Even those exalted heights were never like Derby, though.
“It’ll be nice to go back and properly say goodbye,” Davies says, but without losing that focus, “And, hopefully, get the result for Cheltenham.”
As the Derby fans would doubtless say, it’s about much more than what happens on the pitch.