Naylor's miraculous milestone

REACHING the 200-game milestone at one club is a fine achievement for any player but for Richard Naylor to make it is truly incredible, writes Derek Davis.

REACHING the 200-game milestone at one club is a fine achievement for any player but for Richard Naylor to make it is truly incredible, writes Derek Davis.

It is something of a minor medical miracle that Naylor is even playing at all, never mind commanding a regular first-team place in the demanding centre-back role which he will occupy against Reading today.

The 26-year-old, who came through Ipswich Town's acclaimed youth system, has endured four operations and played through pain for years, aided by five major injections. He is blighted by having one leg shorter than the other and knackered knees, on top of the usual back and hamstring problems.

Despite helping Ipswich to promotion and scoring in the play-off final at Wembley and then playing a big part in Town reaching fifth in the Premiership and qualifying for Europe, he found himself unwanted by George Burley. He was twice pushed out on loan and told he had no future at Portman Road.

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All that may have made a lesser man crumble, or at least get the hump. But Naylor has been stoic and such is his determination, and pain threshold, he once played in three games with a fractured femur, critics mocked it as it only being a hairline crack, but it was a break nonetheless.

The Yorkshire-born defender, who joined the club as a centre-half, but was switched to a striker when young and then back again last season, admitted he was surprised to learn he had reached the magic mark.

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He said: "I'm very pleased to have reached that sort of milestone because there were a lot of occasions when I didn't think I would play again never mind getting to 200 games with Ipswich or anyone.

"Hopefully I can go on and play another 200."

But it was not just the medical setbacks which threatened his Town career and Naylor was left hurt by former manager Burley's decision to discard him when Town were in the second year of their Premiership adventure.

Naylor had played a big part in partnering Marcus Stewart, who finished as the Premiership's top English scorer as the club finished fifth that season.

He recalls: "During the close season it was obvious George was looking to take the club on from fifth and he signed a few new players.

"I had a really good pre-season, finishing top-scorer in the friendlies. In training I was up front with Marcus all the time and I thought we were looking good and in for another excellent season.

"The manager told me if we played two up front I would be in with Marcus, if he only went with one it would be Marcus with two wide players."

But on the opening day, despite everything they worked on in pre-season, Burley played debutant Finidi George up front with Stewart. Town lost 1-0.

Naylor said: "From that day on it was a gradual deterioration and I felt let down. He never said anything but brought me back for the game at home to Derby where I scored and Finidi played well out wide.

"But things went downhill after that and as the season got worse I was involved less and less and when things went really bad I was not here at all and that was disappointing after such a good pre-season.

"It was strange but the Gaffer had thought he could take the club on from fifth which was always going to be tricky.

"He made his decisions and a lot of them were proved wrong and from my point of view one of those wrong decisions was leaving me out and not involving me more. Those mistakes ultimately cost him his job."

But Naylor bears no grudges and has nothing against Burley who is now manager of Derby County, who Town knocked out of the FA Cup last week with the converted defender heading in the opening goal.

He said: "I don't have a problem with George over it at all. He made his decisions, that's football and you live or die by them.

"Through all my injury problems he had stood by me and he had opportunities then to not keep me here. So in those seven years under George there was one bad year but overall I had a successful time, as did the club under him."

Naylor needs to spend half an hour in the treatment room before every game and training session preparing with a series of special exercises with the physiotherapist.

He admits it can get him down but added: "It is annoying but it is something I have to do and just get on with.

"I have got to the stage now where it is manageable and it doesn't affect me quite so much, so I don't have to miss big chunks of a season because I need to rest. If I miss the odd game it is not the end of the world but in general I can play the majority of the season."

In the early part of his career shin splints were a major problem, and he has been treated for back and hamstring problems. Both knees were operated on after the Wembley success, a further knee operation was required at a later stage and Naylor also needed surgery on an ankle to remove loose bone chippings.

He admits if he was a racehorse he would have been put down.

But it was far from being all bad.

Naylor scored Town's second goal in the play-off final victory over Barnsley and there have been many other happy days.

He said: "Wembley was the biggest day of my career so far, that was special. I can still remember making my debut when we beat Everton 3-0 in the Premier League and we went on quite a run after that. For me that game against Everton really felt as if we had made it. I can still remember the three play-off years when we deserved to go up each time but didn't after winning so many games and playing such good football."

Then there were the giddy European nights and Naylor's particular favourite was in Sweden when Town came from behind to beat IF Helsingborgs.

He said: "We needed to go there and win after drawing at home and Hermann scored a terrific goal from a corner and Marcus with a chip, it was fantastic."

During that time Naylor grew up with the likes of James Scowcroft, Kieron Dyer, Richard Wright, Titus Bramble and Darren Ambrose, all who have gone on and developed.

Naylor said: "I have been lucky enough to play alongside many good players and watch them mature. They have gone from being average in the youth team to superstars now.

"Kieron was probably the pick of the bunch. He has gone on to realise his potential and he can even go on to the next level and be a regular in the England side. But he will have to do it in midfield rather than up front."

The laid-back defender is not star-struck any more and takes little notice of whoever is put in front of him, preferring to just get on with the job.

But he admits the best players he has come across was early in his career when he played in John Wark's testimonial game against Arsenal and Steve Bould and Martin Keown were in defence.

But the people who have made the biggest impression on Naylor from day one are the Blues fans.

He said: "The supporters have always been fantastic to me. It is never easy going into the side as a young kid, as you are a bit up and down yet they always stood by me.

"They always gave me a great reception when I came on and the way they responded gave everyone a lift. It is still the same now. I'm still learning the new position and you are going to have bad days and good days.

"Thankfully the good days are far more than the bad but even when I have had a bad game they have not been quick to turn on me. That is brilliant it gives me a lift when I'm down after a bad game."

Naylor turns 27 next month and is close to qualifying for a testimonial season but hopes he still has another eight good years left in him.

He added: "If I can play those at Ipswich I will be more than happy."

It would be another remarkable chapter in an already incredible story.

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