x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The hard work is paying off for Blackburn Rovers' Scott Dann

From playing non-league football six years ago, the centre-back is now in the Premier League and has a bright future in the top-flight, even if his current club may not.

Scott Dann almost signed for Arsenal in the summer transfer window before Arsene Wenger opted for Per Mertesacker instead.
Scott Dann almost signed for Arsenal in the summer transfer window before Arsene Wenger opted for Per Mertesacker instead.

Scott Dann, the Blackburn Rovers defender, has mixed memories of his first goal for the Premier League strugglers.

"It was an important game against West Brom and I overstretched and clashed with goalkeeper Ben Foster," said the 24 year old, grimacing at the memory of what happened in December. "I was in severe pain and couldn't run, but I was determined to carry on despite knowing that something was badly wrong."

Dann later went to see the club's physiotherapist, with his manager Steve Kean saying: "Our physio Dave Fevre is very experienced and he's never seen an injury like it before."

Dann underwent emergency surgery.

"It was a ruptured testicle," he said of the dramatic swelling. "And it's even more painful than it sounds. It was not a pretty sight."

For Dann, it was an occupational hazard.

"I put my body on the line and make tackles when I need to, but I'm not just an all-out defender. I like to pass the ball from the back and bring the ball out of defence."

The injury kept him out for five weeks. "It was frustrating as I wanted to be playing every week and helping keep the team up," said the man who had been one of the bright spots in Blackburn's miserable season so far.

Being injured in a relegation fight was nothing new. He experienced the same with Birmingham City last season before his £6 million (Dh34.5m) transfer to Blackburn on the August transfer deadline day.

The deal meant a return to the north-west of England for Dann, who was raised in Kirkdale, a working-class area of Liverpool comprising Victorian terraced houses right by the Liverpool and Everton grounds.

"Liverpool were my team and I went to watch them with my dad," he said. "I'd go on the Kop and watch my idol Steven Gerrard who was just breaking into the first team."

Football was in his blood. Dann's father had been a semi-professional footballer, one of many from Liverpool to play below the professional ranks. "He's a lot harder than me," said Dann.

Most Premier League clubs trawl local talent and discard them before they can be offered an apprenticeship after leaving school at 16, but the Merseyside giants missed Dann.

"I played for my school and Sunday league," he said. "I wasn't with Everton or Liverpool but a lot of my friends were. They used to tell me that they couldn't understand why I wasn't there with them."

None of those friends made it as footballers, while Dann saw his career take off when at 16 he was offered a trial by Walsall, then a second-tier club.

"The youth coach there was from Liverpool and I think that was the link," he said. "Walsall watched me in one trial game and told me after that they had a three-year contract ready for me to sign - so as long as I didn't go on trial at any other club. I signed."

Dann was determined to take his chance.

"I worked really hard," he said. "I was so determined to succeed, to become a better player every week and to go as far as I could. I'm from a hard-working family and that rubbed off on me. If my parents were prepared to travel to the Midlands to support me and watch me play then I knew I had to give everything."

Dann was still too young to play in Walsall's first team.

"The manager didn't want to throw me into a relegation battle, even though I felt that I was ready. I was sent on loan to Denmark and then non-league clubs," he said. "I just wanted to play football and couldn't see the point of hanging around."

Going on loan was worthwhile.

"It made me realise how hard it would be to become a footballer because I was up against some excellent players who were still not good enough to make it as full-time players."

It toughened him up too.

"I'd go to places like Barrow on a freezing Tuesday night when the pitch was icy. Once I had to leave the pitch for 15 minutes to get stitches in my head after a clash," he said.

Dann returned and broke into Walsall's first team as they were promoted as League Two champions in 2007. His form in League One continued to impress, alerting bigger clubs.

Coventry City made a move and Dann transferred to the championship club for a fee of £1m in January 2008.

"I was made captain at Coventry at the age of 20," he said. "But I was still determined to go higher and higher."

The 6ft 2ins defender was selected by England at Under 21 level as his career continued its upwards trajectory.

"I didn't get carried away with what people were saying," he said. "I just continued working hard with Coventry. Then I got a call saying that Birmingham, who were in the Premier League, wanted to sign me. I was delighted." Dann signed for a fee of £3.5m in June 2009.

"We finished ninth in my first season, the club's best for more than 50 years. We won the League Cup by beating Arsenal, too."

Dann didn't play in the Wembley final. "I was in injured in the semi-final," he said.

"I went into the game with a niggling injury but played anyway because I wanted to reach the final. I then damaged my hamstring even more and missed the rest of the season. It was horrible watching the team get relegated."

Relegation meant that Birmingham would have to cash in and sell their best players. Despite being injured, Dann was arguably their best player. There was no shortage of suitors.

Arsenal were keenest but an injury meant they could not properly scout him in the close season. Their leading scouts watched Dann in a game specially arranged behind closed doors with Tottenham Hotspur.

Negotiations were advanced and personal terms were agreed, but just as a deal looked likely to go through before the August 2011 transfer window, Arsene Wenger opted for the German international Per Mertesacker to partner Thomas Vermaelen.

Liverpool and Everton were very interested in a player born and raised in their back yard, although both Merseyside clubs had financial issues which prevented them paying the £6m up front Birmingham were demanding.

Blackburn came up with the money Birmingham wanted on transfer deadline day and Dann moved north as a replacement for the Manchester United-bound Phil Jones. He was not to know that he was walking into a club in conflict.

"We've been down at the bottom but we honestly think we have the players to stay up," he said. "A few unfortunate injuries means it's taking me longer to get back up to my level." Unfortunate is one way of describing the ruptured testicle.

Unfortunate could also be used to describe the atmosphere at Ewood Park for large parts of the season, with sustained vocal protests against the club's Indian owners and the manager Kean.

"The fans have been protesting against the owners and the manager rather than the players," said Dann.

"You just have to shut it out of your mind, but it hasn't affected us as much as people think and in the last four or five weeks - especially since we won at Manchester United with a really young team - the fans have really been getting behind us. I hope they can do that until the end of the season and that we can stay up."

Blackburn were thrashed 7-1 by Arsenal two weeks ago, but last Saturday's 3-2 win over QPR lifted them to 17th, out of the bottom three - where they have spent most of the season - on goal difference.

If they do go down then Dann is unlikely to follow. He rates Manchester United's injured defender Nemanja Vidic and City's Vincent Kompany the best in the English game, but Dann is a rising defensive star himself and with England's John Terry and Rio Ferdinand now well into their 30s, his international prospects can only improve if his progress continues.

"I want to play at the highest level as possible and I'll just keep working hard to do that," he said. "I want to play for England."