George Thorne admitted that he was a relived man after overcoming what he described as the ‘hardest challenge of his career’ to pull on the Derby County shirt again.

The 24-year-old midfielder returned to competitive first team action for the first time since May 2016 and played the full 90 minutes as the Rams fell to a 3-2 Carabao Cup Second Round defeat at the hands of Barnsley on Tuesday night.

The result aside, seeing Thorne return to match action was one of a handful of positives that Gary Rowett could take away from the night in South Yorkshire.

There is, however, no one happier to be back than the man himself.

Thorne told RamsTV: “It was a relief really. It has been a very long time coming and has probably been the hardest challenge of my career to get back on the pitch for the first-team.

“On a selfish note, regardless of the result, I was just pleased to be back out there.”

The former West Bromwich Albion midfielder had played in two Under-23s matches to build up his fitness ahead of the match at Barnsley, but he admitted that nothing quite prepares you for that first team return.

“My lungs were in pieces during the first 45 minutes,” Thorne added.

“Performance wise and fitness wise, I am nowhere near where I’d like to be but again, I am just delighted to be back out there after 17 months.

“I found my second wind during the second half and it was a shame about the score in the end. It was a disappointing result but I am delighted to get 90 minutes under my belt.

“There is a long way to go to get myself back to where I’d like to be and that is going to happen by me doing extras like playing with the Under-23s.”

Alongside him in the middle of the park was Max Bird – a 16-year-old first-year scholar who was making his Rams senior debut at Oakwell.

When asked about his fellow midfielder’s display, Thorne said his partner did himself ‘proud’ and is predicting a bright future for the youngster.

“I thought Max Bird was fantastic, he added. “He is a credit to himself.”

“After the game, I told him that he can be proud of himself. He certainly didn’t look out of place at such a young age and he has a very bright future.

“Now it’s down to us and himself to keep his head down and work hard because we certainly have a player on our hands if he can do that.”

In the final part of this interview, Thorne insisted that the hardest work of all starts now.

All the work he has been doing over the last 17 months has been gearing up to him pulling on the Derby County shirt again, but the next stage for him is to make sure that becomes a regular occurrence once again as he continues to build up his fitness and try and force his ways into Rowett’s plans.

Thorne concluded: “Now coming up is probably the hardest work of it all. We had a fantastic performance on Friday.

“The boys are in fine form at the moment and responded very well from the Sheffield United game.

“It was 11 fantastic performances really on Friday against Hull and one that I feel has been coming.

“Being honest with myself, I’ve probably got a long way to go before I start knocking on the door of that starting 11 but that’s understandable.

“We are in a good position at the minute and long may that continue.”