After eight years, 276 appearances and 42 goals, the time has come for Craig Bryson to say goodbye to Derby County.
It was confirmed earlier this week that the 32-year-old is to return to his native Scotland after penning a pre-contract agreement with Aberdeen.
Talks had been held with Derby over a new deal, but Bryson felt the time was right to take on a new challenge.
The Scotsman enjoyed, and no doubt will continue to, a unique and special relationship with Derby’s supporters following his arrival from Kilmarnock in 2011 under Nigel Clough.
Once his impending departure was announced late on Wednesday afternoon, supporters quickly took to social media to wish him well.
Amongst the comments, this was perhaps the most fitting.
“Play for the badge on the front of the shirt and they’ll remember the name on the back.”
Few can argue that the six-figure fee that the Rams paid out eight years ago has been value for money.
However, the time has come for pastures new. But there’s little doubt the name Craig Bryson is a name etched into Derby County folklore.
Speaking to RamsTV on Friday morning, Bryson said: “Leaving Derby is mostly down to personal reasons. My wife, Gemma, gave birth to our first child a month ago and, of course, that played a big part in the decision.
“We want both our families to play a big role in our son growing up, so having them around us was the main reason for going home.
“I’ve said many times, though, that Derby has been a second home for me. I’ve also maintained as well that when I returned to Scotland I would come back down and watch some Derby games.”
He added: “I’ll always look out for the club’s results. It feels surreal to be leaving but all good things come to an end at some point. I feel this is the right time.
“I think I’ve grown up at Derby. I arrived as a boy at 24 and basically now, at 32, I feel I am leaving as a man. I leave a better player and with a lot of experience on the pitch, with plenty of great memories.”
A new challenge awaits at Aberdeen under Derek McInnes.
Ironically, Bryson is likely to replace Graeme Shinnie in the middle of the park at Pittodrie.
Aberdeen’s captain penned a pre-contract agreement with Derby in May and will link up with the Rams for the first time at the start of July for pre-season training.
Bryson is looking forward to the next chapter in his career and is still hungry for success.
He explained: “I had a couple offers from the Championship and Scotland as well, but the way Aberdeen and Derek McInnes made me feel decided it.
“It feels like the right club to go to and they’ve been really welcoming.
“When you look at the Scottish Premiership, Aberdeen have been right up there in the last few years and competing in Semi-Finals and Finals.
“I don’t want to go there to just wind down my career. I want to be successful, playing in big games and winning trophies.”
Bryson has admitted that he’s been overwhelmed with the reaction of Derby’s supporters on social media.
He has also been touched by the comments posted online by his team-mates both past and present.
It has certainly reminded him of the good times that he has enjoyed whilst pulling on the famous black and white.
He said: “I’ve read as many comments as I could, I think it would be difficult to read them all!
“There’s been a lot of messages and it has been nice to read them, realising you’ve touched so many people in different ways.
“I’ve had loads of messages off the Derby fans and also from current and ex-team-mates. Some of the stuff they’ve said about me is really nice, as I guess it’s not normally stuff you’d say to someone in the changing room.
“I thought I’d get a good reception off the fans because I’ve had a great relationship with them, but I didn’t expect this much. My wife, Gemma, read a few too and I think she had a tear in her eye.”
Bryson, however, doesn’t quite feel to comfortable with the term ‘legend’.
He joked: “People use the word legend, which is nice, but I’m not sure I am.
“I’ve been here a long time and had some really good times, a few bad times such as the Play-Off Finals, and it’s amazing to be regarded so highly.”
Bryson’s finest moment in a Derby shirt came on 22nd March 2014.
The midfielder hit a hat-trick as the Rams thrashed their local rivals Nottingham Forest 5-0 at Pride Park Stadium on a historic afternoon.
Bryson’s treble, his second of the 2013/14 season, was the first by a Derby player against Forest since the great Steve Bloomer in 1898.
A popular player amongst supporters anyway, that day elevated Bryson to legendary status.
He hit 16 goals that season as the Rams reached the Play-Off Final, while he also picked up the Jack Stamps Player of the Year accolade and was named in the PFA Championship Team of the Season by his peers.
“Like I said on Twitter the other day, it was one of the best days of my life,” Bryson recalled.
“I don’t think going into that game against Forest I could have ever imagined I would score a hat-trick or that we would win 5-0!
“Leading up to the match I’m sure we hadn’t scored in our previous four, so I think we just wanted to go out there and win in any way that we could.
“On a personal basis it was just unbelievable. To score a hat-trick is amazing in any game but to do it in an East Midlands derby was special. It’s a day I’ll never forget and to beat 'them' 5-0 was even more sweet.
“It’s remarkable what one game and one performance, and one hat-trick, can do for you and touch other people so much. I suppose I have lived a lot of Derby fans’ dreams and I am delighted with it to be honest.
“Every time I meet a Derby fan, they mention that day and thank me for it. It’s nice.”
Bryson always enjoyed the local derby clashes with the Reds and enjoyed a reasonable record.
Four of his 42 Derby goals came against Forest, with his other strike coming in a 1-0 win at the City Ground in 2012.
He was also in the side that memorably won 2-1 with ten men for almost the entire game in September 2011.
He admitted: “Those are the games you look out for straight away. Even when Derby’s fixtures for this season came out on Thursday, I had to look for when the Forest games were.
“The atmosphere in those games is always completely different, as is the way you get yourself up for the match.
“I know you should be up for every game in the same way but when it comes around you know what it means to the fans and the whole club.”
Bryson arrived as an unknown quantity in 2011.
Social media, notably Twitter, was just taking off and the media landscape was very different to how it is today.
Nigel Clough and his staff, however, knew what they were getting.
They had scouted Bryson extensively in the months leading up to his arrival and knew the type of character they were adding to the dressing room.
Bryson admits he will forever be grateful to the former Derby boss for the faith he showed in him.
He said: “When I first came down, I just wanted to adapt to the Championship and try end up being a regular in the team at that time.
“I wanted to prove to myself and to other people that I could play in the Championship, because coming from the Scottish Premiership was a step-up back then.
“I really wanted to pay back Nigel Clough too for giving me a chance. I think I am forever in debt to Nigel for bringing me to this club. I stay in contact with him a fair bit and when he was here he was more than a manager, he helped me off the pitch too.
“He taught me right from wrong really and what was expected at this club. I am forever grateful.
“He didn’t have to sell the club to me because I had an idea of what Derby County was like from a trial when I was 18. Billy Davies was the manager at the time, and they didn’t think I was ready to play in the first-team here back then.
“I went on to sign for Kilmarnock and then four years later the opportunity came up again. I knew this is where I wanted to be.”.
Bryson admits not gaining promotion in a Derby shirt is one thing that narks him.
He did experience the elation of being promoted from the Championship, however, during a loan spell at Cardiff City during the 2017/18 campaign.
Despite not reaching the promised land with the Rams, Bryson leaves the club with many happy memories.
He said: “I didn’t imagine my time at Derby would have gone this well and, of course, it has gone even better than I thought it could have.
“The only thing missing for me here has been a promotion. Apart from that, it has been excellent for me.
“To miss out in the play-offs in four of the last six seasons is obviously frustrating. I’ve had enough of the play-offs and Wembley too!
“I’ve had a lot of great moments.”
Looking over Bryson’s goals reel for Derby, there’s some spectacular strikes amongst his 42.
Before sitting down to do this interview, Bryson watched his goals for the club back over a cup of coffee.
It was clear from his smile and comments along the way, and the memories those strikes evoked, reminded him of some memorable moments.
He said: “I enjoyed the goal at Watford in 2014 and also my second at Millwall when I got a hat-trick there as well the year before.
“The volley at Fulham in 2016, after coming back from injury, is another of my favourites and those are probably my top three from the last eight years.”
He added: “When I got the Millwall hat-trick, I didn’t realise it was so long since someone had scored three for Derby in a league game. That day was great; we went there expecting a really tough game at The Den and we ended up winning 5-1.
“I didn’t think I’d score a hat-trick in my career, but I ended up getting two in one season.”
Bryson said his final goodbyes to Derby on Friday.
He paid a visit to the Training Centre to collect his belongings before heading to Pride Park Stadium for this interview.
He took in the view pitchside for one final time at the end of the interview and with a deep breath, he made his way up the tunnel one final time.
He said: “I’ve popped into the Training Ground and now the Stadium to pick up a few things and say goodbye to people.
“It’s always hard after eight years that the time comes to say goodbye. The people I’ve met will be friends for life.
“Hopefully some people from here will come up and watch me at Aberdeen; it’s not that far!”
You played for the badge, Craig. They’ll always remember your name.