“I’m very proud and flattered too because he’s a legend of the game,” said the Real Madrid man. “If he said that, then there must be a reason for it. The fact is I’m very grateful.”
The former Manchester United player gave Derik rave reviews during the group phase of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, posting this tweet among others: “Last games to watch and I get to watch Derik. His passing from the back is the best I've seen for years.”
“Centre backs watch this Spanish No4 pass a football. Brilliant,” added an impressed Neville, heaping yet more praise on the centre-half, who is only too happy receive plaudits from a man who knows a thing or two about defending himself.
“I found out about it on Twitter,” said Derik. “People started to write to me and tell me to have a look. It’s fantastic to see someone say that about you and I wrote back to him and thanked him.”
Born to a Nigerian father and Spanish mother but regarding himself as a Spain and Madrid man through and through, Derik is La Rojita’s defensive general and one of the most impressive performers at the back in the competition so far.
Quick to cover his team-mates, strong in the tackle and capable of bringing the ball out of defence, he has been compared to players of the stature of Sergio Ramos, with whom he shares the same kind of physique.
“I watch what he does,” said the youngster, “but I’ve got a lot to do if I’m going to improve. I’d love to be as good as him one day, but you have to work just be one tenth the player that he is.”
Spain meet Mexico next
“We’re doing a good job,” he said. “We produced solid performances in winning our three group matches, but now we’ve got to take it step by step and try to beat Mexico, who are going to make life difficult for us. Games like this come down to the smallest of details and we can’t afford to lose our concentration for a second.”
Though Los Aztecas scraped through as one of the best third-placed teams after losing their opening two games to Greece and Paraguay, Derik is taking nothing for granted: “Mexico’s results in their last couple of games have been a bit deceptive if you ask me because they’ve got a very strong side.”
Yet while there is respect for El Tri, there is also great confidence in Spain’s own abilities, as he explained: “At this stage of the competition every team is difficult to beat and Mexico are a good side, with players who are strong and technically gifted. I think they’re a very well-balanced unit, but so are we and we don’t fear anyone.”
Derik is well aware that one of the main assets that Mexico coach Sergio Almaguer has at his disposal is dead-ball specialist Jorge Espericueta, which means Spain must keep the fouls to a minimum around the penalty area: “We’ve heard he is a very good free-kick taker so we need to be careful, especially on the edge of the box.”
With Derik to marshal his back-line, however, Spain coach Julen Lopetegui has quite an asset of his own. And should he get the chance to venture forward, he will be looking to connect with his soulmate Jese and show off the passing skills that have so impressed Gary Neville.
“We always hang out together,” said Derik of his Real Madrid team-mate, another of Turkey 2013’s leading stars. “We room together and we’ve been playing alongside each other for six seasons now. Whenever we have a problem we give each other support, and I think that’s evident out on the pitch too.”
Derik smiled as he spoke of his friendship with Jese and the brotherly pride he feels at seeing him do so well in Turkey, the same kind of pride, no doubt, that Neville will feel if his favourite central defender of the moment maintains his rich vein of form.