'Unfinished business' at Derby County as Timi Elsnik gesture revealed (2024)

After a series of impressive performances for Slovenia in Euro 2024, it was inevitable that former Derby County midfielder Timi Elsnik would start to attract attention.

Leicester City and Southampton are already reportedly showing an interest and it is widely expected that he will leave Olimpija Ljubljana this summer. Wherever he does end up, Derby fan Rob Key will be one of the first to know courtesy of a friendship that has spanned almost 10 years.

Elsnik stayed with Key's family when he joined Derby back in 2015 after the club scouted him playing for Slovenia's under-18s in the European Championships. He needed somewhere to lodge and so Elsnik moved into the Key household after moving from his homeland in order to try to make the breakthrough at Derby.

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"I had a friend who was a Forest fan and he just slipped into conversation that he took some of their youth team players on and had them live with him for a while," Key tells Derbyshire Live. "I live near Derby's training ground off Lime Lane, just past the King's Corner pub. We thought that sounds quite a good idea. I contacted the club and they came round to see me and the next minute Timi was through the door.

"He was the first player we had. We did it from 2015 to 2021 and have had Lee Buchanan, Jayden Bogle and Morgan Whittaker with us in that time so we've had quite a few. We stopped doing it when the pandemic came, which is another story, but Timi came over after he'd been playing in the Euro under-18s Championship. Derby scouted him and they signed him on a youth contract which, I think, was for two years.

"He came over with his mum and dad. We met them and that was it. He was with us for the first year. We didn't really know what to expect but from the first moment we met him, he was really sociable. He is a lovely warm guy considering he's come over to a different country, and he was only 16 or 17 at the time.

'Unfinished business' at Derby County as Timi Elsnik gesture revealed (1)

"But he knew what he wanted and what he wanted to get out of it. He mapped out what he wanted, but more importantly, we noticed more than ever that he wanted to be part of the family and he did so from day one."

Moving from one part of England to another to pursue the dream of making the grade in professional football is hard enough when you have to leave home comforts.

But moving from a different country to settle in another, particularly at such a young age, is a different matter entirely. Family and friends are left behind, but Elsnik quickly wanted to learn about England, its culture and Derby's history which, having held a season ticket since the 1980s, Key was quick to help with.

"Timi wanted to experience the English culture and he wanted to know about the football club, the town and the surrounding areas," Key says. "From day one it clicked and he became one of the family.

"He came with us on walks to the Peak District. He came to family and friends' barbecues. He met all our family and he watched my lads play football for their respective teams. We went to Stoke Water Park. He wasn't just in his room although he was in there because he was studying as well. But he would come down into the family area and watch films with us. I was showing him the Damned United, the film about Brian Clough.

"He was watching it and would tell him all about the history of Derby, show him photos and all that kind of stuff. He got to know all about that because he didn't know much about the club. I don't think he'd heard of them and Clough etc, but I taught him the history and he loved it. In that first year at Derby, I went up to see games at Moor Farm and this was the kind of guy he is, but he sorted it out for my lads to be mascots for a game against Bolton. We won 4-0 and it was Timi who initiated it with the people at Derby.

"He got me a signed shirt and it was so good. Then he got his own digs and I think he went to Darren Wassall's property in Duffield for a couple of years because he got an extension to his contract. But even then he would still come round for Sunday roasts. He used to love them. He'd never experienced it before."

Elsnik never quite made the grade at Derby despite making an impact on his debut when he scored two penalties in an EFL Cup tie against Carlisle.

But that was through a matter of circ*mstance rather than doubts about his quality. He went on loan to Mansfield and Swindon at a time Derby were hoping to chase promotion from the Championship as big-name managers came and went. Unfortunately, when you are chasing that kind of dream, managers seldom take punts on young players often preferring those who already have experience. He ended up leaving in 2019 and there is a feeling among Derby fans that he should have been handed more of an opportunity.

"He had loan spells at Swindon and Mansfield and I went to watch him," continues Key. "Frank Lampard came in and it was a time when I think we had gone through about eight managers or something.

"Derby were throwing money at it so Timi didn't have that many chances. He did play against Liverpool in the cup and against Philippe Coutinho and I can remember him ringing me saying he was marking Coutinho and he'd never known anything like it and what a different level it was.

"When Lampard arrived we went to watch him play against Notts County in a pre-season friendly. But it was a game where Bogle and a few of the young lads did well in the first half. He came on in the second and he was pushing it a bit and didn't do as well because maybe he felt the pressure of having to follow them and that was it.

"He then left and went back to Slovenia, but we still stayed in touch. He sent my lads his boots. He would send me the goals he scored and there was one time he came back over and stayed with us because he had a trial at Bolton but that never worked out. Timi ended up signing for Olimpija Ljubljana which is a top club in Slovenia and it was a good opportunity because he was known in Slovenia at a younger age and it was a chance to get his his face out there again.

"That's what he's done and it's a chance he has grasped with both hands because the national side came knocking for the under-21s and then he broke into the first team of the national team and his profile has just risen massively now. He played well against England in the Euros and I thought he was superb against Portugal."

'Unfinished business' at Derby County as Timi Elsnik gesture revealed (2)

Elsnik has never forgotten how the Key family made him feel at home during his time at Derby and has been eager to repay them. He made the wonderful gesture of arranging tickets for Key, his friend Dean, and two sons OIlie and Thomas to watch Slovenia's clash with England in Cologne. Although the football was a forgettable 90 minutes as far as Gareth Southgate's team was concerned, it was an unforgettable experience for Key.

"When the draw was made and Slovenia got England we were chatting and he said 'I'm bringing you over'," Key tells Derbyshire Live. "I was like oh brilliant. A few weeks passed and he was continually in touch. He got me four tickets and sat with all the family and friends of the Slovenian players.

"My wife couldn't go because she had work commitments so my mate Dean came out there with us. He told us the hotels he was staying at and I sorted the flights, and the accommodation and he was in touch all the way through.

"On the day of the game, he took the time to message me in the build-up and said at the end of the game stay in your seat for 30 minutes. He got an official to come and get us so we could see the players. We were escorted to the other side of the ground and there was Timi, his family, the goalkeeper Jan Oblak and a few others.

"Across from us, there is Jude Bellingham and Jared Bowen. Timi sees me and we have a hug. I was speaking with his family and then he says, I've got you John Stones' shirt. He gave that to Thomas and then from the game prior to England he gave my other lad his own shirt that he had signed. He then took his shorts off and gave them as well.

"We had photos taken and Timi got Bellingham's shirt. We had a chat to his mum and dad and were there for quite a while. It was an incredible experience. What struck me most was the time he spent sorting for us. His dad was brilliant and sees us as his second family. It is something myself and my lads will never forget."

All eyes are now on where Elsnik will end up this summer. His stock is high after his performances with Slovenia and head coach Paul Warne is after a midfielder who packs energy, can spot a pass and is good in the press. It's highly unlikely that it would happen given Elsnik is being tracked by Premier League clubs if reports are to be believed, but would he be against a return to Pride Park?

"I've asked him this," continues Key. "I still think he feels he's got unfinished business with how it ended. I said to him would you come back but he's going to have offers on the table. I think if push came to shove and they were interested, it would be something he'd consider. Definitely. We'll see what happens.

"I'd love it. It would be amazing if he came back. I think it's what Derby needs now as well in terms of that kind of midfielder. If they don't get Ebou Adams - then Timi's a good player. Technically he's very good and I thought his press was brilliant against Portugal as well. The BBC commented on it too didn't they?

"He's like a terrier in there. He messaged me after they got knocked out to say he's gutted but he is trying to look at the bigger picture, what he has achieved and what it's done for his career. I said to him let me know where you are going and he said he would. I said I'd go and see him wherever that may be. But he would do Derby good."

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'Unfinished business' at Derby County as Timi Elsnik gesture revealed (2024)
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