Darren Veness believes Somerset are ‘very, very close to winning trophies.’ The club’s head of strength & conditioning is well qualified to make such a judgement call as he is currently serving his 21st season at Taunton and has pretty much seen it all – good times and some not-so-good – working on the development of many world class players along the way.
Daz, as he is affectionately known, hails from Castle Bromwich in the West Midlands and started life at Somerset in 1996, but his association with the club will end after this season as he heads off to Surrey for a new challenge. Saying goodbye will prove difficult for the very popular coach: “Of course I leave Somerset with a heavy heart, but also loads of excitement”, he says. “I have a management team at Surrey who see me as a great fit for what they are trying to achieve. I am part of a plan and will get to work with Stewie (Alex Stewart) and Gouldy again.”
“But I don’t think I am necessarily joining a bigger club as I don’t differentiate with the Test Match and non-Test Match counties. I see who works hard and who doesn’t and we work damned hard here. And we have always punched above our weight. Somerset are right up there as a big club in my mind!”
The young Veness enjoyed sport, and played a bit of rugby, and his appreciation of fitness came after his team sport playing days effectively ended: “I started pushing weights when I was thirteen as I broke my arm when I was twelve – a really nasty break. I took it upon myself to keep working and the gym became a second home for me.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do so got fobbed off into civil engineering. I came out as I knew it was never going to be my life but there is a cross-over with what I do now – all the mechanical stuff. I have just swapped gears for hamstrings, that’s all!”
In the mid-90s a new acquaintance at Warwickshire CCC ultimately led Daz to a new opportunity in another part of the country: “I got to know Dermot (Reeve) and went to watch a few games up at Edgbaston and we got talking”, he remembers. “I was doing a bit of sports massage and soft tissue therapy and other things and one day I was asking questions about fitness and nutrition. ‘Do you do this?’ ‘No, we don’t do that!’ ‘What about this?’ ‘No we don’t do that either’ ‘But I have mates who do that for a hobby and you are professional sportsmen’”, he recalls. “So we talked and talked and he told me he thought I could be an asset. He then said he was finishing playing at Warwickshire and was heading to Somerset as head coach and asked if I would like to come along.
“I was still working as a nightclub bouncer, overseeing a few gyms and doing some sports healing work at that time”, he says. “It was the biggest no-brainer ever. Come and work and live in Somerset? Well you just would, wouldn’t you?”
In October that year Daz joined Somerset on the same day as Mike Burns, another enticed to the county by Reeve, and was very impressed with the fitness culture he inherited at the club: “When I look back, I landed on my feet”, he insists. “My captain was Peter Bowler and he had the body of a Greek god – only Tommy Abell comes close to rivalling him with his chassis – yet Bowls never went to the gym”, he laughs. “Then there was Dick Harden. He liked a fag to calm him down but was a fanatical Squash player. Then the senior players. We didn’t see much of Caddy but he was an absolute machine. Kevin Shine, Graham Rose, Simon Ecclestone – they drove it and were happy to try new ideas. There was no-one bang out of shape and they all bought into the diet and training.”
And so started a 21-year tenure at a time when the seeds were being sewn for the future by new coach Shine. This period may not have been the most glorious in the club’s history but an important one with a new culture proving the catalyst for success in the last 90s and early noughties as the big time returned to Taunton. And Daz was a large part of that.
This policy change intensified when Brian Rose returned to Somerset and Andy Hurry arrived at the club: “Rosey was doing everything he needed to do as DoC”, he says. “If there was a 13-year old in Seaton with ability then Rosey knew all about him!
“I spent a lot of time with Jason Kerr down at the Vale and I saw more of Rosey down there than at the County Ground. He was always watching, assessing the youngsters all the time.”
Daz built a particularly healthy relationship with Hurry, the man who would be known as Sarge due to his military background and work ethic: “Yes I did, but we were more than a two-man team. We had Jason Kerr looking after the academy and instilling the disciplines and work ethic when really young, there was Ian Brewer, myself working with the seconds and then Sarge when they were in or close to the firsts.”
Another key addition to the Somerset story was when a great Australian signed in for the latter stages of a disappointing 2016 season. And Justin Langer even mentioned Daz and Sarge in his autobiography citing an incident in Guildford as one of the reasons he decided to extend his time at Taunton. “If you look at people who were made to fit an environment at a certain time – a round peg in a round hole if you like – JL at that time was outstanding”, Daz says. “Firstly it is a privilege just to know the bloke. I can still send him a text or Facebook message. But he tells a tale in his book and it is true.
“JL was getting some serious stick and Sarge and I were flat out offended that they thought they could do that to one of ours. So we went over and had a word because, if there was going to be a punch up we are never going to be too far away!
“JL loved it, but we told him you are one of us now, just like Punter (Ricky Ponting) was two years before. That’s how it is at Somerset”, he adds. “It was a pivotal moment for him (Langer) but this (incident) told him we were as committed to him as he was to us.”
Langer led Somerset back to Division One in his first season as captain and the county has remained in the top flight since, finishing runners-up on three occasions.
But Langer and the aforementioned Ponting are just two of a large number of international superstars who have worn the Wyvern and Daz believes Taunton is the perfect home for these famous names. “This is a close knit community; you can’t walk five or six yards without being recognised in Taunton or someone wanting to talk to you”, he insists. “We have been lucky as no-one has struggled to fit in here. They all loved it. Polly – smashing bloke. Luke Ronchi – absolute legend. Gayle – he was his own man but absolute honour to work close with him. Karts – I know there was the issue here but what an absolutely wonderful bloke – beautiful man. He loved his time at Somerset and still goes on about it. I still talk to him and always will regardless of what happened.”
But it could be said the main contributor to Somerset’s recent successes is the focus on youth development. The Somerset Academy has produced so many good players and an integral part of the coaching team’s objectives, of course, is the nurturing of local talent: “We bring kids into this place and we see them through to manhood, adulthood. It is my privilege to be such a big part of their lives and we have a responsibility to them. It is not our job just to raise them as sportsmen but as people.
“We were raised to mind our Ps & Qs and respect our elders. We help these lads remember they are not better than anybody else they just do something different, that is all. They are good with a bat and ball and, because of that, people are prepared to part with their hard earned cash to sit and watch them.
“We remind them that they are privileged to play sport, and to play for Somerset. It is instilled in them to be a good person. This is a short career.
“And they are as good as gold. The lads will always thank Penny upstairs for serving the food and thank Simon the chef. Manners cost nothing.”
But we are talking about young men with time on their hands. How deeply does Daz and the coaching team get involved with the players? What happens if a youngster starts to fall off the tracks somewhat? “It’s happened in the past”, he says. “So you sit them down and have a conversation. One question from JL was always to ask, ‘how many great people have worn that badge?’ ‘What does it mean to you to wear that shirt?’
“It’s all about talking and guiding. That’s all you can do.”
And, Taunton being such a small town, trouble can often rear its ugly head for these young, local celebrities whose presence can create such interest? How protective does Daz become? “They’re my boys”, he says. “They play cricket for a living and – for a while – I dealt with drunk people for a living so I am probably a bit more comfortable in that set of circumstances than them.
“In times when this might have happened (he laughs) – and there have been plenty of times – then the context is always alcohol is involved and the public see the sportsman with the money and nice car and things can develop from there. I’m sure it happens in other sports too. But they’re my boys!”
This closeness does not always end with the player making the grade at Taunton, or developing to gain international honours like Jos Buttler or Craig Kieswetter. The majority end their careers prematurely and this is definitely the downside for Darren: “It’s difficult”, he says. “You lose lads as you go through the development system and not all the lads at the Academy end up making it, and I can take that quite hard. By then you have invested so much in each other – time and effort.
“You look at Baz (Alex Barrow), Dibbs (Adam Dibble), Reegs (James Regan) and George Dockrell – lads who had a short amount of time but were no less diligent and bought into everything we said. Yes it’s painful every bloody time.”
And if asked to name the one player who should have gone on to greater things, who would that be? “Sam Wyatt-Haines. You need to ask him who made the decision for him (to move on) but he was someone who worked so hard”, Daz says. “You thought, ‘this kid gets it’. He grafted and grafted and is such a fantastic lad.
“And Chris Jones had it. But if your heart ain’t in it then step away and walk your own path.”
But there is no disputing the past few seasons has seen some memorable moments on the field for Somerset and Daz has been there on the balcony watching it all. “The block of time between 2006 and 2013 was tremendous. We had Brian Rose as DoC, Andy Hurry as head coach, myself, Jason Kerr, Ian Brewer and Chris Taylor as well. And we have had Steve Snell come in since. But if I look at that timeframe we did some great things.
“I am aware – as every supporter is – that the trophy cabinet was empty. Maybe we did do some things wrong in finals and at key times – who knows? – but we were near enough unbeatable at times. Nobody else made as many finals as us!
“It’s really hard to pin down one achievement but if you look at the Champion’s League in 2009 and 2011 then that would probably be it. Sitting down in India with Andy Hurry, Jason Kerr, Jos Buttler, Justin Langer, Craig Kieswetter, Alfonso Thomas – all the boys – and to think that from a t20 perspective we had to work harder to be there; we won more games than any other team simply because of the English format.
“Then in 2011 we made the semi-final and, right at the end, it could have been us as champions. Alongside being in a Lords final. Alongside being in t20 Finals Day. We had set our stall out that season to win everything and we tried our hardest to do that.”
Daz has shared changing rooms with many great players and characters but who is the one that always creates a positive? There are many to choose from: “The biggest one is Trego. He’s made me smile from the first day I met him and nothing has changed. He always makes me laugh.
“But honestly, the lads are all great; Abes, Leachy, Dom Bess – brilliant characters. But then the twins walk in and give me hugs and kisses too! Everyone is in it together.”
In early 2016 Daz worked with the Potential England Performance Programme led by Kevin Shine. Here he helped the development of the likes of Jamie Porter of Essex, Tymal Mills and George Garton of Sussex, Luke Wood of Notts and Stuart Meaker of Surrey as well as established England players Liam Plunkett and Mark Wood. He is hopeful of more international duty in the future.
So what message does Daz have for the fans? “I would just like to say thank you for welcoming this Brummie bouncer into your club and adopting me, and letting me stay here for 21 years”, he says. “Somerset fans love to ask questions and know what’s going on”, he adds. “That is how much these supporters in this county care about their club. They’re not just armchair social media fans, they actually give a damn.
“It’s been 21 outstanding years. Thank you.”
And he believes the good times are not far away for the club who will now be led by incoming CEO Lee Cooper: “This team is very, very close to winning trophies,” he says. “I look around – Leachy, Bessy, Abes, the twins, Lewis and I think ‘jeepers creepers’, this could be unbelievable.
“A lot of people look at the Notts situation very closely, and there are many factors for their success this year – one man in particular. But Moores is a big fan of work ethic and positivity, which is a big thing.
“Dermot Reeve came down here – and you can ask loads of people about this – and he was innovative and light years ahead of everyone else. Yet he made people feel special, he made me feel that way. That’s a big thing.
“These guys here are all equipped to dominate. They have the physicality to dominate. They have the skill set to dominate. If you are looking to hit the jackpot there are definitely two number 7s already dropped in and you’re just waiting for the other one now.”
Since that day in 1996 when Daz first arrived at Taunton, Somerset CCC has changed dramatically. In fact the game of cricket has changed dramatically too. And Darren Veness is one of the unsung heroes working away in the background who has helped shape Somerset’s change in fortunes. Somerset fans can be very grateful to the big man for his commitment to the cause. So what is the proudest personal moment that he will take away with him?
“A defining moment for me was when Steve Kirby signed for us”, he says. “He told me of a previous time when they (Gloucestershire) turned up to play us the day before a t20 game. Our lads were rounding off our training outside and it was very hot – most wearing no top as it was so hot. We had them working a block of skills, a block of gym, a block of skills, a block of gym and so on when their bus pulled up for a practice. Kirbs said their boys took one look at us training in such heat and were saying that our boys were monsters! Our lad’s physicality and the way we trained that day – well they were already beaten on the bus!
“We absolutely battered them the following day but mentally we had them beat on the bus! Kirbs told me that and I will take that!”