I’ve reached an age now where I shouldn’t really have English football heroes; I should have grown out of it by now but English football gives you the excuse to behave like an eight year old, not an adult.
Every now and again, you’ll spot a player at another team and take an interest in their progress. It might just be me but eventually this can turn into the thought “they’ll play for us one day.” There’s no rhyme or reason why but you just get inkling. It’s happened to me a few times with my club, Stoke City: Carl Asaba (let down), Eidur Gudjohnsson (bigger, fatter let down), Cameron Jerome (not given a chance), Ricardo Fuller (second only to Mark Stein) and finally the subject of this piece, Rory Delap.
I spotted Rory’s name popping up in the results when he first started out at Carlisle. This was in a time in England when you’d be lucky to get lower league highlights on television. I started looking at snippets in the national dailies, Sunday match reports etc. At the time (1998), he was performing in the sort of pool we should have been fishing in for transfers, only then a more skilful manager went angling after him and spirited him off to Derby County. He was actually on trial with Matt Jansen who was feted by many a club at the time but Derby went for Delap. Progressing well when Derby hit financial trouble and had to cash in, Rory began his association with red and white stripes moving to Southampton for £4m, a club record fee that stood for 11 years. Spending five years at Southampton, playing in an FA Cup final and scoring a goal, Delap eventually moved on to Sunderland where things didn’t go so well. He was farmed out on loan by Roy Keane, finally joining Stoke.
We made quite a few signings around the same time — Ricardo Fuller, Lee Hendrie and Rory Delap. Despite the well-known skill and goal scoring threat that the others brought with them, Delap’s was the capture that most delighted me. His first game for us was a four-nil away win against Leeds United; a good start. His second didn’t go quite so well, suffering a double leg break ironically against Sunderland of all teams. Delap recently described looking down at the break thinking “how the hell is someone going to fix that?”
Given the furor over broken legs at The Britannia Stadium, here’s where Stoke’s management team really showed some class, and I believe laid the foundations for the performances we drew from Rory. Before Delap was even operated on, Tony Pulis, the club chairman Peter Coates, and CEO Tony Scholes all visited him in hospital and told him not to worry and that they’d honor the deal for his permanent signing that had been agreed with Sunderland prior to the drama occurring.
Rory recovered sufficiently to make his way back into the first team and helped Stoke to gain promotion to the Premier League. In all honesty, I can’t remember his trademark throw-in being used much bar towards the end of season run in.
However, his freakish throw-in ability was unleashed that first season in the top flight in our first home game against Aston Villa. A tense affair, 2-2 late on and still in with a shout but one of those where you’d settle for a point. A throw was awarded in the opposition half just past the halfway line. Delap launched an exocet throw, flat and low across the pitch and into the penalty area, which was flicked backwards by Mama Sidibe. Goal! 3-2, with no time for Villa to come back. A migraine inducing celebration resulted, caused by the tension, shouting and singing like an extra from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Suddenly it became a regular occurrence; Boaz Myhill memorably putting the ball out for a corner rather than a throw in; Arsene Wenger requesting that the rules be changed to deal with this skill that ‘Le Professeur’ could not combat.
A rather unwitting global star was born thanks to the ability to throw a soccer ball up to 40m at 60km/h. At the time, it was what we needed and it got us noticed for more than just our determined struggle to prove the experts and ordinary fans wrong, who’d written us off before the season started.
As seasons passed, teams wised up to the tactic and learnt how to defend against Rory’s throw but he consistently featured in our first team for more than just that. You could see that he was able to guide younger players through a game, steady the ship when it came under bombardment, and pick himself up, standing up to be shot at when things were against us. He was a ‘steady eddie’ player that we needed, a water carrier with the ball at his feet and a magician with it in his hands.
Slowly the appearances reduced, injury took away much of Rory’s last season at Stoke and time began to catch up with him. This season he started out at Burton Albion in League Two but decided to call time on his career just before Christmas after 587 professional appearances and 35 goals, along with 11 caps for Ireland.
I’m sure not everybody will be interested in this potted history of a player they consider a journeyman, workaday footballer; but not everyone who gives us the game we love can be Messi, Ronaldo or even Rooney, so to me he’s more than worthy of a mention.
Watch and enjoy (difficult if you’re an Arsenal fan):
Editor’s note: For the latest Potters news, analysis and opinion, visit the Stoke City team page.