Saturday 22 July 2017

Daly dreams of silver lining to his Tannadice tale

His career has been blighted by injuries, but Jon Daly has found a consistent run of form at Dundee United, writes Seán Ryan

I T was a moment, in April '09, Jon Daly recalls, when his knee "exploded" and he thought his days of football might be at an end. As he was stretchered off, the Dubliner rang his father on his mobile and said as much.

The Dundee United striker had good reason to fear the worst, for he had just returned after a season on the sidelines following an operation on a cruciate, and now both cruciates in his right knee had gone and he was back to square one minus.

However, his true character soon kicked in. "I'm a positive person," he explained, "and I always have been. I knew I could come back because I had come back from two other long-term injuries, the first cruciate and a broken ankle, which were basically seven-to-nine months each.

"I was told I'd be out for a year, but I got back in seven months, and I'm really fit, because I looked after myself. A lot of it is down to hard work in the gym and making sure I did all the rehab and took no short cuts. You have to make sure the work is done properly or else you are fooling yourself."

Daly's reward is his finest run of scoring since he left Dublin as a 15-year-old in 1998, and a run of games which has helped Dundee United into third place in the Scottish Premier League and a place in next month's Scottish Cup final against Division One surprise package Ross County.

So is his appetite for goals related to his overcoming major injury? Possibly. "It's one of those things," he says, "you don't know what you have until it's gone. Coming to Scotland after years in England was a big thing for me. It was like home, the people are very friendly and I love playing for this club. Then when you can't play it's frustrating knowing what you're missing.

"The goals are flowing because I'm playing for a good team and with a good team you're going to get chances. This is the best team I've played with. The boys are very good and some of the young players have a very big future ahead of them."

In the dark days, when he first tore his cruciate, Daly relied heavily on his wife Linda. "She kept my spirits up," he recalls. "I was down over not being able to train and play and she constantly reassured me and said that I'd come back stronger. I owe her a lot."

For his second major injury, he drew inspiration from his 18-month-old daughter Sophie. "You realise you're not playing for yourself any more. You have to do the business on the park and look after your family."

As a prolific scorer in schoolboy football with Cherry Orchard, Daly had trials with a number of clubs, but he signed for Stockport County, and a year later he made his debut in the first team. "I think I was too young and I wasn't ready for it," he claims. "The manager was trying to buy himself some time to stay in the job by giving myself and a couple of other young players our chance.

"In the lower leagues, you're playing against grown men, and I could have done with a year or two to develop in the reserves. Still, I was just delighted to play and didn't hold back. It was a baptism of fire, and I survived to tell the tale. It helped me develop quickly and understand the game a bit more. You have to play for the team and not for yourself."

Because he was tall, Stockport employed Daly as a target man. "I thought there was more to my game than that, but they used me in that way and I had to adjust."

As a result, he became more a goal-maker than a scorer. However, he enjoyed good times with the Republic of Ireland underage teams, being capped from U14 to U21. The highlight was undoubtedly with the U19s in the European finals in Norway in 2002 when they recorded an amazing 3-2 win over England.

"We were 2-0 down at half-time and we won 3-2. It's a game I'll always remember. At half-time, Brian Kerr gave the team talk of his life and got the boys all fired up. I still remember it, but I couldn't repeat it, he had the boys going out wanting to kill them! They had players like Dean Ashton, Glen Johnson, Carlton Cole, Jermaine Pennant and Jermaine Jenas, all with Premier League experience, but we went out and did the business."

Daly, who scored in that game, finished the tournament with three goals and was pipped for the Golden Boot by Fernando Torres, whose fourth goal proved the winner in the final. At that time, Niall Quinn hailed Daly as his likely successor in the Irish team, but his catalogue of injuries put paid to that -- or has it? At 27, does he still think about playing for his country?

"If I keep playing well for my club, some day I might get a call-up, but I can't dwell on it. I would be delighted, of course, but I have to think about the club first. It might have been different if I had avoided injury, but I'm not going to think about that because things happen for a reason and I'm not going to cry over spilt milk."

If things happen for a reason, then what was the reason for all those injuries? "I'm probably in the best shape of my career now," he responds, "and if I hadn't got injured I probably wouldn't have spent as much time in the gym as I did to get into shape."

Like any footballer, Daly wants medals, and the closest he has got so far was a English League One play-off final with Hartlepool, when his goal gave them a 2-1 lead over Sheffield Wednesday with minutes to go. "Then the referee sent off our centre-back controversially, they equalised from the penalty spot, and in extra-time Glenn Whelan put them in front and they beat us 4-2. Now I want to win the Cup and the League in Scotland and I'm at a club where I think we can do it."

Today, he's at Hampden Park, which has been the scene of disappointment for Dundee United in the past two seasons. Last year they lost in the CIS Cup semi-final to Celtic in a penalty shoot-out, the previous year they lost the CIS final to Rangers, also on penalties. This year, they will go into the cup final as red-hot favourites -- his time could finally be at hand. So far, all Daly's goals this season have been in the league and it would be nice to open his cup account in the final.

Motherwell v Dundee Utd,

ESPN, 4.15

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