Irish quartet hope to live Wembley dream
The march of Stoke City to the FA Cup final should ensure that May 14 is a red-letter day in the careers of four Irish stars.
The quartet of Glenn Whelan, Rory Delap, Jonathan Walters and Marc Wilson have experienced the low side of professional football, so they won't be taking anything for granted until they receive their shirt for the big day.
They all have stories to tell, a familiar theme in a dressing-room packed with interesting characters.
Somehow, Tony Pulis has managed to bind them all together and produce the formula that obliterated Bolton on Sunday afternoon.
Walters scored two and for him it was especially sweet, given that he was released by Bolton in his youth and embarked on a journey that brought him down to the bottom of the English league football ladder, from where he scrambled back up again.
He took a while to settle in Stoke after his move from Ipswich last August, and suffered some criticism from impatient supporters. His performances since Christmas have borne out the theory that a striker sometimes needs time to adjust to his new surroundings.
Throw in the birth of another child, and an Irish debut, and it's been a special period for Walters, who grew up on the Wirral Peninsula of Liverpool and qualifies through his Dublin-born mother, Helen Brady, who sadly passed away through illness before he reached adulthood. A tight-knit family are central to his motivations.
"It's been hard for my family moving around," he said in the aftermath of Sunday's win. "That's who it is for. My wife and kids. As good a day as I've had in my career? Yes, I suppose it is.
"You've always got to believe in where you want to be. You've got to work hard, and it pays off in the end."
Whelan could relate to the sentiment. The final opponents, Manchester City, were his first club and he suffered the pain of failing to make the grade there.
He chose to take a step back to make two forward, and the support of Giovanni Trapattoni has aided his development.
Whelan has spent long periods out of the team at Stoke and would have left in January if the Potters had received an attractive offer from his Premier League suitors.
Instead, he got the head down and earned a sustained run of first-team appearances that has coincided with an upturn in form.
Nevertheless, he is naturally cautious about speaking with certainty with respect to his participation in the big day.
"There's not many left on City's staff since I was there -- a kit man and a couple of physios, I think," he joked. "They've had such a massive turnaround since I left, but that's where it all started out for me.
"I was there for five to six years and it will be great to be playing against them in an FA Cup final if, of course, I'm in the team."
Whelan has dovetailed nicely with Delap in recent weeks and in the post-mortem of the Bolton dismissal it was observed more than once that the latter's famed long throw made no contribution to any of the five goals.
His industry in the engine room won plaudits and, in his 35th year, gets the opportunity to atone for heartbreak during his stint at Southampton.
Delap was set to figure in the 2003 FA Cup showdown with Arsenal until an ankle setback in the build-up put paid to those ambitions.
The midfielder was lining out in a reserve match to maintain match fitness when the injury occurred. "It was very hard to take," he said recently.
Wilson (23) is the youngest of the party and yet he still has his own cross to bear. The versatile performer shot to prominence last season when developing into an integral member of a cash-strapped Portsmouth side that made it to the final while failing to avoid relegation.
Alas, he was also struck down by a hamstring issue for the decider in Wembley, an agonising blow for the Antrim native. On the plus side, however, he remains a lucky charm, considering he has never tasted defeat in the FA Cup during his short time in the top tier of the English game.
That's a good omen for an Irish contingent that are definitely entitled to catch a break.
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