Potters' Wembley hopes rest in Delap's hands
AS far as Tony Pulis is concerned, Rory Delap is a safe pair of hands in more ways than one. That's why the 34-year-old has more career security than the majority of the Irish central midfielders preferred by Giovanni Trapattoni.
Tomorrow afternoon, the long-throw specialist will take his skills to Wembley, for an FA Cup semi-final with Bolton that screams opportunity.
He comes into the game buoyed by the good news that a contract extension is on the table; a deal that will ensure his continued employment with the Potters until 2013.
Not bad for an individual who was potentially heading for the scrapheap five years ago when, on a loan appearance for Stoke, he shattered his leg in two places -- in a match with his then employers, Sunderland.
Pulis kept the faith, and the confidence was justified. Together, they are on the brink of the authentic Wembley cup final experience, with the manager keen to stress that the veteran offers more than just a novelty value in the shape of his rocket-like throw-ins.
"Rory deserves it (the contract extension)," said Pulis this week. "He has been a very big part of this club.
"It is not just what he does on the field... he gets his reward for what he does off the field.
"You do not play over 500 leagues games, 400 of them in the top flight, to be just the person to pick up the ball and throw it into box. The club sees him as a big part of Stoke City in the future."
Certainly, any fears that Delap would lose his effectiveness with age have proven to be ill-founded. Stoke's form has picked up since Christmas, and observers have credited Delap for a part in that resurgence, striking up a useful midfield partnership with Glenn Whelan.
The return to fitness of Dean Whitehead has given Pulis a problem ahead of the showdown with Bolton, yet the vibe is that he will somehow find a way to accommodate Delap into his plans.
After all, in a high-stakes game like this, it's in his nature to go for someone he really trusts, the experienced operator with wild-card value.
Of course, opposition teams are well aware of the immense throwing prowess at this stage, but it doesn't mean they have figured out how to stop it.
The skill remains a potent weapon and Delap, who has a good sense of humour, is happy to resign himself to the reality that it's what he will be remembered for, regardless of what he does with his feet.
Earlier this week, he spoke about people recognising him on the street and mimicking the taking of a throw.
The action was was replicated by Giovanni Trapattoni when he was first asked about the prospect of an international recall for Delap, who earned the last of his 11 Irish caps against the Czech Republic back in 2004, in the baby steps of Brian Kerr's tenure.
The Ireland manager seems to have always subscribed to the tunnel-vision view of Delap's attributes.
Still, the player has put the perception to good use, turning his hand to some charity work and helping raise awareness of ankylosing spondylitis, a rare condition which can affect the lower back.
His flexibility and back strength, which is the key to the skill he mastered during his days as a javelin thrower in his youth, made him the ideal candidate to raise awareness.
Some of the other offers have been more bizarre, with the player revealing that he once received a letter from a PR company asking if he would be interested in throwing a Christmas pudding over a double-decker bus.
"Being in the Potteries, I'd already been asked to throw a china bowl at some target or other, but this one was the funniest of the lot," he reflected.
"I've no idea where it came from because I didn't ask. I just thought... no... I'm not throwing any Christmas pudding over any double-decker bus.
"I turned it down flat and decided things were going to have to quieten down, because I was getting inundated. It was all people wanted to talk about.
"I'd like to think I've done a half-decent job with the ball at my feet down the years, but if people want to remember me for my long throw, that's fine. It's better than not being remembered at all."
Bolton boss Owen Coyle knows that Delap can cause damage in other ways; in the two meetings between the sides this season, the midfielder has scored in one game and made another with a comparatively old-fashioned corner-kick.
Nevertheless, a statistic produced by the people at Opta this week gave an indication of just how integral the throw is to Stoke's game plan.
Opta revealed that Delap has attempted 278 long throws in the Premier League in this campaign -- that's 150 more than any other player.
In one encounter last season against Wolves, he even managed to try more throws than passes.
So, the reputation is hardly an exaggeration.
His belated rise to stardom is already a remarkable story; a cup final showdown with a Manchester behemoth would add another chapter to the fairytale.
Bolton Wds v Stoke, live, ESPN, tomorrow, 4.0