Tuesday 25 April 2017

Rory Delap: Lethal weapon

Double leg break fails to halt 'human sling' Delap from prospering in remarkable Indian summer with Stoke

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

RORY DELAP was quickly on the scene when Aaron Ramsey lay stricken on the Britannia Stadium turf last Saturday, acutely aware of what the Welsh teenager was going through.

Amid the grave musings about the repercussions with respect to the promising star's future, Delap is one of the few who can speak with authority on the topic.

What's more, he can express, with confidence, the alternative view to the assumption that a double leg break means your best days are behind you.

He knows from experience. Three and a half years ago, it was Delap that people were speaking in hushed tones about, with both his tibia and fibia fractured on his debut for Stoke City against Sunderland in the Championship.

Worse still, Delap had only just joined the Potters on loan from the Black Cats, who had generously allowed him to play in that encounter.

oblivion

Stoke could easily have given up on the Irish international that night. Then 30, he might easily have disappeared into oblivion. The wider football public would never have known that a performer who spent his career flittering between the top two divisions actually possessed a world-class weapon in his armoury. But Tony Pulis neglected to press the eject button, in a decision that proved inspired.

Tomorrow afternoon, Pulis will bring his established Premier League side to Stamford Bridge for an FA Cup quarter-final where the hosts will view the challenge presented by their visitors in simple enough terms.

Carlo Ancelotti will have spent this week working on a dilemma that has faced every top-flight manager in the past 18 months. How, exactly, do they prevent the threat posed by Delap, 34 this July? A journeyman pro with an outrageous gift; a long throw with a strike rate that leaves many other set-piece 'specialists' in the shade.

David Moyes has called Delap 'a human sling', Arsene Wenger, regardless of his feelings towards Stoke, admits he is jealous of the skill, while Luiz Felipe Scolari offered the opinion that the ex-Derby and Southampton man is more proficient with his hands than his feet. Premier League managers have yet to find a way to curb the phenomenon. They tried to distract him and, when that didn't work, they tried to copy him.

Alas, nobody has managed to match the success of Delap, who tormented his former Irish colleague Shay Given in Stoke's recent FA Cup joust with Manchester City which they successfully negotiated to make this weekend's action. The teenage javelin thrower has a unique style that has proved almost impossible to impersonate.

"You see it every week on 'Match of the Day', you know what is coming, you know what to expect -- but it is another thing dealing with it," said Given, before the replay meeting of the sides.

So he probably shouldn't have been surprised when, five minutes into extra-time, from just inside the City half, Delap launched a trademark hurl perfectly onto the head of Ryan Shawcross. Given, and his defenders, were powerless to prevent it.

"It's difficult to defend against because the ball comes in so flat," said Wenger, in a more diplomatic discussion of Stoke's merits prior to Ramsey and Shawcross crossing paths. "It comes in like an arrow so it's tough to practice in training because it's hard to find somebody who can deliver it that way."

Former Middlesbrough boss Gareth Southgate couldn't find anyone in his ranks who could throw the ball the length of Delap in his sessions before meeting Stoke, so he allowed his guinea peg to stand on the pitch to take throws -- but they were unable to match the sheer pace of the rockets the Sutton-Coldfield born midfielder delivers from anywhere inside the opposition half.

Delap honed the technique during Stoke's surge to promotion in the 2007/08 campaign. The talent was always there, but it was never properly utilised. After being deemed surplus to requirements at Sunderland by Roy Keane a year earlier, Pulis swooped, and stood by his acquisition after the double leg-break horror, honouring a three-month loan agreement before offering a two-year contract, learning along the way just how potent his side could become with his presence.

The Premier League got their first proper glimpse in the autumn of 2008, where Delap delivered a confident message about the method's longevity after creating seven goals in the opening months of the season. "If it's done right, there is no way of defending it," he said. "It doesn't matter what team you are up against. It's going to work if I hit the right areas."

However, while Delap's name has become a recognisable part of the Premier League global brand, the fame has done little for his international prospects. Lost in the debate over his freakish attribute is the fact that he's always been a competent performer who showed plenty of attacking promise in his younger days at Derby.

Indeed, back in 1999, Mick McCarthy took a leap of faith by pitching the emerging figure into the Euro 2000 play-off with Turkey for his competitive debut, with a young Damien Duff left waiting in the wings. Yet he failed to build on that experience, and earned the last of his 11 caps back in 2004.

When Giovanni Trapattoni was asked about the prospects of a recall, he made it clear that he subscribed to the one-trick pony theory by jumping out of his chair and mimicking a throwing action. It's a charade he repeats whenever his surname is mentioned.

Bizarrely, the last international team to express an interest was Athletics Ireland, who garnered some publicity by responding to a suggestion that Delap could compete in the javelin in the 2012 Olympics.

That talk has since subsided, but the column inches it generated proved that his story has box-office potential. Delap is grateful to the club who saved him from the scrapheap.

"I've a lot to thank Stoke for," he said, after they stuck by him through his leg heartache. "At a time like that you think all kinds of things. You even wonder if you'll play again. They kept their word, and did what they said they would."

"It's been good for my kids, seeing my ugly mug in the papers. I'm not going to get any modelling contracts, but you've got to enjoy it," he said.

Having suffered his fair share of pain out of the spotlight, he is entitled to revel in the misery he continues to inflict on football royalty. This most remarkable of Indian summers is showing no signs of winding down.

Chelsea v Stoke, live, tomorrow, UTV 1, Setanta Sports 1, 4.0

Irish Independent

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