Delaney making the most of his chance to impress
When Ryan Delaney first sat down with Rochdale manager Keith Hill to discuss a potential move from Burton Albion to the League One strugglers, an FA Cup run and the chance to play against some of the Premier League's top talents - including one of the best strikers in the world - was not on their agenda.
Rochdale, now bottom of the third tier of English football, but then second bottom, were still in the Cup thanks to comfortable wins over Slough and Bromley. They had drawn Doncaster Rovers in the third round but Delaney's deal was not finalised until Rochdale had knocked Darren Ferguson's side out of the competition.
Delaney's English debut was an FA Cup tie though. Millwall away. Hill's side rocked their Championship opponents in the fourth round at the New Den and it needed a last-minute equaliser from the Lions' Ben Thompson to take the game to a replay.
"It was a great atmosphere," says Delaney. "I was nervous going on the bus to the game, which is just normal for me, but when I got to the ground, it was weird, I just zoned out, switched off, got on with the task in hand. I don't know how I did it but I felt relaxed and actually really enjoyed it."
A left-sided centre-back, Delaney impressed. He made his league debut at Northampton the following week and kept his place for the Cup replay. Rochdale embarrassed Millwall again, this time managing to see out the victory on their sandy pitch. By then, they knew Tottenham would be their fifth-round opponents. No wonder Delaney, 21, is pinching himself. He has had to be patient and wait for his opportunity in England, and to go from reserves and rejection at Burton last year to one of the biggest days in tiny Rochdale's history is, he accepts, ridiculous.
"It has been surreal," he says. "When I was first coming over to England, I knew it was not going to be one straight road to lead me to success. I knew there would be side roads to go down and other opportunities I might have to take to get to where I want to be.
"I was open-minded. I knew it would not be perfect and there would be difficult, big decisions to make in the down-time and that it would be about making the most of the opportunities presented to me. There are times when it could get you down but I have a very good family around me.
"When we sat down with Keith, there was no way we could have known that the club would have such a good Cup run. That's the luck of the draw and the FA Cup. Every club down the leagues would like to draw a big club. I have played in the last four games on the trot and I am just looking forward to taking things one step at a time and progressing this year. I felt I wanted to make a good crack of being a professional footballer. Being a pro in England is what I dreamed of."
It has been another busy week for the former Wexford Youths defender, who is seeing out the last days of his stay in a Rochdale hotel before moving into a new apartment in the Greater Manchester town next week. The bright lights of the big city do not appeal. "Manchester didn't really interest me," he says. "I am happier getting a place in Rochdale because I can just concentrate on my football. I'm from Wexford. It's not like I am missing out on anything."
If Delaney felt that his career was on hold under Nigel Clough at Burton, he certainly did his best to do something about it. After an initial settling-in period with the Brewers last season, as they successfully fought for their Championship place, Delaney was offered a loan with Cork City in the January transfer window. He was a near ever-present for the League of Ireland champions, sampled Europa League football, won the FAI Cup, and played for Ireland under 21s. He was still hungry to succeed in England, but there was not a lot of joy for him on his return to Burton last month.
"There have been plenty of ups and downs over the last 18 months, from getting the move to Burton, which was great, and then the first six months which were a good learning experience for me," he says. "But it was pretty clear, because of the position the club were in and being a young player, when January came round last year that there would not be many first-team opportunities. I could see that from both sides. I wanted to play, the manager wanted to protect me. I didn't think I would get stick from the fans because I was young and if I did, because I didn't perform, that was my problem.
"I knew I had to play some games and that is when John Caulfield (Cork manager) gave my agent Stephen Hunt a call to see what my story was. I felt, at that time, that if I wanted to achieve something in the game, I would have to get some first-team games behind me and that is how it worked out. It is a fantastic club, everyone was so good to me and I got a good 30 games under my belt.
"I didn't think I would settle in as quickly as I did but the Cork lads were very good and you are made to feel at home straight away and I was in a place where I was performing well on a Friday night. I definitely felt it was the right place to go.
"After the FAI Cup final, I got three weeks at home, which was the first time I had been back for a break in 18 months and I went back to Burton to get my fitness up and hopefully, when January came round again, get back in the Burton squad.
"But I knew after 10 days that not much was after changing for me. I was not telling anyone that I had gone there to see how it went after 10 days, but I knew. Nigel Clough and I did have conversations and he said opportunities would be slim because of the position they are in, and my position is one for more experienced players.
"I had no problem with that. It was just a case of making sure I stayed fit and then started looking for the right opportunity and the right move. There were rumours of a return to Ireland but nothing more. I wanted to stay in England. Being a pro with a league club in England is what I have dreamed of since I was a kid."
The introduction to the English league has been tough though, Cup run aside. On the night Spurs were fighting back from two goals down against Juventus in Turin, Rochdale lost 3-2 after taking the lead at Bristol Rovers. That put them bottom of the League One table, although the Cup run and recent bad weather cancellations have left them with games in hand.
The win over Millwall thrust the Lancashire club back into the limelight. Hill, who is in his third spell at the club, has reached the fourth round in three of the last four seasons, but it is their pitch rather than the achievements on it which has attracted the publicity this time.
So a club who have only been promoted from the fourth division four times in their history - the last four years ago - re-laid the Spotland surface for the visit of Spurs today and the players trained on it for the first time on Thursday. Even though Harry Kane is an injury doubt, it is all part of the adventure for Delaney, whose mother Kay and grandparents William and Margaret are travelling over to Rochdale today.
"We didn't get to see the Juventus game because we were playing in Bristol that night, but we have seen the videos since and the one thing you realise is that they have so many players in different positions and if they take one player out, there is not much difference between him and the player who comes in," says Delaney.
"They have top-quality individuals who can hurt you. You know you are going to be facing good players
"We will be compact, but we won't just go out there to defend and make them look pretty. The manager likes us to play football the right way and encourages lads to get the ball on the ground and pass it. We are all really looking forward to playing them and giving it a go.
"The big thing in League One is the physicality. The training every day is intense and there are high standards. You know you cannot drop at all and have to give 100 per cent all the time to give yourself the best chance of succeeding. That's what I have tried to do.
"I am loving every minute of it at the moment. Playing games in front of good crowds, some places more hostile than others, and I am just taking as much as I can in and trying to improve each day. Eighteen months down the line, this is my chance and everything I have worked for, so I was always going to make sure I made the most of it."
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