Ben CartwrightComment

RORY DELAP: STOKE'S UNLIKELY HERO

Ben CartwrightComment
RORY DELAP: STOKE'S UNLIKELY HERO

In 2008 the first film based on the Marvel comic book universe was released. Iron Man blasted onto our screens in the form of the bubbly Robert Downey Jr. Whether you loved it or loathed it, that didn’t matter. 13 more films were on the way. In the same year, a different kind of iconic hero was about to burst onto the scene, and there hasn’t been one in the same mould since.

Stoke City were promoted to the Premier League in 2008. A Tony Pulis side built on solid lines of four in defence and big Mama Sidibe alongside the talismanic Ricardo Fuller up front. But, the Potters had a secret weapon in the middle of the park.

Before the likes of Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan Krkic stole the headlines. Before Stokealona. Before Stoke became a football team, along came Rory Delap. A man adored by the fans in red and white, a man who would terrify everyone else.

The Irishman made 134 appearances for Stoke City in the Premier League and to this day is arguably still the player that many fans would most associate with the Potter’s extended stay in the English game’s top division.

Part of the legend of the player is the ‘doing a Delap’ legacy. I dare you to attempt a long throw in the next Sunday league game you’re involved in. What are the odds that Rory at least gets a mention from one of the other 21 players on the field as your paltry, pathetic effort dribbles into the area after it slipped out of your feeble hands? Give it a try and I promise you might not embarrass yourself.

Rory is likely the only Premier League midfielder to be famed more for his ability with his arms than his ability with his legs. The man was once touted for a place in the Republic of Ireland Olympics javelin team, although that fell through. But that’s not to say he couldn’t do anything with his feet. A prodigious work rate and an underrated footballing brain he did have, but, naturally, he will be remembered for how far he could throw the pigskin.

Having said all that, the story of his time in the Potteries does start with a rather unfortunate episode involving the lower half of his body. Delap had opted to swap the red and white stripes of Sunderland for the red and white stripes of Stoke - a loan deal agreed.

Strangely, a week after signing for Stoke on loan, Delap was lining up against his parent club in a Championship game in October 2006. Rory Delap was on the right wing (this was a Pulis side so playing someone without pace on the wing made complete sense) but his time on the pitch that night lasted only 10 minutes.

Hello, Robbie Elliott, goodbye tibia and fibula. Both Stoke and Sunderland distressed, Rory Delap’s leg was broken in two places.

One strange coincide on the night was that of the 14,482 fans in attendance, one was a world-leading surgeon. The hosts had invited Professor Nicola Maffulli along to the Britannia as he was based at nearby University Hospital of North Staffordshire. So, a short time after 10 minutes had passed, Nicola found himself heroically dashing down to the hallowed turf to help save the day. Right place, right time.

The Potters went on to win the game 2-1, however, the thoughts of those involved were quite probably with Rory, who some believed might never play again. Including the player himself.

There were others that thought differently.

Professor Maffulli believed that if the old Irish man worked hard – he was a 31-year-old at this point – he could go on to play the ‘beautiful’ game without hindrance after recovery. More importantly for the veteran Irishman, Stoke agreed with the Professor. Pulis and chairman Peter Coates continued with their agreement to sign Delap on a permanent basis.

Of course, hindsight has 20/20 vision, and we now know that Rory didn’t just play again, he would go on to set the footballing world alight. In his own special way.

At this stage in his career the midfielder had already been in the Premier League, then Premiership, on three separate occasions - with Derby County, Sunderland and Southampton. In none of those previous spells did he make anywhere near the impact he would make in a Stoke shirt. He was also an integral part of the promotion winning side in 2007/08 – he captained the team in their final game in the second tier against Leicester City – but even at that stage, we’d yet to fall head over heels in love with our unlikely hero.

Delap was an industrious player being industriously industrious in an industrious team under an industrious manager. The throw-ins that would make Arsenal fans and players shiver, multiple teams bring their advertising boards forward and be the subject of numerous Match of the Day ‘analysis’ sessions were yet to be truly effective.

The first sight of this now infamous threat for many football fans would have been on the Match of the Day on 23rd August. The second game week of the 2008/09 season. In the first Stoke had been dispatched 3-0 by Gary Megson’s Bolton Wanderers. A true definition of a rude awakening into the top flight if there ever was one. In the days thereafter Paddy Power would pay out on Stoke’s relegation after only 90 minutes of the season having been played. Disrespectful, crass maybe, more importantly for Stoke fans, wrong.

But at this point, Stoke needed a hero. In truth, they needed a team of heroes and luckily they had the catalyst to spark the side on their way to something special.

Back to the game that, where, like a red and white phoenix exploding from the Britannia Stadium turf, Rory Delap burst onto the Premier League scene. Aston Villa were the opponents. And this was the Aston Villa that could actually play football. The Aston Villa that would go on to finish 6th. But that didn’t matter to Stoke. They were on the hunt for a first win in the Premier League and they could smell blood.

Ricardo Fuller may have taken much of the limelight with his spectacular solo effort on the day, that for some, well… Stoke fans, would go on to win ‘goal of the season’. (Match of the Day awarded it ‘goal of the month’ at the very least.)  But, I digress - we’re not here to talk about Ricardo. We’re here to talk about Rory. And this day was the day that his missiles would suddenly get the notice they quite clearly deserved.

Martin O’Neill’s post-match comments offer some ‘analysis’ that I just simply could not have come up with myself. So, here they are: "One thing you shouldn't do in the last minute of a game, is if you can't win it, then at least don't lose it." Wise words indeed.

2-2 going into injury time. Rory Delap’s according-to-the-BBC-artillery-distance throws had been sailing above Brad Friedel’s bald head all afternoon. At that stage, Villa had succumbed to that Fuller wonder goal and a Liam Lawrence rebounded penalty. Nothing yet from the Potteries very own Iron Man.

Of course, Martin’s helpful post-match comments meant only one thing, there was a winner, and that winner came from Stoke City.

Up steps Rory Delap. He wound up that javelin-like action to grind one more peppercorn of throwing action on an already well-peppered goal. The ball arrowed through the Staffordshire air. On and on it went.  Through the air onto big Mama Sidibe’s glorious head and into the back of the net. Sorry, Martin, you’ve lost it in the last minute of the game.

No, I have not over-dramatised that goal. Stoke City had checked into the Barclays Premier League hotel and Rory Delap was living it up in the honeymoon suite.

Let’s analyse his throw. The behemoth that is somehow still described merely as a ‘throw’. It averaged 38 metres from the touchline, reaching speeds of around 37mph. But Rory’s deliveries were not such a venomous weapon because of the distance. Their flat, piercing trajectory made them a defender’s nightmares across the land. Analysis over. It was that simple.

If I was to write about every incident of Rory’s rebirth in the Premier League in as much detail this would probably end up being a book. (*Gets out Dictaphone a la Alan Partridge* “Write that Rory Delap book.”) However, there are some vital moments that need a commentary.

None more so than the most gloriously anti-football goal that you are probably ever likely to witness. And it came against the Potters new nemesis Arsenal. No words can do the goal justice. All you need to know is Rory Delap throws, Ryan Shawcross heads it on, Seyi Olofinjana… does something to the ball to make a goal happen, pandemonium ensues.

By that point, Delap fever had well and truly gripped the nation. Stoke had been labelled a rugby team and Rory was the hooker firing in the lineouts at every bloody opportunity. The late, great Stephen Foster – he wrote two books detailing his Stoke City journey as a fan, both well worth a read – speculated that it was a 3-2 loss against Everton where Delap’s legend really manifested itself in the British psyche.

Rory notched two assists that day, an Olofinjana volley and a Jagielka own goal, but he was also notching himself in the memory of every single self-respecting Premiership fan. The Guardian took a particular liking to the man. They released an analytical poster on the technique, a series of humorous photoshops of Rory ages before the meme culture we all know and love today took over and their tactical analysis series, The Question, literally started with a look at how to stop Stoke scoring from Rory Delap throw-ins? Recent editions of The Question have asked ‘What is a centre-forward?’ and ‘Can De Bruyne and Silva prosper in their ‘free No8’ roles?’. On its debut, it wanted to solve a problem like Rory.

Naturally, there were sides that attempted to stop the Cumbrian hero in his tracks. West Ham, amongst others, brought their advertising boards forward, Hull City’s Boaz Myhill kicked the ball out for a corner instead of a throw, and Arsenal… unfortunately, Arsenal never properly learnt how to deal with his throws. And they were not alone with that.

Rory Delap wasn’t just part of Stoke City’s first foray into top-flight football in the modern era, he was the talisman. He was the flagbearer that Stoke fans could stand beside and be proud of. Stoke maintained and improved their position in the Premiership. They visited Wembley twice with Rory in the team both times. The subsequent European adventure, Rory was there too. And countless other memories along the way.

One memory that has no right to be in here was the time when Rory Delap smashed the ball into the crowd in anger and it hit my dad square in the chest, but alas, no time!

The day that Rory joined Stoke for the first time in 2006 they were 21st in the Championship. When he made his final appearance for the club around six years later in 2012 they were a well-established Premier League side that had made a name for themselves for their hard-working, gritty style of play. And Rory was a crucial part of that.

Perhaps we could say that Delap had the throwing strength of Thor and the hard-working attitude of Captain America. But on the other hand, we could say he definitely didn’t have the crass arrogance of Iron Man. But all of that is meaningless bullshit.

Rory Delap was not just a hero for Stoke City, he was the hero. Yet, unlike our favourite comic book stars, there will never be a sequel. Unless I write that book.

By Ben Cartwright. Full image credit goes to Ronnie Macdonald

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