x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Rory Delap: A journeyman whose career has taken off

Long throws have helped the 35-year-old Stoke City midfielder set a course for Europe.

Rory Delap’s all-round contributions have seen him becoming a Premier League fixture over the last 11 seasons.
Rory Delap’s all-round contributions have seen him becoming a Premier League fixture over the last 11 seasons.

Diego Maradona, Thierry Henry, Luis Suarez, Rory Delap: the group of outfield footballers who have acquired fame, or infamy, for using their hands is select and distinguished.

Delap, the Stoke City midfielder, is the odd one out and not merely because the others have superstar billing while the Premier League has few more down-to-earth characters than the 35 year old.

But while Maradona scored, Henry set up and Suarez saved a goal apiece with an illegal use of an arm, Delap has been far more productive. Part way through Stoke's inaugural Premier League campaign in 2008/09, the majority of their goals were the result of his long throws.

As it became a feared weapon, Delap found himself in the strange position of being an overnight sensation, 15 years into his career.

It became common knowledge that he was a talented javelin thrower in his youth. Less well known was that another sporting career might have beckoned. His first football boots were, he recalled "actually rugby boots because my dad wanted me to play rugby instead".

Delap is a comparatively rare footballer from Cumbria, a county in the far north-west of England, growing up near the Scottish border but, because of his Irish parentage, winning 11 caps for the Republic of Ireland.

When he came through the youth system at Brunton Park, Carlisle United were a fourth-flight team.

"Carlisle gave me my first professional deal," Delap said. "It put me on £90 [Dh512] a week - fantastic. I was like Rockefeller because I had gone from £30 a week."

The budding millionaire presumably picked up another pay rise when he first entered the Premier League with Derby County in 1998.

While he has played all over the midfield for Stoke, his versatility was even more apparent in the East Midlands. Used as a right wing-back for much of the time, he played as a striker for the majority of the 1999/2000 season, when he was Derby's top scorer.

He left Pride Park in 2001 and has spent the past decade in red and white stripes, whether with Southampton, Sunderland or Stoke. Yet his career has peaked at a time when contemporaries are considering retirement.

"It's getting there," he said. "I got to the FA Cup final and we played in Europe with Southampton and we were doing very well at that stage."

The difference, however, is that Delap missed the 2003 final against Arsenal through injury and, with Southampton exiting Europe at the first hurdle, his experience of continental competition was limited to two games.

In contrast, he was an integral part of the Stoke side who faced Manchester City in May and should line up against Besiktas tomorrow in the Europa League Group E.

"From where I was going with my career at the time I came here, I thought nights like these were long gone," he said.

Indeed, Delap's Premier League days appeared over after he was relegated in successive seasons with Southampton and Sunderland in 2005 and 2006. Then, loaned to Stoke, he debuted disastrously against his parent club, breaking his tibia and his fibula in a challenge with Robbie Elliott, a teammate until his switch to the Potteries.

It was October 2006, but Delap's season was ended. Stoke were not obliged to buy him but they nevertheless did, Tony Pulis paying £500,000 for his services at a time where, by his own admission, he was not flourishing.

"It shows the faith the manager had," Delap said. "You get stuck in a rut sometimes and I was probably in one so the challenge to come to Stoke ... It didn't start very well with breaking my leg … [but the manager] he sold me the club saying we were going to get promoted and we did that within 19 months."

After their 2008 elevation, Delap went from journeyman midfielder to centre of attention.

He had always possessed a long throw. It was not simply that it seemed longer at Stoke - at distances of up to 40 metres, he can hurl the ball well into the penalty area from near the halfway line - but a flatter trajectory has made his deliveries from the touchline arrive quicker, giving defences less time to adjust.

In addition, Stoke's battalion of tall players offer plenty of targets.

The focus on his throw, however, has camouflaged the all-round contributions of a player now in his 12th season in the Premier League.

A regular feature of the top flight, he is a comparative newcomer to Europe. "It's a chance we're not going to get too often, if we're honest, so we've got to make the most of it," he said.

sports@thenational.ae