Over twenty years as a player brought Rory Delap international caps, 14 Premier League seasons, and a clutch of soundtrack-worthy moments that will live long in the memory for the former Republic of Ireland midfielder.
A top-flight campaigner with Derby County, Southampton, Sunderland and Stoke City, the one-time Carlisle United youngster announced his retirement from playing last December. His long throw-in became widely recognised in his later career but Rory’s whole-hearted performances with no shortage of assurance had earned him respect from managers and peers long before that attention arrived.
Although born in Sutton Coldfield, Rory moved with his parents to Carlisle when he was just a few months old and it was here that his footballing seeds were sown. Some years before he made the breakthrough in the professional game with Carlisle United, he was watching the Cumbrians from the stands at Brunton Park with his father.
That parental impact also extended to music and as this site explores, there would be a number of occasions when it would overlap with Rory’s time in football. The 11-cap Irish international reveals some of his musical background and how he didn’t quite follow the same route as his father John and mother Maura.
“Growing up, I had a big Irish influence from my parents and both of them were in folk bands. The first music I remember getting into though was Adam and the Ants, so a while back now!
“I got into The Stone Roses around the time they came out and that eventually went into Oasis, The Verve, Stereophonics, Arctic Monkeys of late. I was a big fan of that kind of guitar rock and I still am.”
Rory’s seven years with Stoke City saw his career take on a new lease of life in many respects and he was a firm part of the story as the Potters became an established Premier League club. There was also the 2011 FA Cup final against Manchester City and appearances against the likes of Valencia, Besiktas and Dynamo Kiev en route to the last 32 of the Europa League.
Lasting friendships can be difficult to come by in football but Rory has one with someone he played alongside at Derby, Southampton and Stoke. The former Manchester United left-back featured on here last October and when asked which of his career teammates he would record a song with he opted for Rory, who did the same here.
“I’d have to choose Danny Higginbotham and the song would be Rod Stewart ‘Maggie May’. He’s the only one who’d know it and I’m good on the chorus, so he can sing the rest of it!”
In his interview, Danny Higginbotham recalled how his extremely nervy singing display as a youth at Manchester United in front of the likes of Ryan Giggs gave rise to a nickname of ‘Elvis’. Rory, who progressed at Carlisle through David Wilkes’ youth team, made his way up in the game at a much harsher time than the one experienced by today’s young players.
The Youth Training Scheme (YTS) days provided its own school of hard knocks as the teenagers at clubs would have menial duties. Rory recalls one instance of the senior players exerting their dominance and it certainly wasn’t the only time.
“Once at Carlisle I had to sing and I was up there for about ten seconds before I got stripped, covered in Deep Heat and thrown in the ice bath!”
Unsurprisingly, experiences like that fuelled Rory’s desire to reach the first team even further, and playing for the club he supported, he won promotion from the Third Division (now League Two) in 1996/97. Working under manager Mervyn Day that season, he also played 120 minutes at Wembley as the Cumbrians beat Colchester United on penalties to win the Football League Trophy.
He still watches his boyhood team when he gets chance, although he may struggle to find the first tape he got the next time he makes his way around the shopping aisles back home.
“It was Adam and the Ants ‘Stand and Deliver’ and I remember it because I didn’t realise you could buy tapes of the singles when I was a kid. I was in Tesco in Carlisle with my mum and I chucked it in the trolley; I think it was only about 99p back then.
“I realised afterwards that we didn’t have a tape player! I listened to it in the car and I had the white tape across my face like Adam Ant, I looked a right state!”
In July 2001, Southampton paid £4million to make Rory their record signing, eclipsing the £2million they had paid Sheffield Wednesday for David Hirst in 1997 when previously breaking the record. Steadily making his way towards becoming a notable Premier League marksman at the time was the Saints’ James Beattie.
Rory would play alongside the one-time England striker again at Stoke in 2008/09 as he arrived mid-season to help fire them to safety in their first Premier League campaign. When it came to pre-game music in the changing room, he hit the mark, but the Potters’ exciting and unpredictable Jamaican frontman at the time was less popular with his tunes, as Rory explains.
“Without a doubt, the worst was Ricardo Fuller! I had no idea what it was and I couldn’t understand a word.
“I’ve took it on a couple of times but it’s been turned off! The one who had a bit for everyone was James Beattie at Southampton and Stoke.
“Even if you didn’t like one song you only had to wait a couple for one you did like. He had something for every age group and it would get the place rocking before the game.”
Playing over 200 games and scoring eight goals for the club, Rory very much became part of the fabric at Stoke. His professionalism towards his work on the pitch was matched with the way in which he carried himself off it.
In June 2009, he took part in a three-day bike ride from Newcastle to Edinburgh for the Stoke-on-Trent children’s hospice, the Donna Louise Trust. Shortly after that gruelling challenge came some relief in one of the most euphoric gigs he has ever enjoyed.
“I’ve been to quite a few Oasis gigs, The Verve, Stereophonics, Travis as well. The one that stands out though was Oasis at Slane Castle in Ireland; they had Prodigy and Kasabian supporting and it was unbelievable.”
Joining top-flight Derby County from Carlisle in February 1998, Rory won his first cap for Ireland in a friendly away to the Czech Republic a month later. His international career was decimated by injuries but he played 11 times for the nation of his heritage over six years, getting his chance under Mick McCarthy, who would sign him for Sunderland in January 2006.
In an interview with former Ireland striker Clinton Morrison once, he told me how U2 frontman Bono would make his way down to the team dressing room to greet the players before certain matches. I asked Rory, who played a number of times at Lansdowne Road, whether he ever witnessed this.
“Well he used to turn up the odd time but unfortunately I was never there when he did. I remember one trip, I think it was a double-header, I got injured in training and went home after that.
“He turned up at the game with (bandmate) The Edge so it summed up my luck really that I missed it!”
The last of Rory’s caps came in a 2-1 home win over Czech Republic during Brian Kerr’s time in charge. He may not have had the chance to meet Bono during his national team days but that’s not to say he never saw a famous Irishman giving a memorable vocal display.
“Robbie Keane can sing and when we’d have a bit of a night out or a couple of drinks at the bar in the hotel someone would get the guitar out. He was a bit of a human jukebox with the amount of songs he knew, you could fire any request at him, so he was class to have.”
Hanging up his boots last December after his spell with Burton Albion meant that Rory got to enjoy Christmas with the family at long last after so many years of being away over the festive period. Inevitably, that also meant that this summer would be the first pre-season he would miss, although he did get to travel to Iceland in a coaching capacity.
Rory returned to Derby earlier this year to help out with the Academy, 13 years after his departure for Southampton, but the club is not short of familiar faces from his time as a Rams player.
“I’m taking the 15 and 16-year-olds and I came in for the last four or five months of last season. To be honest, it wasn’t a hard one to retire in the end because of the injuries; it was a bit of a relief.
“I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been quite weird going back after so long but the manager’s there (Steve McClaren, Derby assistant during Rory’s playing spell), (goalkeeping coach) Eric Steele’s back, and quite a few of the staff are there, so there’s a family feel about the place.
“The club relies on bringing lads through and that sends the pressure on the Academy coaches up, which is what you want instead of a comfort zone.”
Signing for £200,000 as a 21-year-old, Rory came into a Derby squad that was on its way to a 9th-place finish at the top level. With Jim Smith at the helm, they would go one place better in 1998/99 before three seasons of relegation battles, the last of which was unsuccessful, in 2001/02 under Smith, replacement Colin Todd and latterly, John Gregory.
For a time though, the Rams were right amongst the big hitters and overseas talents such as Costa Rican forward Paulo Wanchope filled the ranks alongside British players like Dean Sturridge. Rory, who had his best scoring season with eight in 1999-2000, looks back on that period with undoubted fondness.
“I loved it. It was my first time away from home and a chance in the Premiership.
“It was brilliant, like you say a mix of experience and young lads, the British players and the foreign players. It opened my eyes to see the likes of Igor Stimac, (Francesco) Baiano, (Stefano) Eranio and how they prepared themselves.
“We had no sports science at Carlisle so it was something that changed my life really. The gaffer now, Steve McClaren, was assistant, and the manager at the time, Jim Smith, said there was a place in the first team for me.
“That was a risk for them considering I was coming from Division Two with Carlisle but they kept to their word. I didn’t want to leave (Derby) but the club’s difficulties at the time took it out of my hands.
“They’ve got the structure in place now though and it’s nearly there on the pitch so hopefully in the next 12 months it will be back in the top flight.”
On leaving Derby for Southampton, Rory was praised by the manager he was leaving behind, Jim Smith. The Saints were relegated to the Championship in 2005 but in his four and a half seasons with the St. Mary’s club, Rory played 152 games and featured in the UEFA Cup in 2003/04.
A real standout goal came in March 2004 when he hit a stunning acrobatic volley to beat Tottenham Hotspur shortly after Paul Sturrock had become Saints manager. As someone who remembers moments like that and also watched Rory at grounds like Hillsborough and Pride Park growing up, I wanted the focus of the interview to be away from the throw-ins many associate him with.
However, given that he played 14 years at the highest level, won international caps, and came up with a few goals too, I wondered if he ever found it annoying that his long throw took some of the focus away from those achievements in his later career.
“It’s never bothered me and it still doesn’t, to be honest. I know what I’ve done in the game; people didn’t realise I’d played 250-odd Premier League games before I went to Stoke.
“It’s one of those things that was a phenomenon for six to eight months. It’s six years ago now and it does amaze me a bit that people still go on about it.”
Rory’s last professional game was for Burton Albion against Oxford United in September 2013 as a persistent hamstring injury and the wear and tear of his career made it a relatively easy decision to retire. Seven years earlier, he had been left wondering if the game was up for him as he fractured his tibia and fibula in only his second game for Stoke, a midweek home match with Sunderland.
Despite that, chairman Peter Coates went to visit him to offer reassurances that he and manager Tony Pulis still wanted to make his loan from Sunderland permanent. Rory eventually returned to fitness and was at the heart of Stoke’s elevation to the established Premier League club they are today.
The fans held him above their head in the on-pitch celebrations at The Britannia Stadium after promotion was sealed in May 2008 and the club remains dear to him.
“It means a hell of a lot. I was fortunate that I enjoyed everywhere I went, even though it was a bit up and down at Sunderland I still really enjoyed my time up there.
“Stoke holds a special place for me. I broke my leg two games in and I thought my career was done.
“I never thought when I was in that hospital bed I’d be back playing in the Premier League. The Stoke medical staff were unbelievable with me and I came back the fittest I’d ever been.
“That was mainly down to myself but the medical team were great.”
In over two decades as a player, it is testament to Rory’s approach that he represented just five clubs until a loan with Barnsley and his stint at Burton in his career’s final calendar year. Rather than simply taking wages from Burton when he knew he could no longer play to the standard he expected of himself, he made the decision to call it a day.
He describes the biggest lessons he took from playing and also the advice he would dispense if he could talk to the Rory Delap who was just starting out in the game.
“I know a lot of people say it but the harder you work, the luckier you get. I’m not stupid enough to think I was one of the greatest players but I’ve always given 100 per cent.
“A lot of young players today think it’s going to be given to you but it was drilled into me at Carlisle to work hard for it. People sometimes want the joy and the glamour without working for it.
“The only thing I’d change, looking back to when I was 21 going to Derby, would be the lifestyle, sleep, what you eat etc. There’s nothing wrong with a beer here and there but I perhaps went a bit overboard at the start of my career.
“We saw all the old fellas doing it and thought that was the way. That would be the only thing really, but then again I did have some good nights out from it!”
With three young sons, Rory is not short of activities to keep him busy. He was a studio pundit for the live Sky Sports game between his old clubs Carlisle and Derby in the Capital One Cup at the beginning of this season but he sees this avenue as one he wants to explore quite sparingly for the time being.
“I’ve done a bit of media work but I think that’s something I want to dip in and out of. I want to concentrate on coaching; I’ve still got a couple of qualifications to get.
“It’s a harsh world in coaching, even at academy level, and it’s who you know rather than what you know sometimes. That can mean you’re a good coach but you’re out of work, but I’d like to give it a really good go.
“Management’s not there for me at the moment but I would like to see how a manager works with all the duties off the pitch, chairmen and agents.”
Finally, it is time for Rory to become the latest interviewee to step into the role of fantasy player-manager on here. The way this last question works is by the individual putting themselves into a 5-a-side line-up and selecting four of their career teammates to join them.
After Rory named his fourth player, we still needed an exclusively attacking choice in there, so maybe he will have to go on his own team’s bench to begin with!
“In goal, I’ll go for Asmir Begovic. He’s fantastic and in 5-a-side I don’t think you’d be able to see the net!
“It’s between him and Antti Niemi from Southampton but his size just edges it.
“I’d have to put Higgy (Danny Higginbotham) in there for the banter. He could take the free-kicks as well.
“Denis Irwin at the back – different class. You’d struggle to get near him in training.
“Roy Keane for a bit of bite in the midfield. (Asked what he was like to be around and if he gave Rory any advice) I wouldn’t say he gave me any advice but he was brilliant and he’d have the usual craic with the lads.
“I’d have Georgi Kinkladze too, but for his time at Man City rather than his time at Derby. In 5-a-side in training, with the ball at his feet he was ridiculous.”