Damien Delaney walks with kings but has never lost the common touch

The Munster minor final from 1999 was nothing special. Perhaps the scoreline had standout: Cork 2-16 Kerry 1-8. 
Damien Delaney walks with kings but has never lost the common touch

Or maybe the combination of results, when later in the afternoon, Cork also overcame Kerry in the senior final at Páirc Ui Chaoimh.

However, an interesting subplot was the career paths of certain players in that minor match.

Some, such as corner back Noel O’Leary progressed in the traditional sense onto U21 and senior inter-county careers.

Others achieved success elsewhere.

In the half-back line, Tom Kenny and Ronan Curran continued their successful partnership but as ‘once in a generation’ hurlers.

Kerry centre forward Tadhg Kennelly went on to have a stellar career in Australian Rules football.

But it was Cork midfielder that day, Damien Delaney, whose star now shines brightest.

Today, at 34 years old, he lines out for Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final at Wembley.

If Mile Jedinak doesn’t start, he will captain the side, a reflection of his status at a club who have relied on him as an ever-present since their promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs three years ago.

This success however, in the twilight of his career, has not come easy and is not reflective of the challenges he has had to overcome as a player.

It is almost three years to the day since that Championship play-off final.

Palace won 1-0 against a Watford side which had finished five points above Palace in the league proper.

Nine months earlier, Delaney was looking at the prospect of being an unemployed footballer, having left Ipswich Town by mutual consent.

At 31 and with no club, the horizon didn’t look great and yet his quiet determination held firm.

Over the previous 10 years, this determination and mental strength had served him well when others would surely have buckled.

Leaving Cork City, he started with Leicester in the Premier League at 20 but was then loaned out to Stockport County, Hudderfield Town, and Mansfield Town.

He then signed for Hull City before moving to QPR and eventually Ipswich.

In 2009, a leg injury developed into a blood clot which required emergency surgery which staved off possible amputation.

In 2010, he was sent off in the derby match for Ipswich against Norwich which drew forth fire and brimstone from then manager Roy Keane.

On a visit to watch him play for Ipswich against Swansea a few months later, the portents looked bleak late that night when we poured over the significance of a 3-1 home defeat.

Especially for a 29-year-old pro at a sliding club with a manager he was struggling to impress. Going out to pasture with a team in America appeared to be the preference.

But his departure from Ipswich coincided with a deficit at centre-back for Championship strugglers Crystal Place.

On transfer deadline day, a short-term contract was offered by the London club, but no one could have predicted how this initial four-month agreement would result in the Eagles rocketing up the Championship table, gaining promotion through the play-offs and a regular starting berth for Delaney at the top table for the next three years.

Of course champions are made, not born, and Damien never shied from those hard yards.

Throughout his career, one aspect which always matched his determination was his professional attitude.

And not in the stereotypical sense.

Anyone who follows the man on his preferred source of social media, Instagram, will recognise the almost hipster aspects of his life.

An urban cool wrapped up in a London vibe that we can only assume is bang on trend.

What’s difficult to comprehend is how his relentless professionalism and sense of identify never seem to be jeopardised in an existence which we believe so incongruous to the notion of the monastic model pro we all grew up with.

The uber cool lifestyle is something we would generally associate with a fella who has lost the run of himself. In the case of Delaney, the opposite is the case.

He bucks the trend and is so comfortable in his own skin that he is able to ply his trade with a conviction which knows that game day is where it counts, the only place where judgment matters.

In between, his preparation is unquestionable.

He will go about his prehab in methodical fashion. His routine ensures he is in bed before 10 every night.

He banks on the simple concept that top class preparation equals paramount performance, though he never gets overly consumed by it.

In professional sport, no one deserves anything, but Delaney lives his life on his terms and is getting out what he has put in.

Win or lose this afternoon, he will likely be back in Cork Tuesday, out for a couple of rare but well-timed pints in Capwell or South Main Street with school friends from Criost Ri.

Damien Delaney (left) with some of his former Cork minor colleagues including Conor McCarthy, David Niblock, and Noel O’Leary.
Damien Delaney (left) with some of his former Cork minor colleagues including Conor McCarthy, David Niblock, and Noel O’Leary.

For Delaney, the glamour of the Premier League appears to hold the same appeal as West Cork on a summer’s day.

He will seek to relax in equal measures in either Miami, Ibiza, or his second home in Ballydehob. Later in the summer, the hard yard cycles up the airport hill will precede the science of pre-season at Beckenham.

His chance move to Palace, their catapult into the Premier League and his captaincy of the team have been rewards for a grounded pro who never courts the media.

His devout belief in doing the right thing and preparing in the best way possible serves him well. There will be 90,000 at Wembley.

For Damien, the prospect of lifting the FA Cup in front of this crowd as team captain is now a very distinct possibility. Not that it will faze him. He was made for the big stage.

While that Cork minor team lost out to Mayo at Croke Park in 1999, Delaney helped himself to 2-2 from play at midfield.

Having had the benefit of sharing a room with him on the evening prior to the game, his sense of ease with the big stage was visible in everything he did, from the way he carried himself to the way he went for goal from 20 yards in the first minute of that match.

A lot may have changed since but the man himself and his approach appears to have stayed very much the same.

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