Delaney: ‘I’d just run. Leave it all out there. Have a fight and need to be dragged off. They respected that’

Damien Delaney's football journey has taken him from Cork to the Premier League and back to Cork again. And along the way, he's encountered remarkable characters and learned valuable lessons that shaped his professional career.

Delaney: ‘I’d just run. Leave it all out there. Have a fight and need to be dragged off. They respected that’

Damien Delaney's football journey has taken him from Cork to the Premier League and back to Cork again. And along the way, he's encountered remarkable characters and learned valuable lessons that shaped his professional career.

Back when Damien Delaney would be away with the Irish squad – although maybe not as often as you or he would have liked – on the kind of road trip Mick McCarthy’s men are right in the thick of now, it would test his resolve and staying power, he’ll admit.

Playing a game on a Saturday, then another on a Wednesday in “some place like feckin’ Albania”, and not getting back into Dublin at seven in the morning and your club wanting you back at their training ground before noon to see if you were fit to play for them at the weekend.

But as for all the supposed monotony of being cooped up in hotels, no, that didn’t bother him. While he could sympathise with Jack Byrne who was on Off The Ball with him recently, talking about how he found it challenging to kill the time when called into the Irish camp last month, he didn’t necessarily empathise with it.

So how would he keep himself occupied? His phone? PlayStation? DVDs? Well, as Gareth Southgate once said in response to a query about life away with England, boring people get bored. And for Delaney, there’s nothing more interesting than people. So he’d seek them out. Head down to the lobby and hang out by the lifts where the team’s security could be stationed.

“Them security lads in Portmarnock [the team’s regular residency], we had some craic, man. Like, they’d be with the team, 24/7, for the week, so you’d just chat away with them, for literally hours at a time.”

Delaney himself is what might be described as a ‘good hang’. Over the course of an hour in another hotel lobby, the conversation ranges from everything from Emannuel Adebayor to Napoleon, and his old Corn Uí Mhuirí teammates with Críost Rí to Russian Revolution.

Although he doesn’t want to be portrayed as some kind of Irish Joey Barton – being held up as a contrast to the stereotypical footballer now borders on being a stereotype itself – this is someone who prefers to read a biography on Lenin and Genghis Khan than check out the autobiography of a teammate or any sports person.

Now that he’s retired from professional football, he’s glad to be based nowadays back in Cork with his Iranian partner Solmaz and their 14-month-old son Bizhan, but he loved life in London. Best city in the world, which is some admission coming from where he does.

He’d often just walk its city centre and maybe pop into a museum that caught his eye. Or during the summer one of his favourite things was just to sit on a park bench with a coffee and watch the people go by or read – or listen to – some more of a book. So, you’ll forgive us if we don’t cover old ground here like Roy and O’Neill and Trap here, when here’s a man who has some interesting takes on Mancini and Zaha either side of a few small digressions.

OLD SCHOOL AND NEW TRICKS

“My teammates weren’t much help. Supporters can destroy [a reputation] more quickly than anyone and every player thinks he can be dragged down by their weakest link, which was often me. ‘Fucking hell, son, you’re killing us,’ one of them would say every time I gave the ball away. As soon as the ball got to me, the move would break down. — Richard Sadlier, Recovering

KS: Now that you’re back where it all started – Cork – we might start with where you were this time 20 years ago. You’d just come off playing in an All-Ireland semi-final for Cork, scoring two goals against Mayo. How do you think your GAA background served you?

DD: The first time I ever played in front of a serious crowd was Kerry-Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. It was absolutely pissing rain and in the first-half there was just a splattering of people, but I remember coming back out for the second half and all of a sudden there was 30,000 people there because Cork and Kerry were playing in the senior game as well.

For the semi-final then there was 60,000 people there. And though we lost, I think that experience helped me massively. Not a lot of 18-year-olds play in front of big crowds. And sometimes it can get on top of young pros, mentally and emotionally. But I had that confidence from playing in Croke Park. ‘I can perform on the big stage.’

KS: Richie Sadlier, in his book, talks about playing in front of crowds. You played out on the flank, where you could hear the supporters all the more. Had you times when a crowd turned against you?

DD: Oh yeah, including our own supporters. But that was fine.

KS:So how did you deal with that?

DD: I think you have to compartmentalise. I didn’t know I was compartmentalising when I was doing it, you since read things and find out that’s what it is: when you can just put one thing in a box and leave that box over there and then take another thing and put it into that box over there.

Once with [Crystal] Palace I scored an own goal at Old Trafford after five minutes. A Tuesday night game. Now that’s a lonely place to be when you do that. Because all of a sudden you’re staring at the barrel of 90 minutes thinking, ‘F***, we’re down 1-0 and it’s because of you’.

So when you’re on the pitch you have to be very quick to take that mistake and put it to bed and go and worry about it after. I’d always say, ‘I’ll cry about it at 10 o’clock. But there’s no point in worrying about it now. Just put it over there.’

KS: Richie Sadlier also writes about how at Millwall the veterans were scathingly critical of a young player like him whenever he made a mistake and how that affected his confidence and focus.

DD: I actually roomed with Richie. We’d have been on the same Ireland U21 squad a few times. Chatted away. Seemed sound.

KS: Well, your first English club was Leicester. With its Matt Elliotts, Tim Flowers. A formidable dressing room…

DD: Oh, I’ll never get a changing room like that in any sport again. They don’t make people like that anymore! Your Frank Sinclairs, Matt Elliott, Muzzy Izzet, bloody Gerry Taggart! F****ing serious men!

KS: Well, when you’d make a mistake, what were they like?

DD: Cut-throat, man, if you weren’t at it every day. You could drink and come in hungover if you wanted, but train properly and all was forgiven. There was such a will to win five-a-sides. I mean, Denis Wise. I worked with him for a year and oh my God, what a winner.

When he went onto a pitch, he just had this look in his eye: I’m winning this five-a-side. And if I don’t win it, I’m going to kill myself trying to win it. And he was like that every (punches his palm) single (punches palm again) day. Even in a passing drill in the warm-up, if you weren’t doing it right…

KS: What, would he be critical of just effort or execution as well? Because Sadlier talks about the voice in your head, and sometimes that voice can be the echo of a teammate, and that can then distract you…

DD: As long as you tried, those guys were okay. You could be as shit as you wanted but if you buried yourself in the pursuit to try and win a five-a-side or to improve, they were happy with it.

KS: And if you overhit a pass....

DD: Well, they would get on to you but they wouldn’t hold it against you. But if you were taking the piss or trying fancy things or looking as if you were hurting your team in a five-a-side…

KS: You described Paul Pogba the other week on OTB as a ‘joiner-in’. As in he’ll join in if things are going well, but when they’re not, he doesn’t want to know.

DD: They’re the people that would be weeded out. But you could take it all the way back to the first Cork City dressing room I was in. John Caulfield. Pat Morley. Patsy (Freyne). Deccie! I mean, Deccie Daly, a total gentleman but he’d shoot his grandmother to win a five-a-side.

Kelvin Flanagan, Mark Herrick, Derek Coughlan. They were all serious men. Could do serious drinking too when we were together but serious men, serious competitors. And I loved it. That environment and the one at Leicester, I took to it straight away. Because as long as you killed yourself trying to do the right thing (you were accepted)…

KS: What do you mean by ‘the right thing’?

DD: Running. Tackling. Winning headers. Fighting for your life in a five-a-side on a Monday morning in November when you’ve just lost on the Saturday.

KS: Did you get the respect of those Leicester veterans? Were you looking for their approval?

DD: Once I was brought out to train with them, I think they quite liked me because I was similar to those guys, maybe from coming from a place like that [Cork] City dressing room. I’d just run. Leave it all out there. Nail someone; if you wanted, have a fight and need to be dragged off, separated.

They respected that. I think the way they saw it, if they were tough on you in training and you went under, then you were no use to them in Goodison Park on a Tuesday night.

KS: But Chris Waddle has talked about that didn’t work for him at Newcastle, how he’d go under from coaches verbally abusing him…

DD: The culture, the thinking at the time was that it was separating the weak from the strong.

KS: But now, looking back?

DD: Oh, it was massively counter-productive. Because you were letting some talented young kids go. Other Chris Waddles. The game has changed now.

KS: When did you start seeing it change?

DD: Around 2006, 2007, when more foreign coaches started coming in, not just at the top end of the Premier League. And more and more foreign players were coming in and weren’t in the minority anymore and I think those guys just would not respond to that [previous] type of environment. They couldn’t get their heads around it. ‘What is this?!’

KS: And how did you get your head around that different environment?

DD: You have to be open to change. And I recognised it. The way I behaved when I was 21, 22 at Leicester, I couldn’t be like that anymore. Because if I carried that behaviour right the way through to a QPR or Palace, I’d be sacked.

KS: If you had a ‘joiner-in’ on the squad, would you still challenge them?

DD: 100 per cent. I never let that go. But I do remember Alan Pardew [at Palace] calling me into the office once and his exact words were, ‘You’re becoming a problem’.

If I thought someone was taking a day off in training, it would upset me so I would then upset them to a massive level, and it got to the point where Alan said, ‘You can’t speak like that! You can’t just follow someone around the training pitch and smash them every chance you get! It’s counterproductive.’ And he was right. So I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’

KS: So would you then meet fellas for coffee?

DD: Oh yeah.

KS: And say, ‘Look, we need you to lift it here’?

DD: Oh no, I’d never do that. I’d do that at the training ground. I’d have a fight with someone there, then go for a coffee with them afterwards. Talk about something totally different. I’d never hold it against them. It was never a personal thing.

KS: How did you deal with a Wilfried Zaha?

DD: Wilfried is different, though. He’s a match-winner. And the one thing I’d have to say about Wilfried, he showed up on a Saturday. And still does, with all his bits and pieces.

KS: You mention there how your preference was always for and to be a player that never took a day off, even in training. But you’ve spoken before about when you came back to play with Cork City and Waterford, that you realised the hard way that you needed, at your age, to conserve more energy for the game on Friday.

DD: That was difficult for me at the time. To keep something in the tank. Psychologically, it had a massive impact on me because I was coming home from training, saying to myself, ‘You cheated today’.

KS: You were still a bit from that old school of train hard, play hard, and party hard, coming from both Cork and Leicester City, but those dressing rooms wouldn’t necessarily have recovered hard. Who would have been the first pros that you came across that would have been into minding themselves and their energy a bit more?

DD: The first player that I ever thought, ‘God, there’s another way of doing it’ – and it’s going to be the biggest name-drop ever so I probably shouldn’t say it – was Roberto Mancini. He came to Leicester when I was still there.

He was nearly as old as I am now [Delaney is 38, Mancini was 36] but he was still in great shape and I just remember his mannerisms and calmness.

His first week with the team we went out for a dinner the night before a game and he finished and had a glass of wine! It was a different culture. But I remember that night he waited for everyone to finish [eating] and then casually said, ‘Is everybody finished?’ And everyone was ‘Yeah, goodnight!’ And he got up and left.

But he waited for everyone to finish their dinner. Whereas we were just accustomed to horsing it in and leaving right away! He was only with us a month but he left a lasting impression. Because you were looking at him in training and he was still supremely fit. And it wasn’t like anyone could [mock or rubbish] him because of who he was.

But I think the way I saw football before I went over wasn’t a million miles away from the reality. I realised early on that I was good but not good enough, that I had to get better. It was about having a mindset that was open and willing to learn. And I always maintained that.

Any time we went into a new league, my mindset was, ‘Right, I might not be ready right now but I can get there.’ I had seen the standard, I had seen where I was and what I could and then I’d go away and work on getting to that standard.

KS: How did you improve, learn?

DD: Every day, man. Watch my peers. See what they were doing. Listen to staff. If someone told me to do something or stop f****ing doing something, I never took it in a bad way. You’d be surprised how many people would take it personally.

‘Oh, I don’t like being told I’m wrong!’ I loved being told I was wrong! If someone suggested something, I wouldn’t necessarily do it, but I’d give it every due consideration and probably try it.

KS: What did you try?

DD: Everything. To an obsessive level. I went vegan for a little while – didn’t see the benefits. But yoga, definitely. Pilates the same. Coming in early every morning, staying late every day. Because when you start doing all these things and all of a sudden you start moving better and feeling better and performing more consistently on Saturdays, you’ll keep trying new things.

KS: You’re here back in Cork where you’d have played for Cork City and for Cork GAA. Cork: that’s who you play for, the cause and caring for it is obvious. In fact, right now we’re in a hotel where the Cork hurlers had meetings and press conferences when they were on strike. When they were winning All-Irelands some of them spoke about how they’d be each other’s pallbearers. Whatever about that, a lot of them are still buddies today. Whereas in professional football, your relationships with teammates is far more transient.

DD: I agree. Professional football is a job at the end of the day whereas those guys can only play for Cork because they’re from Cork so they know they will always be there.

KS: So when you’re rooted in a relegation battle, how easy is it to summon a common cause? What is the battle for?

DD: Well, there is a common cause – you don’t want to get relegated. And it’s then about trying to get everyone on the same page. ‘Listen, I might not like you but I need you to perform here, otherwise we’re going to get relegated and that doesn’t help either of us.’

I’ve been in my share of relegation battles and the biggest common denominator in surviving is everyone being on the same page. You can’t have one person or one faction looking in one direction and then another group going, ‘No, this is the way out.’ You need a strong manager who’ll point the way.

KS: You’ve dealt with a good few of those.

DD: Tony Pulis. Sam Allardyce. Big characters, big personalities. No one questions them.

KS: There’s an increasing cynicism though that clubs tend to go to the usual suspects like those whenever there’s a danger they could be in a relegation battle. That it’s regressive for the sport itself. Yet, you seem to be almost in favour of it.

DD: They’re big personalities. They’re very clear on what they want and they’re very clear in laying it out in front of you what’s required.

KS: The perception would be that they’re advocating a very direct, blunt style of play.

DD: But at least everyone (on your team) is playing that way. It doesn’t matter what you do or how you play as long as everyone is doing the same thing. And they do that by laying it out in black and white. ‘Your job on Saturday is X, Y and Z. You – your job is A, B and C. I don’t want any more, I don’t want any less, so just do… this.’ So if Tony Pulis tells me one thing and I do another, well, then that’s it, I’m f*****’ done!

KS: Would your role have changed much in those circumstances?

DD: Yeah. ‘Don’t play these short passes into the middle of the park. We don’t play square passes – if you get a square pass, then that’s it, the next one has to go forward. If you’re in this area of the pitch, don’t run with it.’

Because that way the centre forward knows where it’s going to go when I get the ball in a certain area. ‘Oh, I heard Tony tell him the ball has to be put into this area whenever he gets it there…’ Everyone is on the same page.

KS: But the growing trend in coaching seems to be to allow players to make more decisions for themselves, to not be too prescriptive…

DD: Relegation is different. A lot of managers when they start over-trusting players and let them off the cuff, problems arise. I always hated the phrase from a manager, ‘Well, when you’re here, if you feel like…’ I’m there going, ‘If you feel like it?’ That’s so thin.

Because you might feel one way and another player feels another way and all of a sudden you have two players on different pages because the manager has left it open to interpretation. Believe it or not, I think Pep Guardiola is very regimental. Jurgen Klopp the same.

Yes, they allow a certain amount of creative expression but within parameters. If Raheem Sterling is playing on the right-wing, he can’t just go ‘I’ll go over to the left wing now and see what happens.’ Because then the defensive structure breaks down and if the ball gets turned over, then they’re wide open on one flank of the field.

I think that’s where a lot of players struggle – taking information on board. I’d dare say it’s the biggest reason why people fail to play top-level football. It’s staggering.

KS: Going back to the transient nature of football. You couldn’t possibly count the number of teammates you’ve had through the years. Do you become almost guarded, that it’s not worth the effort to befriend someone when either he or you could be out the door in a couple of months?

DD: Well, again it’s different to the Cork [GAA] lads. In football, you have lads from so many different nationalities and cultures and backgrounds. If we don’t hang out a lot, it’s not that I don’t like you, it’s just that French players will gravitate to French players who speak French. I don’t care as long as they train their ass off and show up on Saturday. Because that’s ultimately the only thing that matters.

KS: But would you have any close friends from the sport?

DD: Well, a lot of your friends would still be playing. And while they’re still doing their thing, I wouldn’t expect them to make time for me. I would never judge them for that.

When you leave a football club, the club just keeps barrelling on. But I’m still good friends with Mile Jedinak [the Australian international who was a Crystal Palace teammate for five seasons]. Our families were on holidays together in Portugal recently. I’m not sure if we’ll be each other’s pallbearers! But he’s someone I would speak freely with and whose opinion I’d trust massively.

FOOTBALL NOW, HIM NOW

KS: Have you seen bling and money affect people’s focus?

DD: Oh yeah, completely. You have to accept it’s part of football as well. People often say, Oh, I’d be a lot more professional if I was being paid that. But no, you’d actually be less of a professional because there’d be less need to be a good professional.

The tendency is if you’re guaranteed all that money is to ease off a bit, come in late. But if I signed a good contract, I’d come in earlier again. ‘Right, well done, you earned that, brilliant, now park it. Go get the next one. Get into the next [wage] bracket above you.’

KS: How was an Adebayor? You played with him at Palace.

DD: Ady? Brilliant. One of the most misunderstood players ever. I loved him. He lived in the same building as me. I used to go to training with him in his car, head back with him when the bus would drop us off. Really mannerly, helpful, talkative, a good pro.

KS: You were a good pro yourself. Twenty years on from starting out in professional football, what would you say to any youngster starting out just as you did then? What would be your letter to your 18-year-old self?

DD: My main advice would be to enjoy it. Because that’s why we do it, right? A lot of people forget to enjoy it. But enjoy the tough times, enjoy the good times…

KS: Wait. Enjoy the bad times?

DD: One hundred per cent. Don’t take anything personally. Because if you’re getting involved in professional football, especially at that level in the UK and you expect people to always be nice to you and treat you fairly, you’re in the wrong game. If a manager gives out to you or you get a bad write-up in the paper, don’t take it personally, man. None of it's personal! The manager drops you? He’s just trying to win a game of football and picking a team that he thinks that can.

KS: What were you like after a loss?

DD: I’d be in a bad mood on a Sunday, stay at home, thinking – probably over-thinking – about it. But then you’ve got to let it go, man. By Monday morning, you can’t change it, you can’t get it back. A lot of people let it eat away at them into the following week and it eats then into their preparation for the next game. You can’t let that happen. Park it. Compartmentalise.

And that’s what he continues to do. Compartmentalise. He’s happy with his career, content he gave it his all and knowing he had no more to give.

He’s in no hurry as to what comes next. Roy Hodgson recommended that: take some time out from the game before diving back into it. He’s still observing the game – he’s doing some media work, making excellent contributions to Off The Ball and heads up to Dublin every Saturday to be a panellist on Premier Sport. But no, no big plan, no big rush, just outside moving into a new house with his family in the Rochestown area this week.

His favourite time of day is being up at 6.30am with little Bizhan. And if ever there’s a bit of time to kill, there’s always another Russian history book or podcast to take in.

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