Twenty years have passed since Derek Delany waited in a line full of condemned men.
Twenty years have passed since Derek Delany waited in a line full of condemned men. Ipswich Town were culling their squad at the end of their failed 1998/’99 Premiership promotion bid and so remodelling ahead of another go under George Burley the following season.
Delany, a teenager at the time, knew it was just a matter of his release being formally disclosed. His sole campaign in Norfolk had gone reasonably well and towards the end of the spell, he was training with the reserve and first teams, having performed to a decent level at the U19 grade.
But the required standards were higher than he fathomed beforehand and, thus, he acknowledged his predicament within a matter of weeks of a year-long deal. His agreement was based on 12-month professional terms, as opposed to a three-term YTS contract which would have involved him leaving Blackrock at the end of his fifth year at the De La Salle.
While completing his Leaving Cert is something he’s thankful for, in hindsight, he opted for the shorter, if financially lucrative, proposal as a way of perhaps making Ipswich value him more. It was quite a brave step and given how his life has unfolded since, justifiable. The additional year of maturity had him mentally prepared for the challenge of leaving home, and so the typical struggles of moving away didn’t phase him as it did others.
As the queue into Burley’s office shortened, the colleague a place ahead of him in the order became increasingly dynamic in that he was cock-sure that he would be retained. How, Delany thought?
“You’re literally going into the hangman, as such; you’re told ‘yay’ or ‘nay’,” the former Dundalk FC striker recalls.
“There was a lad ahead of me and I’m thinking, ‘this lad hasn’t a hope’. He was a striker that’d scored seven or eight goals that season and was convinced that he would get a three-year pro contract.
“But within five minutes of him going in I could hear the howls of crying. He came out and couldn’t talk for two or three days; we’d to call around to the house to make sure he was alright. Just delusional, but the belief a lot of those lads have in themselves…
“I would’ve been going over cocky and confident, with full belief, but it’s when you get to England that you realise the lads there genuinely think that they walk on water. You’re up against lads who think they’re the next Alan Shearer.
“You thought you were phenomenal, but you get there and you’re put into your box, and it can take you six-to-nine months to realise; you sort of feel pushed back down by the narrative, they make you feel that they’re much better, much more confident.
“I was totally realistic about it going in to see George. I played a few reserve games and did okay, but I hadn’t done anything to set the world alight. If you rationalise it, back in Dundalk, in the reserve team, I was scoring hat-tricks and getting my break into the first-team bench and then getting on. Over there I was having a good game by making two assists that weren’t finished or having a long-range strike, I wasn’t banging them in and, as a striker, you’re going, ‘let’s be real about this’.
“The belief I had sort of waned because you take a knock in confidence. Even a month or two in, it was like, ‘I’m not going to break through here’, and everybody’s fighting for the same thing over there. Now it must be even more difficult because the money in the game is unimaginable.”
What of ‘the dream’? Delany, like generations before and since, was smitten by English football, hell-bent on qualifying for a life in football’s apparent utopia. But it’s the grand let-down. You’re like a suicide-bomber who perceives all the riches and adoration until he commits the act and burns in hell. The game is the same across the water, only far less enjoyable.
The lesson was a harsh one and for Delany, his most cherished time in the game was actually when he went back to basics, returned to Rock Celtic where a membership fee had to be paid and lotto books sold. There’s a lot to be said for football, and sport, in its purest form.
“If you ask me about my happiest memories in football, everything is with the Rock with Shane Reddish as manager; it was just phenomenal.
“It was back to enjoying it. You hear lads in Dundalk talking about playing being their job and that’s it, and so there was an element of pressure when I was like them and going out on the pitch. Whereas when you went to the Rock there was a freedom to it and you’re looking around the dressing room and there’s 10 to 12 lads who’ve League of Ireland experience and have either played in the UK or youth internationals.
“You’re just among mates and lads you grew up with, and I’d say there were very few junior teams in the country that had the level of experience Rock had in those years.
“Before that, as a young fella, everything until you go away is built towards getting the move and when you do go over, me personally, I can’t remember putting in extra work when I got there. Bryan McCrystal would have been the opposite and should have gone further. Whereas now I’d look back and tell any young fella that that’s actually the starting point.
“It was a great experience but up until going over it was my be all and end all, even though if you analyse it, the percentage of lads who go over and then those who make it, it’s just so rare to get through.
“Steve Staunton is really the only guy to have made it at the top and that’s not really good enough for a ‘football town’ like Dundalk, I would feel. And no disrespect to the man, I would say there were more talented players that have gone over. One of the things you need in football, and particularly when you make the move, is a stroke of luck and a manager that fancies you and puts his trust in you.
“Any of the articles I’ve read recently about the Dundalk lads, there always seems to be a bit of luck missing. Chris Winters, probably the best footballer I’ve seen in the north-east, his injuries were traumatic.
“It’s just strange to me that there’s been nobody who’s made it since. I look at young Jimmy Dunne now, I know he’s on the bench for Burnley in most games and to see that is a success story in itself, but it should be more than that; you wouldn’t want young fellas to be getting dismayed by that.”
Now a juveniles coach within the Rock, the message he tries to convey makes him a hypocrite in the most genuine of ways. Going away is not everything, albeit convincing that to those the age of his seven-year-old son, Ben, is understandably thankless in an era of wall-to-wall Premier League marketing.
Ipswich was, in Delany’s words, a “phenomenal club” and he remains a keen follower of their Saturday afternoon results. There was a two-decade later reunion of his academy squad last year and while he wasn’t able to make it over for the particular commemoration, he draws comfort from the fact that his wife, Kathryn, at least, has proof that his once-upon-a-time journey was as he tells it.
The couple went to watch Manchester United and Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford in 2007, a game in which one of Delany’s former Tractor Boys colleagues, Titus Bramble, was attempting to halt the genius of Ronaldo and Rooney from the heart of Wigan’s defence.
He hung around post-match, in the hope that Wigan players may go back out for a warm-down, and when Bramble emerged, a whistle-shrill later, the old chums were deep in conversation.
“It was even great for the missus to see, ‘ah, Jesus, he wasn’t full of crap; he actually was close’,” Delany quips.
Incidentally, a teammate in a later time spent at Drogheda United, Stuart Taylor, is now assistant manager of Town, having coached Limerick earlier in his career post-playing.
Mention of that comes amid reflection on the path which led him to east England. A member of a strong Dundalk FC U17 team competing in the Dublin leagues in advance of his 16th birthday, Delany’s progress was understandably tracked. Indeed, he was given his Lilywhites senior debut by Jim McLaughlin as a 17-year-old in a game against Shamrock Rovers and from there his appearances tally rose into double-figures.
However, it was at the Milk Cup where he and fellow Rock clubman David McGeough were spotted. Ipswich and Stoke City courted Delany, while his mate drew the eyes of the latter, who were struggling in the lower reaches of the Championship table.
“I just didn’t warm to the area, the Potteries; it even sounds depressing,” Delany says of his trial period at Stoke. “And I think David McGeough would agree with this, they didn’t really go out of their way to show us the town and to make it look homely. We were just two young lads, rabbits in the headlights, going, ‘this is so boring’.
“Whereas Ipswich really sold me the bullshit going over, ‘you’re the next Kieron Dyer’ and you’re like, ‘I’ve already made it… Will I buy the Porsche now?’ But I think I recognised within a couple of months that I should’ve signed for Stoke because they were at the bottom of the Championship, about to be relegated, and so getting rid of their top earners; I think David McGeough might have got on to the bench a couple of times. Ipswich were challenging for the Premiership and trying to use their budget to buy big.
“I remember going over on trial to Ipswich and being on fire, and they’d have been like, ‘we need to sign this lad’. I was banging them in and I remember scoring a hat-trick from right-full - they were trying me in different positions. You were just so sharp.
“You’d have been over every few weeks for a weekend or to play a match and towards the end of fifth year, the April, I was over for the two weeks of mid-term and I was horrendous; shocking. And I was shocking for the two weeks, it wasn’t just one bad game.
“You could just see how the English lads that’d gone in the previous year had settled; they were bigger, stronger and sharper. They’d eight or nine months of full-time training behind them and I’d sort of missed the boat.”
Nonetheless, after his tenure failed to yield a further stint, Delany was thrown a lifeline by Burley’s assistant, former Celtic player John Gorman, the man who had taken the youngster into the senior fold over the closing months of the term. A trial at clubs in Scotland would just be a phonecall away, Gorman assured Delany, if he desired another go at the British game.
Hence he could have gone the Colin Larkin route and kept himself going in the lower leagues, but having had the experience of League of Ireland football with his hometown club, the lure of Oriel Park was too great.
“There’s a lot to be said about living in your own town and playing for Dundalk; there was an element of happiness and security there. I think had I not had the experience of playing for Dundalk, it would have been a lot more difficult coming back, feeling like a failure.”
He featured under Terry Eviston during the club’s First Division days, beginning a PLC course prior to enrolling on a four-year business studies programme at DkIT, before moving on to Drogheda, who’d finished at the foot of Division One the year previously.
A young squad, which contained his old Dundalk teammate Paudie Gollogley, won promotion from nowhere and the following season, Delany took the Premier Division by storm, banging in three goals in as many matches before injury struck.
The Drogs tabled a fresh deal, followed by another as he reached three-and-a-half seasons at United Park. The Boynesiders, under Paul Doolin, were loosening the purse strings and requested players to commit on a more full-time basis, which Delany wasn’t open to due to the looming, final year of his degree.
Spells in the north preceded a transfer back to Rock, where he won three North-East Football League Premier Division titles. Though, he reckons, “we should’ve won more”.
Democrat: “Did you achieve anything internationally?”
Delany: “I got a trial when I was over with Ipswich for the Irish U18 team. I went, scored a hat-trick and was thinking, ‘happy days, I’ll definitely get a call-up’, but I got no call-up!”
Democrat: “Who was the manager?”
Delany: “Brian Kerr was the manager.”
Democrat: “Brian Kerr isn’t best liked in this part; maybe that’s the reason why?”
Delany: “Maybe. Had I put on a Dublin accent I may have got in!”
McLaughlin knew better, however, during his second coming as Dundalk manager.
“I would’ve known Jim because he was living in the Rock and I’d have been friends with his son, Marty. Jim would’ve given me a bit of advice going over to the UK and for me, Jim was my mate’s Dad and I think it was only later on that I realised that I was given my debut by Jim McLaughlin and that it was actually something to write home about.
“We didn’t see his best years, because they’d been back in the ’70s and ’80s, but when you see what he’s done in the game, and he’s still yet to be beaten… You see Stephen Kenny getting the Irish job and think, ‘Jim McLaughlin must’ve been something serious’. I’m actually really proud to have got my debut under him.”
And there is a story, too. A night out with Marty, minus alcohol, ahead of the St. Stephen’s Day trip to Finn Harps et al.
“We were back at Jim’s house at about one o’clock and we were getting the bus the ‘next’ day to travel up, so I tried to let on that I wasn’t at Jim’s house and I wasn’t late for the bus or anything.
“But we got up there and Jim told me that I wasn’t even going to be on the bench, that I was going to be doing the kit and getting the water for the lads; ‘don’t ever try and pull the wool over my eyes’.
“It was an awakening to think that while he mightn’t say much, he doesn’t miss anything!”
Derek’s late father, Dick, formerly the owner of The Neptune in Blackrock, was fairly on the pulse too, especially when it came to betting knowledge. Indeed, the Ipswich directors were always pleased to see his arrival from Ireland as it usually guaranteed a few successful racing tips.
Not that it was enough for Town to offer Derek a new deal, he chuckles.
Furthermore, Delany laughs, the shrewd gambling instincts haven’t been passed on, although Derek’s own kids have inherited some of his sporting prowess. Kate (15) is a national-class swimmer, Lily (11) has won kickboxing medals at European and World standard, while young Ben is a prospect at Sandy Lane, with Molly (5) finding her feet.
Ben has begun inquiring about his father’s Dundalk career and if anyone asks, it’s advisable to go along with what he has already been told.
“I’m telling my young fella that that was me, like Pat Hoban!”