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Sunday 28 May 2017

Damien's Sweet 16 as dream lives on

Making his Premier League debut in '01, Delaney's no flash in pan

Damien Delaney made his Premier League debut at 19 with Leicester
Damien Delaney made his Premier League debut at 19 with Leicester
Damien Delaney

It was a debut which took a young footballer by surprise.

And Damien Delaney, not far off his 36th birthday, is again caught off guard when he's reminded that last weekend was the 16th anniversary of his debut in the Premier League, when the teenager was pitched into the Leicester City side and asked to play away to the then champions Manchester United.

"Sixteen years is a long time. I look at some of our younger players who were only three or four when I made my Premier league debut, that's scary," the former Ireland international told The Herald.

Busy

These are busy times for the Cork native as he helps out in Crystal Palace's battle to stay in the Premier League, starting 20 of their 28 league games to date.

His exile from the Ireland squad - it's a long story but one he is at peace with - means Delaney has time off this week to rest up. But the fact that Delaney is still playing in England's top flight, 16 years after that debut at Old Trafford, is a tribute to his staying power, the only player on the field that day in 2001 still playing at a high level.

So how come Delaney, who less than two years earlier was playing for Cork in an All-Ireland minor final at Croke Park, has lasted so long?

"I never planned too far ahead, it's an old cliché. You just say 'do your best today' and if you keep doing that, you can get a half-decent career together," Delaney reflected.

"I won't say longevity is easy. It is easy to go over and be a flash-in-the-pan, play a couple of games in the Premier League and then disappear.

"I was hoping for longevity. Could I sustain it, if I had a bit of success? Could I keep it up? It was about my mindset."

Delaney says a spell on a FÁS course in Cork under Mick Conroy and the late Paul Bannon helped to prepare him. "Paul was always saying to me that the easy part was getting to England, staying there was the hard part," Delaney says.

He got his move from Cork City to Leicester in 2000 and, after two Cup appearances, had that league debut, in a 2-0 loss to United. Unexpectedly.

"I didn't find out I was playing until just before we left the hotel. I was travelling with the first team but as 19th man, watching the games from the stand.

Excited

"I was just excited to be going to Old Trafford, I thought I was just going to watch," he says. "The manager walked into the meeting room, showed the flip chart with the starting XI but I didn't see I was in it. Ade Akinbiyi, who was sitting beside me, elbowed me to tell me I was starting. It was some United team, the treble-winning team, so it was phenomenal for me to play in it, I remember getting Roy's jersey after the game, and with Denis Irwin - if I remember correctly.

"Denis was the United captain that day - it was good to have three Cork men on the pitch in a Premier League game, it may be a long time before that happens again!"

After two seasons and eight Premier League games with the Foxes, Delaney opted to leave Leicester as he knew chances there would be limited, but his old boss Peter Taylor took him to Hull, then in the fourth tier, for a very happy five years. Spells with QPR and Ipswich followed and after one season with Crystal Palace, he was back in the Premier League, in 2013.

"I absolutely wanted to get back to the Premier League," he says.

"I had started off there and I wanted to play there again. Staying at a Premier club, just getting the odd game and playing in the reserves, it wasn't for me.

"A lot of players like having a Premier League club on their CV, they call themselves Premier League players - but they are not playing, they love the glamour of just being in the Premier League.

"Not me, I was a football player, you don't dream of playing in the reserves.

"I knew the only way to get back to the Premier League was to do it myself, build a career for myself and it worked out for me, it took me 16 f***ing years but I got there."

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