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Dublin: 7°C Sunday 25 October 2020

'I wouldn’t have had it any other way' - how coming through League of Ireland helped make Damien Delaney

Cork City legend Neal Horgan discusses the importance of the League of Ireland with former-international.

Damien Delaney: made the switch from Cork City to the Premier League.
Damien Delaney: made the switch from Cork City to the Premier League.
Image: Andrew Paton/INPHO

“I MET WITH Damien Delaney for a coffee during his off-season in 2016.

“I’d played with him at Cork City at the start of his career, and while I’d spent the next decade and a half at City, he’d gone on to have a fabulous career in England. In October 2000 he moved to Leicester in the Premier League, initially signed by Peter Taylor on the recommendation of his assistant Colin Murphy who’d had a brief stint with Cork City earlier that year.

“After Leicester, Damien played with a number of sides in the lower leagues, including Hull, QPR and Ipswich, before enjoying an amazing Indian summer in his career with Crystal Palace in the Premier League from 2012 onwards.

“When I met up with him in Cork he’d just signed another one-year contract with Palace which would see him turn 37 in the Premiership.”

NH: How long did you play with the Cork City first team before moving on to England? It wasn’t a full season, was it? 

DD: I played with the first team from July to October 2000, I think, before Leicester came in.

NH: So you were moving from a mainly part-time set up with Cork City to a fully professional set up at Leicester. Would it have been better preparation for you if Cork City had been fully professional at the time?

DD: My honest opinion is that I couldn’t have had a better preparation for England than playing with that Cork City side back in 2000. I mean, the team that you and I came into – you run through some of the names: [Pat] Morley, [John] Caulfield, Mark Herrick, Derek Coughlan, Decky Daly. The mentality of those lads. I was a 17- or 18-year-old kid coming into that environment. It was amazing. I saw who they were and what they were and that had a big effect on me. Training meant everything; the games in training were 110%.

NH: I remember the intensity and bite of the training: it was electric.

DD: Yes it was, and they were great players. The mentality of those players had a great effect on me. They were like, ‘We leave it all on field’ – even in training. But then on the other hand, I remember Patsy [Freyne] having a fag after training. So that’s far away from what I know to be a professional attitude now. At the same time, Patsy was a hell of a player. I remember the lads going for pints after games, and coming back from Dublin on away games there were cans all over the bus.

So it was different then. But they helped me in terms of forming my mentality. I needed to recognise and take the good points that those players had, and if I could add the rest on top then maybe I could have a chance – as opposed to going, ‘Oh well, the lads are smoking fags and then having 10 cans on the way home from Dublin, so I’ll do that too.’ So instead I took what a Patsy, a Decky, a Stephen Napier or a Fergy O’Donoghue gave on the pitch and in training and I kept that with me.

NH: Looking back now, was the league itself a help? Was there anything it could have done better?

DD: Well, I suppose the facilities weren’t great. And the travel – the preparation could’ve been better. And some of the training grounds were poor. That being said, it’s not as if I was going out to the Farm and thinking, ‘This isn’t good enough.’ I was just happy to be there. If someone had put seven miles of sh*t in front of me I wouldn’t have cared less; I was going through it. If I was that age now, with all the TV and exposure and professionalism, maybe I’d be asking for it to be better than it was. But would I have gone up to Dave Barry as a young lad and said, ‘Here Dave, what’s the story with the training pitch?’ [Laughing] No chance. 

NH: So you’ll be aware of all the trouble we’ve had in the league over the past few years? I still feel that the league can be a great pathway for players – especially with the underage leagues starting – and I think if we put real investment into it, it could be even better. So for me sitting here, after all these years, it’s great to hear you say that playing with Cork City and in the LOI was so important for your career.

neal-horgan Neal Horgan at the launch of his latest book in FAI HQ in October. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

DD: It was everything, man. Everything. I would never have been the player I am now if I hadn’t played in the League of Ireland. I mean, if you take it back even further – I’ve often thought about it – my father was in goal for Avondale, and when that Avondale team was coming through they played FAI Cup games. They played Derry up in the Brandywell and got stuck in.

I remember they played Shels or Bohs in Dublin and it was the same thing. This Irish mentality – they f**king competed. I was an impressionable 12-year-old, travelling with them up to Dublin. They got beaten but they showed up. 

So every Sunday I used to go to my Dad’s games, home and away. And then you consider the League of Ireland side of it and the GAA side of it and I think all of it coming together has made me what I am. I’d be the first to say I’m not the most talented human being or player in the world. I’ve no problem saying that, when I look at some of the players I’ve trained with or played against over the years. 

NH: So when Leicester called you must’ve been delighted?

DD: Well, yes and no. At that time Cork City was the pinnacle for me. I’d already been over to England on trials: I’d been to Manchester City, Preston… they told me they didn’t want me, so when I came back I remember signing for City and thinking, ‘This is it for me now. I want to be a LOI player.’ And I remember when Derek Mountfield called me and asked if I wanted to go to Leicester on a trial – I had to go home and think about it. That’s the truth. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve done this [going on trials] for two years. I’m not going on trial again; this is f**king bullshit, man.’

Going across there and training with the reserves and you’re like, ‘This is fucking crap.’ So at the time I genuinely didn’t want to go. Why would I, when I was playing here every week for Cork City? I was living at home. I had everything I wanted and I was getting paid €80 a week, which was great for me at the time. I went home and I said, ‘Dad, I don’t know will I bother. Is it worth it? I’ve already been over and been chucked out.’

But he told me I should go over and take a look at least. So I went over with an attitude of, ‘I’ll train for a week and see how it goes.’ Leicester were in the Premier League at the time. But this was different to the other trials.

NH: Was it different because you were under a guy who knew you? [Colin Murphy was Leicester’s assistant manager at the time.] 

DD: Well, yes… but I was going with a different mentality as well. I’d played LOI and come off the FÁS course, played Cork minors and played in Europe. My mindset was, ‘I don’t need this. If you guys don’t want me, that’s fine.’

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-leicester-city-v-charlton-athletic Neil Lennon celebrates a goal with his Leicester teammates. Source: EMPICS Sport

NH: Like a job interview… they say you’re more likely to get a job when you’re already in one. 

DD: Well, I was thinking, ‘If they take me, they take me; and if not I’m happy with what I’m doing at home.’ As I said, my Dad actually had to convince me to go. The difference was when I went over this time they put me with the first team. Not all the time, but on the Monday and the Tuesday I remember training with the first team with Neil Lennon, Matty Elliot, Emile Heskey… all these guys were there. And I remember thinking, ‘This is different; I’m not training with the 18s.’

NH: You felt more wanted?

DD: Exactly, yeah. And I was older too and had played first team over here. 

NH: So would you say ideally players should get blooded here in the League of Ireland before going across?

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DD: It’s the best way to go. For me, I wouldn’t have had it any other way; and I’d never recommend a kid to go into a Premier League academy. 

NH: I remember just before you left, I met you in the gym in Rochestown Park that we used at the time, and you said, ‘You know what? I know what I’m doing.’ You seemed so focused; it marked you apart from others. You obviously took that focus with you when you went across.

DD: When I went to England there was a big ‘looking behind the curtain’ kind of thing going on, because everybody wants to be there. And when I got over there my attitude was, ‘Yeah, they’re good – but I’m fucking better.’ I said to myself, ‘This is it? I can do this.’ Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that a lot of people go over and they’re in awe because they’re used to seeing these people on the telly and they’re like, ‘That’s him there, fucking hell – I was watching him yesterday on Super Sunday! I can’t train here!’ With me it was more like, ‘Yeah, they’re good, but I can do this.’

NH: To sum up: the LOI was massively important for you, wasn’t it? 

DD: It was crucial for me. And I’m not the only one. [Kevin] Doyle came out of it; [Shane] Longy too. Wes [Hoolahan] was here – he went over late and did very well in the end. Keith Fahey was over and back. You look at some of the most successful players in the Ireland team at the moment: they all played in the LOI, and that’s no accident. James McClean played at Derry; Séamus [Coleman] was at Sligo… So the LOI is crucial. Crucial for Ireland.

damien-delaney-and-kieran-sadlier Damien Delaney who returned to play for Cork City at the end of his career, with Kieran Sadlier. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

NH: If you were CEO of the FAI, would you put more emphasis on our league? 

DD: I would, yeah – because a lot of the kids go over to the academies in the UK at 15 or 16. And it’s difficult because they’re going into a world that’s pretty f**king competitive and the chances of making it are low. So one minute you’re the best thing since anything, and then all of sudden you step into the world of Premier League football and you’re probably going to be middle of the road. Because in those Premier League academies now we have kids coming in from Spain, Belgium, Asia, Africa… everywhere. You might lose interest because you’re not progressing or you’ve hit a brick wall. But when Leicester told me they didn’t want me anymore I just said, ‘Fine: there are 91 other clubs in the UK and one of them will take me.’ Because I’d gone over with a different maturity level. That happened to me at 18 or 19, so I was able to process it and deal with it mentally. If it had happened to me at 17, when I had no real-world or first-team experience, I don’t know how I would’ve reacted. Essentially, when the going gets tough you need to have the skills to deal with it, and I got some of those skills from Cork City and from the GAA.

NH: But a younger lad, who comes back at 18 after going over at 16; he must find it very hard… it must feel like rejection, rejection, rejection – possibly for the first time. 

DD: Yeah, I think with the best kids growing up in Cork, Dublin, Kerry or wherever, they’re going to have people falling over backwards for them as they’re the best players in their pool. And then they step out of that world into the Premier League and they’re just another cog. Dealing with that is the most difficult part of it.

damien-delaney Damien Delaney earned nine senior international caps. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

NH: Does that need to happen at 16?

DD: Well for me, the grounding I got over here was key. I had a different mentality; I was coming out of the Cork City team we just spoke about, where you already had the shit kicked out of you in training. When people lost games, they were fighting with you. So I’d learned to deal with that. When I went to England I’d had months of Kelvin Flanagan roaring at me and Decky absolutely tearing lumps out of me. When the going got tough in Leicester I was like, ‘Yeah, this is fine; this is how it is.’ I was more accepting. Maybe Wes, Meyler, Séamus, Jamesie… maybe they all have the same story.

This is an extract from ‘The Cross Roads’ written by Neal Horgan and published by Sportsproview, available in bookstores and on Amazon. 

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Neal Horgan

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