Ah, Damien Delaney. Not many players go unappreciated quite like he does. It happened during most of his long Hull City career, which racked up 224 league appearances in three divisions and yet saw him leave in January 2008 for big money with little more than a casual wave. Yet once Peter Taylor realised that his old charge from Leicester, signed as a rubicund 21 year old in 2002, was most comfortable in the centre of defence, he was a model of consistency, a dependable presence, a very decent footballer indeed.
As we approach a scenario where a 35 year old Delaney and his chums at Crystal Palace could relegate us from the Premier League this weekend, perhaps we ought to show some long overdue love for a player whose lengthy service was crucial during a definitive, life-enhancing era for City supporters. He has always deserved it. As we pick out five moments from his City career that take us through his five years and three months in black and amber, we do so while still hoping he has a stinker on Sunday…
1: The last (City) goal at Boothferry Park
Delaney only scored five goals for City, spreading them quite evenly in doing so, but the first of those goals is as remarkable and as historic as any other in Hull City history that you could care to name, because it represented the last cause for celebration at our grand old ground.
All of it has a most fetid whiff of Typical City about it. Delaney was playing only his seventh game for the Tigers, and had been somewhat underwhelming thus far as an awkward, one-paced left back. Even in the seconds that had elapsed before he scored in the 50th minute, he had swung a foot hurriedly and unconfidently at the ball in the Boston United penalty area which found only an opponent, and the groan on Bunkers Hill, not the first to be aimed Delaney’s way, was emphatically audible.
Fortunately, that opponent (the excellently named Alex Higgins) screwed up too, losing the ball instantly in a challenge which ricocheted it back to Delaney. He then put in a quite brilliant cross from the side of the area; quite brilliant because it chipped the goalkeeper and nestled in at the far post.
City won the game, the penultimate one at the old place, by that solitary goal and lost the final one by the same scoreline to Darlington, a game Delaney missed. So when we glance at the typicalcityometer, we have before us an unconvincing player scoring a fluke goal which would become part of club folklore until the end of time because City couldn’t get another one in 130 remaining minutes of football at Boothferry Park. And the real last goal at Boothferry Park was scored by Simon Betts, a Darlington player. But fortunately, for City and for Delaney, things would improve.
2: Centre back
Delaney had been City’s first signing under Peter Taylor, who had given him his full debut at Leicester in 2001. Taylor’s sacking at the start of the 2001/02 season meant the beginning of the end for Delaney at the old Filbert Street ground. The new manager, Dave Bassett, sent him on loan to Stockport and Delaney played well in midfield there, scoring his first career goal, before going on further loan spells at Huddersfield and Mansfield, prior to coming to City permanently in October 2002 for £50,000. He was one of a number of players signed by Taylor who had a recent Stockport connection, thanks to the assistant manager at Edgeley Park, Colin Murphy, leaving his role to become Taylor’s number two.
Shortly after Delaney arrived, Taylor signed Marc Joseph, a signing that rankled with City fans as he was stealthily introduced as the replacement for iconic skipper Justin Whittle. With the almost ever-present John Anderson, a summer signing by Jan Mølby of whom Taylor initially approved, occupying the other centre back spot, Delaney’s time at left back seemed set to be an elongated one and as he struggled to convince, old stagers like Andy Holt were still getting the odd look-in, especially when Delaney’s perceived versatility led to him being thrown under the bus a bit by his manager through sporadic assignments as an attacking midfielder which didn’t suit him.
Right to the end of that season, which ended in a mid-table finish, Delaney was either an awkward left back or a guileless midfielder. It didn’t look good. Then two things happened that transformed Delaney’s fortunes.
Firstly, Taylor decided that both Anderson and Whittle weren’t for him. Both were in their 30s and Taylor wanted a more youthful, mobile centre of defence. He continued to persevere with Joseph and bought Richard Hinds, but it still didn’t seem right. Anderson spent eight months in the reserves, never to play for City again (a textbook case of the mighty falling) while Whittle had a spell in the side during a Joseph injury prior to being dropped for the new boy, infamously, at Huddersfield. But whether it was Joseph, or Whittle, they needed a partner, especially after Hinds was shifted to right back after the first of numerous injuries for new signing Alton Thelwell. And so Delaney got the call.
Secondly, Andy Dawson arrived.
Delaney and Dawson. Left-footed defenders who would become very familiar with one another. Dawson, a freebie from Scunthorpe, arrived with an injury and missed the first five games. Then, on a Monday night trip to Doncaster with the TV cameras present, Taylor gave a fit-again Dawson his debut at left back and moved Delaney across to the centre, alongside Whittle. The game was foul, a goalless scrap of nothingness, but Delaney looked comfortable, as he subsequently always would. He played every single minute of every league game, won the player of the year award and City were promoted as runners-up, emerging from the cheerless bottom tier after an eight-year incarceration.
Notably, when Dawson was out for six weeks in the spring, Taylor gave Holt a swansong and shuffled Thelwell across before finally admitting he didn’t have a replacement for his new left back of whom he approved, and so Delaney made a couple of returns to old territory. City won one and lost one, but the confidence now instilled in Delaney meant he could look like a workable, if short-term, left back without the Circle reprising the familiar groan from Bunkers Hill.
And, during this magnificent breakthrough season for Delaney, something else happened…
3: Goal of the season
His second goal for the club. So, the first was the last by a City player at Boothferry Park; the second a spectacular strike from distance after a flowing run from the middle of the pitch – and again, it was the only goal of the game, scored late, helping City close in on promotion. Delaney could really pick his moments. It remains one of the best scored by a City player at the Circle.
He got one more that season, another counter-attacking monster of a goal in a 3-0 win over Bristol Rovers on the last day when City were already up, and which allowed him to prove that his right foot was not just for standing on.
Only two more would follow – the last in a 4-0 shoeing of Bournemouth in 2004/05 (his only away goal) as City chased a second straight promotion, and a close-range effort in a 4-1 win over Cardiff City in 2006/07, when Phil Brown had just taken over. But before that…
4: Midfield madness
Phil Parkinson’s arrival in the summer of 2006 didn’t affect Delaney too much compared to others in the squad Taylor had bequeathed the new manager, but eventually things got so desperate that the Irishman became susceptible. Parkinson, a young manager with a great reputation, was struggling to instil his beliefs, both in training and tactics, on a sceptical squad of senior professionals and the team was in dire straits.
The arrival on loan of Danny Mills, an irascible, self-important international who had never played as a centre back in his life meant Delaney, who had also suffered an ankle injury in training, had momentarily lost his place, but by October he was fit and back in the team. Sunderland’s visit at the end of the month was one of those occasions that left everyone a noxious mixture of angry and bewildered.
Parkinson started with a flat back four, featuring Mills, Dawson and his two new signings Sam Ricketts and Michael Turner. But also on the teamsheet was Delaney. Assumptions that City would be playing five at the back were quickly scotched when the teams lined up at kick off, and Delaney was on the left side of midfield.
Sunderland were, at the time, finding their feet after an equally slow start, but Roy Keane had arrived as manager and it was clear from their absolute domination of this game their blip was temporary. The same couldn’t be said of City, and only rotten Sunderland finishing maintained parity right to injury time. As notable as any other individual shortcoming on the pitch was that of Delaney, as clearly unhappy and underprepared as any player put in an erroneous position could look.
He had started his career as a midfielder, and had played all of his loan spell at Stockport in the middle of the park. But now he was being asked to play in a brand new position against dangerous opposition in a struggling team when there had been no reason to eject him from the defence. We saw, briefly, evidence of the self-aware, woebegone Delaney who had been at left back under Taylor when there had been little other alternative. And when Ross Wallace scored the winner from a quickly taken set-piece in injury time, the vitriol aimed at Parkinson boiled over into the first calls for his head.
Defiantly, Parkinson did it again three days later at Southend, and City won the game 3-2. The opposition were not in Sunderland’s class (as proved by their eventual relegation and Sunderland charging up the table to win the title) and Parkinson made changes further up the field. Delaney looked a little more at ease, even though the obvious problem was the manager’s need to accommodate Mills, a player who for all his talent, was toxic and ill-positioned. His loan ended a week later, Delaney moved back into defence, and although Parkinson didn’t survive much longer, it felt like some order had been restored.
5: Six hundred and fifty grand
Delaney settled back into the centre of defence and under Phil Brown, was part of the City team that stayed up with a memorable win at Cardiff that made City darlings of the globe and contenders for the George Cross due to the added effect of relegating Leeds United. The following season he remained an important performer before a sudden, lucrative and rather unmarked departure.
Brown signed his namesake Wayne Brown from Colchester, a more instantly defensive option at centre back who didn’t go on flowing runs and wasn’t as keen to pass the ball great distances. Whether he was a better footballer than Delaney was moot indeed – given the career paths of the two afterwards, the question is answered much more easily today – but there was no doubt he was a success alongside the peerless Turner at the back as City got the 2007/08 campaign underway.
Delaney was, therefore, a left back again, and a far more comfortable one than he had previously been in the last throes of Boothferry Park. Experience, success, familiarity, contentment, seniority, all played their part in turning him into a defender who could play in either of the left-centric positions in the back four. But there was one problem: Dawson.
The first choice left back was incomparable in the role. In the early part of the 2007/08 season, however, he was suddenly a right back (and a ludicrously out of sorts one) when Ricketts got a ban and the manager had no ready-made replacement. So Dawson shuffled across to use the outside of his good foot a lot more, and Delaney came back into the team. Dawson picked up an injury afterwards, and Delaney spent the autumn and much of the winter at left back, rarely putting a foot wrong. He had become a squad player and, in an improving team and still only 26 years of age, a very useful one. But there was always the knowledge in everyone’s mind that when Dawson was fit again, he’d be playing.
The two rotated in December and January as Dawson approached full match fitness and the fixtures congested over the festive season. It was good management by Brown, and both players made high-calibre contributions to some difficult games. It was notable, however, that on many occasions, Brown didn’t need both. Whoever was not picked to play at left back did not make the bench, and only one of these two fine footballers was regarded as an out-and-out left back.
Delaney played 82 minutes of a 3-1 home defeat to Championship leaders West Bromwich Albion on 12th January 2008. The TV cameras were there and, despite City’s defeat, it was a superb game of football. Rumours had started to circulate about a bid from QPR but nothing had been rubberstamped, and as City were 2-1 down at the time and Brown needed to put more attackers on, it certainly didn’t feel like a substitution that would allow a crowd and a popular player to bid farewell to one another. Nevertheless, the following Thursday, the deal was confirmed.
Tabloid newspapers claimed it was a £1.2m deal, and the clubs irksomely made details of Delaney’s switch undisclosed but eventually £650,000 was the figure that kept coming up. Even at half of the speculated fee, a 1,200 per cent profit felt like very good business, a factor that nullified the sadness in seeing a terrific footballer and proper club man leave, especially as City were evidently moving on to good things.
The manager signed Neil Clement on loan from, coincidentally, West Brom to provide left-footed cover in defence and was then forced to use political outcast David Livermore as a centre back when Clement was recalled by his parent club, not unnaturally concerned that he was playing more than adequately for a direct promotion rival. Livermore’s sitting duck performance in a defeat at Sheffield United that pretty much ended City’s hopes of automatic promotion made a few City fans wonder if hanging on to Delaney until the summer might have been wiser. Nonetheless, Wembley glory beckoned and we all moved on, Delaney included.
Delaney made the first of his nine international appearances for the Republic of Ireland on the same day of City’s promotion, but generally had an up and down time at QPR before joining Ipswich in 2009. After suffering a blood clot on his leg that required limb-saving surgery, he was briefly successful at Portman Road but then lost his place and left by mutual consent in 2012 following a period of only one match in a whole year. From there, at 31, he joined Crystal Palace.
Unheralded at his post-City clubs up to now, he became a dynamic and consistent presence at the heart of the Palace defence, openly weeping on TV when they won promotion to the Premier League in 2013, via the same method he had just missed out on with City five years before. On August 18th 2013, a 32 year old Delaney made his first appearance in the top tier of English football in ten and a half years. And there he remains, a veteran, a better defender than ever and, despite his longevity in the game, still an enigma. He is notoriously reluctant to give interviews, preferring to do his talking in the most wonderfully clichéd way of all – on the pitch.
It’s hard to imagine not loving a player who put in 224 shifts in league football for your club, during which time you were promoted twice and on the verge of a unique third at the point it came to an end, but that feels like the case with Delaney. When you consider the career paths of both player and club since his departure, it’s not unfathomable to think that he was underrated by his last manager at City, especially as Brown had endless problems at centre back after promotion to the Premier League. Hindsight dictates this, of course, but the way Delaney has adapted to Premier League football since elevation with Palace four years ago is little short of sensational, when you consider the hapless left back and isolated makeshift midfielder of his early days, a player whose loan spells were at clubs that subsequently dropped into the non-league pyramid.
That last goal at Boothferry Park is probably what principally keeps Delaney in the minds of City fans to this day, as we approach a decade since he left the club, but it’s unfair. Quirks of fate like that make Delaney more of a cult hero than anything else, but that does him a disservice. He was and is a great player; a proper Hull City hero.
Damien Delaney joined Hull City on October 16th 2002 and left on January 17th 2008. He made 224 league appearances for the club, scoring five goals. He also made 15 further senior appearances. He won promotion with City in 2003/04 and 2004/05 and contributed to promotion to the Premier League in 2007/08.