When he arrived at Aston Villa, Fabian Delph made headlines for claiming there were ghosts in his hotel. By making the most of this rare first-team opportunity, he came back to haunt Gus Poyet.
Setting aside the spectre of a struggle to avoid relegation to League Two, the Brighton manager seemed almost pleased to have been undone by the player to whom he and the then Leeds manager, Dennis Wise, handed a first-team debut at the age of 16. Poyet even reminisced wistfully about how Delph, now 20, literally got his teenage kicks by clattering into him, the then first-team coach.
"We played every Thursday afternoon, the staff against the under-16s," the Uruguayan said. "Fab looked very skinny and small, but when you started playing against him and saw how tough he was, even if he wasn't strong in physical build, you said: 'This boy is ready'. He had a few clashes in those games. More with Dennis than with me, as Dennis would tell you."
The midfielder has started only two Premier League matches since his transfer for £6m, possibly rising to £8m, last summer. Poyet had waited in the tunnel to offer encouragement. "Remember he came from League One," said the Uruguayan, an FA Cup winner with Chelsea against Villa in 2000. "You can do things there that the opposition can't cope with, but when you're playing in the middle against internationals, you can do it once, but you won't do it twice. Fab has to change his game depending on who he's up against. I think he can be very important for Villa over the next four or five years. I'm sure he'll improve because he has great players around him. He just needs to wait and learn."
Like Poyet, Martin O'Neill has seen his feisty side, the Villa manager saying: "There's a nasty streak in him that I have to curb a wee bit, but he tells me that's how they play the five-a-sides at Leeds – that they went through each other." He has the perfect role model in James Milner, a veteran of 24 who also made the Leeds side at 16. O'Neill believes that by becoming stronger and working daily with Milner, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, Delph can rise in the pecking order. "He's not fazed one bit, never has been since day one," he said.
Milner came on as an substitute when Villa led through 18-year-old Nathan Delfouneso's goal. Tommy Elphick's riposte raised the hopes of 6,000 supporters from Sussex who generated an old-fashioned FA Cup atmosphere – until the Leeds "old" boys got to work. Young's header and Delph, gliding round a defender before shooting, left Brighton with only a ghost of a chance although Nicky Forster belatedly gave the ring of respectability to the scoreline.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; L Young, Collins, Beyé , Warnock (Davies, 50); Albrighton (Milner,13), Sidwell, Delph, Downing; A Young (Lowry, 86), Delfouneso. Substitutes not used: Friedel (gk), Agbonlahor, Petrov, Clark.
Brighton & Hove Albion (4-4-2): Kuipers; Calderon, Virgo, Elphick, McNulty; Bennett (Dickinson, 65), Crofts, Navarro Cox, 74), Dicker (Carole, 65); Murray, Forster. Substitutes not used: Brezovan (gk), Tunnicliffe, Hart, Hoyte.
Referee: A Taylor (Cheshire).
Booked: Aston Villa: Collins. Brighton: Navarro, Dickinson.
Man of the match: Milner.
Attendance: 39,725.Reuse content