Breaking into a sweat in the Spanish sun is one thing, but it was something else altogether that had Barnsley’s players feeling a little flushed during a recent stay in Marbella.
David Flitcroft’s squad had got together to watch Manchester City’s Premier League victory over Chelsea on their first afternoon away and according to Rory Delap, the Yorkshire club’s experienced midfielder, the sight of City in full flow led to “a few nervous laughs” and more, as the size of Barnsley’s task in tomorrow’s FA Cup quarter-final became fully apparent. “We watched the Chelsea game the other week as a team together and probably maybe shouldn’t have to be honest – there were a few sweating,” Delap says with a smile.
“Normally you watch bits of games but we all sat there and had a bit of craic. There were a few nervous laughs,” he adds. “We’re not stupid enough to think we’re going to go and outplay them, especially at their place, but you’ve just got to hope that on the day they don’t perform.”
If there are butterflies in the Barnsley ranks, though, there might also be a few nerves in the City side tomorrow should Delap get the opportunity to launch a few of his famous long throws into the home penalty area. After all, it was in the fifth round three seasons ago that he helped Stoke City overcome Roberto Mancini’s side, his deliveries into the box setting up the equaliser in the 1-1 draw at the Etihad and another goal in their 3-1 replay success. “We got one at their place [from Ricardo Fuller] to get the draw and we got a goal off it [by Ryan Shawcross to make it 2-1 in the replay] as well. It works sometimes. If I take 100 throws it could work twice,” says the 36-year-old ex-Ireland international.
Delap spent six years as a Stoke player before his January loan switch to Oakwell – midfielder Jim O’Brien walks by with a camera crew and jokes it is all he ever talks about – and during that time those throws became a prominent feature of Tony Pulis’s team’s attacking game. “Different managers, all throughout my career, have used it differently,” he reflects. “At Stoke it was well-publicised and used a lot. At Carlisle I used to do it in the last 10 minutes or so if we were losing, and the same at Southampton really, Derby used to use it to get in behind the defence.
“The thing that was different at Stoke was I was probably one of the smallest in the team – at over 6ft – which obviously helps with throw-ins. We had four or five different options in the box at the same time. Most teams have three or four at the most.” It brought the glare of the spotlight too though he offers a characteristically down-to-earth response when asked how it felt to become famous for his throw-ins. “It blew up for a couple of months a few years ago. People still ask me about it but it doesn’t bother me as long as I am playing somewhere.”
That somewhere tomorrow will be the Etihad with a Barnsley side sitting third-bottom of the Championship. There will be 6,000 Tykes fans and for Delap, it is a chance to make up for the last time he faced City on a “disappointing” Wembley afternoon when, as he recalls, neither team performed to their potential as Mancini’s men won 1-0 in the 2011 Cup final. “I don’t think they were at their best that day but we let ourselves down. I don’t know what it was, but everyone seemed to look a bit lethargic – both teams – and they just took advantage. I don’t know if it was nerves that got to us,” says Delap for whom it was a second taste of Cup final heartache after missing Southampton’s 2003 loss to Arsenal due to injury.
Barnsley’s prospects of reaching a Wembley semi-final may be slight but they should at least be well-briefed by Flitcroft, a young manager fast earning a reputation for his willingness to think outside the box. As Delap explains, nowhere at his five previous clubs has he encountered the kind of pre-match preparation chosen for their 3-1 fifth-round win at MK Dons when Flitcroft took his whole squad along to Doncaster to scout their opponents in a League One fixture. “He’s looking for new things. It was a good thing for us. As he said, if you take one thing out of the game it’s worth going.”
Delap is only three years younger than Flitcroft, the 39-year-old promoted from assistant manager to replace the sacked Keith Hill in January, yet he is impressed by the methods of a man getting the best out a group including Jacob Mellis, sacked by Chelsea for letting off a smoke grenade at the training ground, Kelvin Etuhu, the City academy graduate imprisoned in 2011 after a casino brawl, and ex-West Ham Cup semi-final hero Marlon Harewood. Delap adds: “I played against [Flitcroft] at the start of my career [for Carlisle against Chester]. He speaks to a lot of managers and he’s so eager to learn. He’s brought a lot of qualities.”
This includes a positive mindset that has yielded eight wins and just two defeats from their last 12 matches. Flitcroft’s family connection – brother Garry made his name as a midfielder with City in the 1990s – gives tomorrow’s tie romance and Delap hopes for some more on the Etihad pitch after this season of surprises in both cup competitions. “You look at teams like Bradford and what they did and it’s got to give you inspiration. We just hope we can perform on the day.” And, of course, that City are not at their fear-inducing best.