“I didn’t think I would be in this situation,” said Damien Delaney, days before the biggest game of his life, with some understatement.
The Crystal Palace centre-back thought his career in England was over last summer, after his release by Ipswich Town. He was seriously considering moving to Major League Soccer or even becoming a triathlete.
“I was in limbo,” Delaney remembered. “After three years at Ipswich I was thinking that the Championship is a tough slog. When Ipswich released me I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was speaking to people and they were maybe going to sort something out for me in the States.”
“I genuinely didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought my time in England had come to an end and I was open to options. I spoke to my Dad after I was released at Portman Road and said ‘for the first time in 12 years I’m unemployed’. It’s a scary thought when you’ve been a pro for 12 or 13 years.”
But Dougie Freedman, then manager of Palace, needed a defender.
“I’ll be forever indebted to Dougie [Freedman] for phoning me and brining me down. He was in dire need of a defender as Paddy [McCarthy] had just gone down injured and he was in a bad way. He said to come down and just have a three-month deal, I met the lads. Everyone here is as good as gold and I got a good vibe.”
That is the nature of the Championships, less hierarchical, less predictable than the Premier League. Some teams just click, Palace did, and now Delaney, who might have given up the English game, is 90 minutes away from its peak.
This success has come even despite the departure of the manager. Freedman left in October, Ian Holloway came in and extended Delaney’s short-term deal. “The first day Ollie got the job, the first thing he wanted to do was tie me down. As soon as he said he wanted to keep me, it was just a case of sorting it out.”
Holloway just had to keep the team moving in the right direction.
“He just kept the bandwagon rolling, really, he didn’t try to change too much.,” Delaney said. “He didn’t do too much, he just looked at us, and said ‘you guys have been doing unbelievable’ and just left us guys to crack on really. That’s pretty much it.”
There was a blip and a victory on the last day of the regular season against Peterborough secured Palace’s place in the play-offs. It was not certain, though, with Palace spending most of the game behind, and Delaney – who could have spent this whole season on the beach – suddenly forced to consider his plays for the rest of May.
“When they scored you start thinking ‘shit, here we go’ and at half-time we’re asking for the other results. And even then that when they score a second you start thinking ‘here we go man,’ I’m thinking Expedia when I get home! There’s every chance I could be on holiday tomorrow!”
But Palace won, beat Brighton, and are now facing Watford on Monday. “It’s a game,” shrugged Delaney, who has played GAA at Croke Park in front of as many people as there will be on Monday. “There’s still going to be four white lines and two goals at the end of the day.”