FA Cup Countdown: The pain game

Rory Delap's career has been blighted by injuries, one of which made him miss the 2003 FA Cup final. He is hoping for better luck on Sunday, writes Ian Herbert
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A heavy Christmas programme done and dusted, Rory Delap was restored to his family yesterday for the first of the two days off which the Stoke City squad have been allocated. But there'll be ructions if he's asked to shin up any ladders to dismantle the decorations and you won't catch him taking the stairs two at a time. That's because the FA Cup and Newcastle United lie in wait on Sunday both sources of keen anticipation throughout the Republic of Ireland international's long career, but also footballing landmarks preceded by the injuries that have an unpleasant habit of intervening just when Delap needs them least.

The headline writers had already placed Delap in an FA Cup final five years ago after he had helped Southampton to their Millennium Stadium date with Arsenal but, just to be sure of his fitness he played an extra reserve game and duly ruptured an ankle. The prospect of a Tyne-Wear derby for his next club, Sunderland, at St James' Park two seasons ago was almost as appetising until, playing in a snowstorm against Fulham a week or so before, he ran straight into the back of his team-mate George McCartney and suffered a severed artery in his nose which finished his season. The game was abandoned a few minutes later. Then came his big moment for Stoke; a home debut against Sunderland and Roy Keane the man who had called him in and told him he was surplus to requirements on Wearside. Delap broke his leg in two places that day and another season was over.

So, all told, nothing less than four days in a dark room will do for Delap this week, even though he is sitting down to discuss the Potters' home tie ahead of a 5pm training session on New Year's Eve the kind of regime which shows that the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, who has banned parties for the evening ahead, has hardly been taking any chances with his players.

"It's hard to describe how bad missing the 2003 final felt," recalls Delap, who had a tantalising taste of the ultimate FA Cup experience by playing an important part in Southampton's 2-1 semi-final win over Watford at Villa Park in April 2003, which helped the club to their first final since 1976, Bobby Stokes and all that. "The semi remains my great memory," he says. "We went back into Southampton and all the fans were out and we had a party. It was a great day and a great night."

After the frustrations of Southampton's ultimately futile struggle for top-flight survival, a brief, bitterly disappointing move to Sunderland and last season's horrific injury, Delap's career has been undergoing a belated renaissance at Stoke in a season which has seen the side, who were chasing a play-off place until the last afternoon of last season, send West Bromwich, Charlton and others packing and thrust themselves back into fourth spot with a 10-match unbeaten run.

Yet Stoke was the last place Delap thought he would turn up when Sunderland came in for him in January 2006. Mick McCarthy, under whom he won each of his 11 Irish caps, was then at the helm and the club's chairman, Bob Murray, assured Delap that would remain the case "even if we lost every game until the end of the season". But Delap had played just one and a half games when McCarthy was shown the door. "I played the first one or two games under [Roy] Keane and then he pulled me in and said, 'It's not happening'," Delap recalls. "He said: 'You can stay here. I've not got a problem with you but if you want to be playing football you could do with looking elsewhere. He was honest with me, which is all you can ask, really." That kind of rejection was new for the versatile player, a record 4m buy for Southampton when they signed him from Derby in 2001, and, he concedes "not nice".

In Stoke, he has found a club looking for renewal, much like himself. After eight often turbulent years under the ownership of Icelandic businessman Magnus Kristinsson and his young chairman Gunnar Gislason, the club was bought back in May 2006 by the Bet365 entrepreneur Peter Coates and Pulis, who had left after a disagreement with the Icelanders, was promptly rehired. Announcements in the past few weeks that the club is purchasing the Britannia Stadium for 6m from Stoke-on-Trent city council, that Ricardo Fuller, the club's star striker, is to extend his contract and Senegalese former Liverpool midfielder Salif Diao has signed, adds to a feeling around the Potteries that the club's moment may finally be approaching.

Delap certainly feels that way. "When I came here, the club persuaded me they were looking to push on and Tony Pulis is a big part of it," he says. "He's one of the old school of management. If you're going to act like a big time Charlie he'll let you know about it. The managers I've done well under [Gordon] Strachan, Jim Smith, Mervyn Day have all been like that. It's different to the new style of people like Arsne Wenger but it works. A bollocking doesn't harm you."

There is "a good togetherness" about the club, he feels. "We've had a couple of team-building days and at the Christmas do everyone turned up, which is pretty rare for a club. People don't seem to throw the dummy out if they're not in the side."

A glance around the foyer at the Britannia Stadium reveals just how badly the clubs needs a return to the glory days of the 1970s, which saw Stoke lose to Arsenal in successive semi-final replays in 1970-71 and 1971-2. While the trophy cabinet is full of fairly meaningless pots, the man lifting the FA Cup in the mural on the wall is one Stanley Matthews the Potteries' finest wearing Blackpool's colours in 1953. Stoke's own recent record in the trophy has been so poor that the Oatcake fanzine ran a story a few years back suggesting that the club were to receive a civic reception for knocking out the might of Lewes and Halifax.

But Delap believes there could be another entry in the margins of the trophy's rich history beckoning for him. "It's the competition you're playing in, in your mind, when you're younger," he says. "When you play on the field you play in the FA Cup." His earliest footballing memory was Norman Whiteside's goal for Everton against Manchester United in 1985. "It was probably because my family were Manchester United fans, I don't know, but after I saw that curler I went straight outside that night and practised it." At last, he has another chance to turn that kind of dream to reality.