Goodbye to Rory Delap, long-throwing destroyer

Posted by James Tyler

Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesAt its peak, Rory Delap's throw-in was unstoppable brilliance.

Talk about a buried lede. While the footballing world grapples with Daniel Levy's decision-making skills and the prospect of yet another Champions League failure for Arsenal, there is graver news afoot.

Rory Delap has retired.

While debate is common in soccer, affording us the chance to grumble about the rising cost of TV rights, the amount of money given to agents, foreign owners, name changes and Luis Suarez, it should be remembered that none of them changed the game so profoundly and so briefly as the six-foot-tall midfielder from Sutton Coldfield.

Playing for a disliked team in Stoke and capable of toppling the mightiest opponent -- in 2008, he took out Aston Villa, Everton, Sunderland and Arsenal in a memorable run -- Delap's singular skill temporarily brought the Premier League to its knees.

His weapon was distinctly one-note but forever devastating: the long throw. With a towel, a brief look and a cheeky wink, Delap's fast, flat sideline hurls were a bit of culture-jamming genius, the kind of anarchic subversion from within the system that would make Tyler Durden open a Twitter account.

Opponents feared and perhaps secretly admired Delap in equal measure. He was an awkward physical specimen; his running style mimicked the sensation of wading through molasses. His arms seemed longer than his torso, the real reason he was able to sling those dead-eyed, arc-less throws into the six-yard-box. His physique and technical approach were discussed in the same kind of pseudo-scientific language normally reserved for exit polls and the gait of prize horses.

Sharp of elbow and flat of affect, it was Delap and not Stoke's coterie of leg-snapping butchers that struck a panicked chord with the Prem's upper crust.

Take Arsene Wenger, for example, prime victim of Delap's mighty, two-armed trebuchet.

"It is a little bit of an unfair advantage," moaned the Frenchman in one of his least self-aware tirades back in 2009. "He is using a strength that is usually not a strength in football." So what, we all cry.

Wenger saw Delap's Route One modification as a stain that undid his beautiful football, but all the complaints hinted at an underlying jealousy over Stoke's unassuming fulcrum.

For here was a man who had given an ugly team a chance by simply throwing a ball better than anyone else.

And to think pyramids were inverted, passing was made triangular and Andrea Pirlo had to toil for nearly 20 years and grow a beard before their worth was finally celebrated. All Rory ever needed was a ball, an absorbent rag and a running start.

David Price/Arsenal FC/Getty ImagesArsene Wenger never enjoyed playing Stoke for obvious reasons. Delap, in particular, was a memorable Arsenal villain.


Yet all of Arsene's rending of flesh over Delap's set piece menace, it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. (A special sorry must go to ex-Gunner defender Lee Dixon, who clearly put a lot of thought into this 2008 column.)

As the game could no longer carry such evident one-trick ponies -- Michael Cox handily graphed Delap's raison d'etre in one particularly stultifying 0-0 draw with Wolves -- Delap's pleasingly neanderthal skill could no longer justify his deficiencies elsewhere. Despite pleasing Potters fans on their return to the Prem, Stoke's bid to get sexier (Marc Muniesa! Brek Shea! Um, Charlie Adam!) and more "with the times" led him to dribble down into the second division.

There, a slow-recovering torn hamstring was too much to overcome and after more than 580 appearances for Carlisle United, Derby County, Southampton, Sunderland, Stoke, Barnsley and Burton Albion, the end was nigh.

Increasingly, soccer has made less room and had less patience for the niche, the marginal or the role-player. Brand is everything. Other high-minded, cult legends and artisans like Antonin Panenka and Johan Cruyff (bear with me) blew minds with signature moves like chipped penalties and elegant, hip-swiveling turns, but thankfully boasted substantial reserves of broad skill so as to transcend their calling cards.

Delap, bless him, had his one hit and even then, a light drizzle away from home would prove to be its kryptonite. But what a hit it was, one that prompted Wenger to half-seriously propose that football abolish the throw-in. Though flimsily disguised as a way to speed up the game, Arsene's aim was crude in the extreme. He couldn't beat Delap, so why not ban him? David Beckham's iconic bell curve free-kicks never caused such a fuss.

All that said, Delap will exit the game knowing that he rocked the Prem in ways that few players ever do. Even the last man to manage the Irishman, Burton's Gary Rowett, was nothing but full of praise for a player who suited up just seven times under his charge.

"His attitude and work ethic have been a credit to himself and the invaluable knowledge and experience that he has passed onto the rest of the players here at Burton Albion has been priceless," quoted Rowett upon Delap's early Monday announcement.

Here's hoping he passed along that throw-in, too.

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