Rory Delap: Making Talent Look Ridiculous

You can stick your pretty passing up your inverted enganche. As Rory Delap retires, let's celebrate a man who put the fear into professional footballers with a throw...

Last Updated: 19/12/13 at 09:57 Post Comment

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The throw-in is an odd little thing. It would be impractical to have a pitch that extended horizontally forever, so something needed to be done. And allowing players to kick the ball in - as was once semi-seriously suggested by Mr A Wenger, of north London - would simply lead to endless balls punted into endless mixers, forever and ever and ever, which might not play to Arsenal's strengths.

But the mildly fastidious rules governing the return - arms up to there but no further; feet up to there but no further - have had all manner of unforeseen consequences. We've ended up with the foul throw, one of the great unnecessary cock-ups of football, a joy not just in its own silliness but in the apoplexy it induces in windbag radio commentators, who despair at the crass stupidity of it all. Why don't they just learn? It's not hard! It's a basic skill! Just get it right!

We've ended up with a situation where almost everybody is terrible at using throw-ins to hang on to the ball. Perhaps, deep down, the players are rejecting the very idea of being allowed to use their hands, and their guilty sub-consciences are forcing them to lob the ball weakly towards a badly positioned and well-marked colleague.

We also ended up with Rory Delap, who this week announced his retirement. Perhaps no other footballer has ever spent so much of their time on the wrong side of the touchline, ball in hand, brow furrowed. Certainly no other player has been compared to so many instruments of medieval rock distribution: your trebuchets; your mangonels; your onagers. And for a couple of seasons, under the tender ministrations of Tony Pulis, no other player was capable of sowing more confusion in a Premier League defence.

Delap's long throws were, of course, derided and mocked and tut-tutted over by aesthetes and opposing fans. Not proper football, they said, and they were probably right. But imagine the alternative. Imagine a league entirely populated by teams attempting to play the same kind of football, an entire nation playing good, progressive, passing football, aiming to control possession, weave pretty triangles, and play the game the right way. Imagine the thundering tedium. We'd all be watching rugby union by November. Spice is the variety of cooking, as Confucius once said.

As a historical aside, one of the earliest practitioners of the long throw was none other than Bill Shankly, who Wikipedia claims used to practice the art by hurling footballs over houses. Presumably Delap will likewise achieve immortality in the shape of a sprawling experimental novel, Stoke or Broke...'Rory dried the ball. The round ball. The round ball on the square towel. The Stoke City towel. The towel that belonged to Stoke City. The towel that belonged to the people of Stoke. He threw the ball. The round ball. He threw the round ball through the thin air, through the grey air, through the thin grey air, into the penalty area. The Arsenal penalty area.'

But above and beyond his contributions to variation and interest, Delap's long throws performed an even more vital service. Football, as you're no doubt aware, is a deeply serious business to be taken deeply seriously. The greatness of the great players is to be seriously respected and deeply admired with deep seriousness. These men are heroes. They are brave. They are heroically and bravely serious in deep ways. They have very, very large sponsorship deals. They have very, very large cars.

So it is extremely important that somebody like Delap comes along once in a while and exposes these demi-gods for the frauds they secretly are. Think back to the glory days of that long, flat throw. Think back to the panicked attempts to invert the normal methods of defending, to concede corners rather than throw-ins. Think back to the magnificently petty advancement of the advertising hoardings, and the hiding of towels. Most wonderfully, think back to the fear that spread through the penalty area, as some of the world's finest defensive footballers quivered and flailed like the rankest of amateurs, totally discombobulated by a strange, round, white thing moving towards them in a mysterious and inappropriate way. And smile.

Truly, it was a golden age. Delap spent a few glorious years laughing in the faces of his betters, and that what we're all really here for. You can stick your pretty passing up your inverted enganche. Take some talented players, make them look ridiculous, and football wins. Well, football and Stoke. And Tony Pulis. But that was a price worth paying, right?

Andi Thomas - you can follow him on Twitter, you know, and you can read more of his work at SBNation

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