Play to your strengths. It’s one of the most valuable lessons in football, so why did Stoke City receive endless criticism for doing just that with their touchline tactics under Tony Pulis? An average of 40-60 throw-ins per match makes it the most common set-piece, so how could you blame a manager for making the most of such a prevalent feature of the game?
It’s August 2008. Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ tops the charts. Marvel’s ‘Iron Man’ hits the big screen. Spain have just been crowned champions of Europe, while in England, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are all pulling the strings for their respective sides in the Premier League. And in the Midlands, a certain Rory Delap is also pulling the strings, he’s just doing it a little differently…
The midfielder started out at Carlisle United in the Third Division as it was known then, before quickly becoming a regular in the top-flight with Derby, Southampton and Sunderland. He even spent short spells at Barnsley and Burton Albion before retiring in 2013, while also featuring briefly for the Republic of Ireland on the international stage.
He will, however, almost always be known for his time with Stoke, perhaps unsurprising given the seven years spent at the Britannia was the longest he remained at one club. But by no means is that the only reason that Potters fans will cherish him more than any other group of supporters. At six foot, Delap could have found himself bombing into the box when the ball went out of touch, but he was given a much more important role.
A javelin thrower in his youth, his ability to launch a throw-in with both accuracy and distance was never a secret. In the 2007/08 Championship campaign, his long-range throws directly led to eight goals, playing a crucial role in the club’s second-place finish and first-ever promotion to the Premier League. But it wasn’t until their debut season in the competition that Delap, under Pulis, became a truly undefendable force.
The manager kicked things off by narrowing the pitch at the Britannia to the lowest limit permissible. The plan worked to perfection immediately, when Abdoulaye Faye headed in a 93rd-minute winner from a Delap throw against Aston Villa in their first home game of the season. The tactic was tried and tried again because, put simply, no one could stop them. Tipped by the media, pundits and just about everyone to straight back down at the start of the campaign, they secured 12th spot, winning 12 times and scoring 38 goals. Nine of those goals came directly from throw-ins.
The midfielder couldn’t, however, do it all alone. Over his four seasons as a regular starter at the club, Delap was joined by the towering Faye, Ryan Shawcross, Andy Wilkinson and Robert Huth at the back, with Ricardo Fuller, Jonathan Walters, Kenwyne Jones, Peter Crouch and Cameron Jerome all benefitting in front of goal.
The continuous bombardment for 90 minutes dumbfounded managers galore, with the likes of Sam Allardyce, Luiz Felipe Scolari and David Moyes all voicing their discontent. Their frustrations fell short of Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, however, who went as far as suggesting a rule change when two rockets launched from the arms of Delap saw the Gunners fall to a 2-1 defeat.
But in football, as in life, nothing is permanent. For a variety of reasons, the novelty slowly wore off. Opponents learned how to defend against the set-piece, while some soon realised that if Pulis can play dirty, they can too, with West Ham going as far as moving their advertising boards to prevent Delap from getting a decent run-up. Nine league goals from Stoke throw-ins in 2008/09 fell to five and four in 2009/10 and 2010/11 respectively.
Love it or hate it, it worked, and it worked for several years before the inevitable downfall. Delap ended his Premier League career with 21 assists in 359 appearances, the majority of those coming from the touchline in the club’s red and white stripes. Interestingly, however, they are certainly not the only side to have spent time exploiting the set-piece.
Back to modern times and, like their throw-in success rate, the club’s on-field performances have gradually declined. Languishing dangerously close to the relegation zone in the Championship, it’s been a huge fall from grace for a side who once sat comfortably in the English top-flight for so long.
It’s been a decade since Delap’s throw-ins were in full swing, and while something similar may never be witnessed again, there is some solace in the knowledge that he is still playing an important role at the club, this time in a coaching capacity. Moreover, his son Liam is proudly representing the family name as he continues to impress in Manchester City’s youth setup. Whether or not he can outshine his father’s legacy in English football in the years to come remains to be seen.