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The Big Interview: Delaney - Southgate thought I was a mascot!

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The Big Interview: Delaney - Southgate thought I was a mascot!

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Mark Delaney has an air of authority now as he coaches the Villa U16 side on the back an action-packed eight year claret and blue career - but his start at the club was far from assured.

Delaney was focused and determined as he sat on the Cardiff City coach on the way to an away game, with the Bluebirds top of the old Third Division in March 1999.

When he arrived, manager Frank Burrows called him to one side and said: "You're not playing tonight. We've sold you to Aston Villa."

The words shock and astonishment don't really do his emotions justice as looks back at that monumental meeting.

"I'd only been at Cardiff City for eight months after signing from League of Wales side Carmarthen Town. I was finding my feet at that level - and then Villa came in for me.

"I found it incredible that I was being looked to play at that level. It was daunting and scary when the manager told me I was off to the Midlands. I was shocked to say the least.

"Cardiff were doing really well. We were flying high and we had a lot of young players so there were a few scouts watching us.

"But I didn't think for one minute they'd be looking at me.

"I was ready to stay at Cardiff for many more years. It's one thing to go from Carmarthen to Cardiff but then to go from Cardiff to Villa in the Premier League was huge. Then a few months later I was called up by Wales.

"It just didn't seem right. It was something I had dreamt about. But to come that quickly, it's still amazing to think about now.

"So I was sold and the next day my dad drove me to Villa. They were playing Derby away.

"I got my tracksuit and ended up on the bus with the players, the likes of Gareth Southgate, Stan Collymore, Mark Bosnich, Dion Dublin and Paul Merson.

"I didn't say anything for the whole journey. It was surreal. They didn't know who I was. They had no idea why I was there.

"I actually wonder whether they thought I was a mascot for the game at Pride Park. For me it was amazing, though, incredible.

"But I was fine after that. The good thing is I joined in March. I had two or three months to find my feet. I was never under any pressure to get into the first team immediately.

"Steve Harrison took me under his wing and developed me. The coaching staff obviously saw something and were prepared to wait."

They didn't wait that long, though!

In fact, his first game for the claret and blues came within a month of joining the club when he replaced Steve Stone in the 3-1 victory over Nottingham Forest.

Then, after a summer of reflecting on how far he'd already come, he returned to Bodymoor Heath and was instantly installed as No.1 right-back ahead of Steve Watson.

He admits he was still in wonderland when he looked around St James Park pre-match on the opening day of the 1999-2000 campaign.

But captain Gareth Southgate came up with the right words at the right time.

"I remember Gareth pulled me to one side before the Newcastle game and said 'MD, you are good enough to play at this level. Start believing in yourself.'

"That was incredible. I thought 'if he thinks that, I am raring to go.' "

He was a top, top pro. If you wanted to model yourself on anyone, Gareth was the man. Even now, I look up to him.

"He helped make me as a player and pushed me on all the time.

"I listened to what he told me and I put everything into it. I never looked back.

"I played the majority of that season, ended up playing in he FA Cup final and helped open the Millennium Stadium for Wales against Brazil. If my career had finished at the end of that season, I still would have been happy."

Delaney

If he had the backing of the captain, he wondered at times whether he had the approval of the manager.

He says John Gregory pulled no punches with him before, during and after most games, famously telling him at half-time against Watford that he was "playing like a tart" - words that inspired him to bag the winner in that August 1999 Vicarage Road clash.

"He picked me out a few times. I don't know if it's whether he thought I needed that as a player rather than an arm around the shoulder. It certainly worked.

"John would do that and then the likes of Dion or Gareth would pull me to one side and say 'You're doing fine.'

"John called me a few things and I think tart was certainly one of them."

Despite the regular rollickings, Gregory clearly liked what he saw and rated Delaney strongly as a full-back, with the right-sided star emerging as one of the standout players in his debut season.

And what a campaign to begin your top-flight adventure, with Villa finishing sixth, reaching the League Cup semi-final and making it through to the FA Cup final.

Delaney

One of the highlights of that term, of course, was Dion Dublin smacking home the winning spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out against Bolton, a victory which secured Villa's safe passage to Wembley for the showpiece against Chelsea.

Delaney was overjoyed as he watched the shot fly home from the sanctity of the referee's room, particularly when you consider he'd been sent off in injury time!

"I was on a yellow card and made another tackle. I got shown the dreaded red. I was trudging down through the tunnel thinking I had let the team down.

"I watched the rest of the game in the referee's room.

"I saw Dean Holdsworth miss that open goal and then the penalties.

"Once I saw Dion knock in the winner, I was running out to join in the celebrations.

"To get through that was huge. You don't know how your career might have gone from there. If we'd lost and been knocked out, the manager might have thought of me in a different light.

"John came up to me after the match and said: 'You're lucky we won.' He said it in a nice way but you can tell he wouldn't have been happy with me if we'd lost.

"Luckily, we had a few more games in the Premier League over the next few weeks so I wasn't banned for the final. Thankfully I got picked for that."

But would Delaney have put himself forward for a spot-kick if he'd been on the pitch at the end of 120 minutes of frenzied action.

"No! Nowhere near it. I am a defender and it would have gone into Row Z. I had no desire to take one.

"Luckily there were plenty of lads who were comfortable taking spot-kicks. Even the goalkeeper would have been a better penalty-taker than me!"

The Wembley showpiece when it arrived turned out to be a damp squib as Villa went down 1-0 to Chelsea in one of the worst finals in living memory.

Delaney looks back forlornly on the season finale.

"It was disappointing. There was nothing in the game.

"They had a lot of talent and were favourites. But to concede the way we did was frustrating.

"It's a day I have forgotten a lot of, actually. It's true what they say 'take it all in' because you do forget a lot of it. It was disappointing and I don't think either side deserved to win it.

"I do remember travelling up there and the bus journey to the stadium with the Villa fan swamping us. I remember walking out before the game.

"But you watch the game afterwards and you forget what you did during it. I don't even remember going up to get my medal."

Delaney

After that debut term, Delaney established himself as the team's regular right-back - when fit - for six more seasons although he accepts that injuries badly affected his career.

Fans admired him greatly because of his all-action approach but he believes that willingness to fly into tackles played a big part in his subsequent problems.

"I had too many injuries, simple as that. I think it was a lot of naivety as a youngster flying into tackles.

"But even now in a five-a-side, I'd throw myself into a tackle and get injured, that's just the way I play. I don't think I'll change.

"I think fans appreciated my honesty. But, equally, they would have liked to see me for a longer period.

"I would have loved to play another three or four more years and then say to myself 'I'm getting on, I need to finish' rather than a surgeon telling me 'sorry you can't continue.'

"If you think your legs are going and you retire, you're making the decision.

"But unfortunately surgeon Dr Richard Steadman told me 'no more' when I went to see him in Colorado, USA.

"He was my last resort. He said before the final operation 'you probably won't be able to play again' because of the state of your knee.

"He was very honest. It was difficult to take. It was a dagger to the heart. Then, to admit it to myself was an even more difficult time.

"But after a while I let it go. I looked back and thought 'I've played at the highest level at some fantastic grounds for a fantastic club and played internationally against some fantastic countries.

"There was too much good to think about the bad stuff. Injuries are part of the game."

Delaney

Despite persistent problems between 2000 and 2007, Delaney still played in nearly 200 games for the club and was capped 36 times by Wales.

The former wool-packer got to play with some tremendous lads and he has very fond recollections of donning the claret and blue alongside them.

"Gareth Southgate was great. He was a top professional and someone I looked up to, on and off the pitch.

"Paul Merson had a real talent. He could literally do whatever he wanted with the ball.

"Benni Carbone was tremendous - an amazing footballer.

"Gareth Barry has gone on to do unbelievable things. He has gone on and on and on. I personally think he could still play for England in this next World Cup."

But what of Delaney now?

The 37-year-old is absolutely loving life as a coach at Bodymoor Heath as he looks to develop the next crop of youngsters for Paul Lambert's first-team.

"I only had three months away from the club. I retired and then I got a phonecall from the coaching staff asking if I fancied working with the young lads here. I jumped at the chance. I haven't been away since.

"It's lucky that the people at the club thought something of me. It's great now. I love it."

GT

My Managers: Delaney on Gregory, Taylor, O'Leary and O'Neill

John Gregory

"He gave me my chance and built me as a player. He would be right on top of me in the dressing room every single game. He wouldn't let up even at half-time if I felt I was doing well. He'd point out the bad things and kept my feet on the ground.

"He never let me get carried away. He even wrote me a letter after my first season which said 'well done but now the hard work starts.'

"As a player, he rounded me as a professional."

Graham Taylor

"Graham was a lovely, lovely man. I got on really well with him. Maybe he will look back and regret coming back to Villa. He probably mulled it over in his head beforehand whether to take the job or not. He had a really successful spell the first time around before he took the England job, of course.

"But it wasn't the same after. He probably couldn't turn down the chance of managing Villa again because he cared so much for this club.

"As a man-manager, he was excellent. He is a person I still get on with now. He is a clever football man and knows the game inside-out. I haven't got a bad thing to say about him."

David O'Leary

"I didn't get on that well with David. We did very well when he first came. We were struggling early on but then managed to finish sixth.

"We all thought 'we have a good manager here who could push us on.' But unfortunately it didn't happen. He departed on a sour note for reasons I'm not sure about. He's never really gone on from there.

"I didn't see eye to eye with him on certain things. I was at a stage in my career where I felt I was one of the senior pros and could give my opinion. I was perhaps too honest for David. Maybe he wanted players to do what he wanted and be 'yes' people.

"I questioned him from time to time and I'm not sure he appreciated that. He had good people around him, though. I always thought Roy Aitken was a good coach. But unfortunately, we didn't push on."

Martin O'Neill

"I was injured when he came in and was desperately trying to get back fit.

"He pulled me aside when I was out of contract and took me into his office and said: "Take your time. Whatever you need, I will back you all the way. If it takes you six months, twelve months, we will look after you.'

"That put my mind at rest. But unfortunately I was forced to retire in August 2007 without playing for him competitively."

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AVFC Official
By @AVFCOfficial 8th November 2013