The third round of the FA Cup can relied upon for jogging a few memories. So, it was comforting to see a familiar face in charge of Aston Villa the other night, a Welsh coach who Fraser Watson argues could still be destined for more regular appearances in the spotlight.
Who is Mark Delaney?
If you’ve followed Welsh football, or indeed, Aston Villa in the 21st century, it’s not a question that prior to last week, you would have needed to ask.
Having captained his country and made 158 Premier League appearances, with an FA Cup final thrown in to boot, a succession of knee injuries curtailed his playing days aged just 31. Coaching badges followed, and his work in developing the club’s youngsters since 2007 has been rightly lauded by those within Villa Park.
And yet, the question posed in the headline of a Birmingham Live online article hours before Villa’s youngsters were thrown into the lion’s den to face Liverpool at Villa Park last Friday would resonate with those too young to recall the late 90s and early years of the noughties.
For clarity, the wording was used more as an introduction to a profile on Delaney as opposed to any sinister doubts over his credentials, but Friday night would, ironically, showcase a notion of the 44-year-old that he himself has always been happy to adhere to.
A notion of understated excellence.
Seeking limelight has never been Delaney’s style. He doesn’t do Twitter. He’s not on Talksport shouting the odds with fellow ex-professionals.
He’s not in the papers offering strong, far-fetched comments on football to keep himself relevant. He could freely walk down many streets outside of Birmingham without being hassled or sought after for photos and autographs – and he wouldn’t be seeking the attention himself either.
Sure enough, following last Friday’s FA Cup tie, in which the Villa under 23 side that Delaney coaches ultimately filled in for the Covid-19 affected first team, his primary focus was to praise his players.
The 4-1 defeat had been largely lauded as a heroic effort against Sadio Mane and Co, but the stand-in manager wasn’t going to make it about him.
Family pride, however, was evident. His brother Nigel, himself a former Welsh League player and now an international at Over-40s and 45s levels, took to social media to praise his deserved, if not brief, elevation to first team boss.
Mum Angelina meanwhile, told Dai Sport it had been a surreal night.
“We were just so proud when we were watching the game – both of him and the lads involved. To deal with those circumstances and do so well was great to see.
“Mark isn’t one for the limelight but even afterwards he spoke very well on camera. It was a nice moment for him after he’s done so much coaching work there (at Villa).”
Perhaps it’s Delaney’s humble start in the game that has forged his character.
After time spent at youth level with Manchester United, he would return to Pembrokeshire football and his local club, Goodwick United.
“We need to build on Friday and show a bit of consistency.” 💪
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) January 14, 2021
From there, he joined Carmarthen Town and he would be 22 before being picked up by Frank Burrows and Cardiff City. Just eight months later, his dad Mike was driving him up to Villa Park to complete a £500,000 transfer.
“We hired a car and me and Nigel drove him up,” Mike recalled.
“We didn’t have much time as that same night he was due to travel with the first team to Derby County. Problem was after we dropped him off we were so excited and chuffed for him that on the way home we went haywire – it ended up being a very long drive.”
Mark however, would remain on the straight and narrow for the eight seasons that followed.
During that period, rarely would he be mentioned in the same light as a Gary Neville, a Jamie Carragher, or an Ashley Cole, and yet his displays merited his status as one of the Premier League’s most consistent and underrated full backs.
Furthermore, the euphoria and ultimate agony that gripped a nation during the Wales Euro 2004 qualification campaign is often reflected on by fans through misty-eyed nostalgia.
The names Bellamy, Hartson, Davies, Gabbidon, Giggs and Speed are among those glorified for contributing to a campaign that gripped the nation – but equally critical to that side, and that famous win over Italy in Cardiff, was Delaney.
His reliability as a player is now being mirrored by his reliability his coach. In the 14 years since he joined the youth team staff at Villa, and since progressed to head coach of the 23s, much at the club has changed.
And yet through nine different managers, a change of ownership, and relegation from and subsequent promotion back to the Premier League, one figure that has remained a constant in the background is Delaney.
For how long he remains in the background now remains to be seen. In an era where exposure is everything, the watching world on Friday will suddenly be all too aware of his work.
And it doesn’t take extensive research to deduce that his big night was no Cinderella story – it was the culmination of bringing through a generation.
Covid-19 outbreak or not, you don’t entrust a man with first team duties against Liverpool unless he’s highly valued.
Outside interest is sure to follow. At Cardiff City, Neil Harris’ grip on the precipice that represents his role as manager is seemingly loosening by the week.
Having served there briefly and yet successfully as a player, the odds on Delaney taking over should Vincent Tan decide to wield the axe will be noted with interest.
Rational thinking and appointments haven’t always gone hand in hand for Cardiff under Tan’s stewardship, but if the club are seeking to rebuild with a coach who has cut his teeth and boasts a proven with a track record of young players, they could do a lot worse.
At international level, a call at even age group level has yet to come. The prospect of analysing the coaching career of Delaney in five years’ time and that last sentence still ringing true, now seems inconceivable.
My last meeting with Delaney came in August 2019, shortly after an Under 23s Premier League 2 clash between Swansea City and Aston Villa at Landore.
That night, he politely declined a post-match interview, diplomatically explaining he liked to stay out of the spotlight wherever possible.
But with the footballing world now alerted to his growing stock as a coach, soon he may have no choice in the matter.