'Cork minor loss to Mayo at Croke Park was my last game of Gaelic football'

'Cork minor loss to Mayo at Croke Park was my last game of Gaelic football'
Cork's Damien Delaney and Rory Keane of Mayo in the 1999 minor All-Ireland semi-final. From there on, Delaney focused on soccer and reached the top level in England. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

THE Cork minor footballers had a fine team in 1999.

They beat Kerry in an exciting rain-soaked Munster final but fell short in the All-Ireland semi-final to a Mayo outfit that featured Alan Dillon, Billy Joe Padden and Gavin Duffy, who’d later concentrate on rugby. Manager Teddy Holland clearly learned from the loss as the 2000 minors got their hands on the big prize.

The Cork starting 15 before the loss to Mayo in the 1999 All-Ireland minor football semi-final at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
The Cork starting 15 before the loss to Mayo in the 1999 All-Ireland minor football semi-final at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

What was interesting about the '99 Rebel side, captained by St Vincent’s Paddy O’Shea, was how many pursued other sports after. Sure Conor McCarthy, David Niblock and Noel O’Leary, along with O’Shea, played numerous times at senior for their county, but half-backs Tom Kenny and Ronan Curran’s future lay as All-Ireland winning hurlers.

John Moran, Mayo in action against Ronan Curran, Cork, in the 1999 minor football semi-final at Croke Park. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
John Moran, Mayo in action against Ronan Curran, Cork, in the 1999 minor football semi-final at Croke Park. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Even at club level Carrigtwohill’s Noel Furlong, the current Cork U16 hurling bainisteoir, and Fr O’Neill’s John Flavin are better known for their small ball exploits. The Haven’s Bernie Collins, when he first graduated from minor, had a sojourn Down Under in Aussie Rules.

Of course there were a number of other excellent footballers in the ‘99 panel. The Barrs’ Robert O’Mahony and Clon’s Conrad Murphy, whose career was pockmarked with injury, both collected senior county football titles after, as did the Haven’s Paudie Hurley and Collins. Conor Brosnan (Ballinora) and John O’Brien (Ballincollig) had great days at club level.

He went on to anchor the Hull City defence and eventually became a Premier League regular with Crystal Palace after pit-stops at QPR and Ipswich, under Roy Keane.

Speaking to Kerry legend Tomás Ó Sé recently on his excellent podcast series for Benetti Menswear, Delaney revealed there was never any chance of him picking Gaelic football over soccer. 

This despite the fact his father Finbarr was a dual Cork minor via Blackrock and St Michael’s and made two championship appearances for the senior hurlers in 1989, though he also made a mark as a soccer player with Avondale.

“My dad was a fierce GAA man but I wasn’t as staunch as him. My GAA started in May when the soccer season was over or with the school. My dad never forced it upon me. He was a hurler and I never picked up a hurley in my life.

“I played a lot of GAA in street leagues and then GAA suplemented my soccer. I was with Avondale and St Michael’s but I played a lot in schools with Coláiste Chríost Rí. I played full-forward in the Corn Uí Mhuirí, even though with the Cork minors then I was midfield.”

Picture: Valerie O'Sullivan
Picture: Valerie O'Sullivan

He had previously caught the eye in primary school, where he paired up with Nemo’s David Niblock, foreshadowing the duo’s midfield partnership as Cork minors and a friendship that has endured.

“Sciath na Scol in St Anthony’s, we won the city and the county. Myself and Niblock were midfield partners. We were 11, 12 or whatever.”

In 1999 his focus was entirely on soccer. That is until he got a call to fall in for an A versus B match.

“I didn’t play any GAA that year. I was soccer mad. In late May I got a phonecall from Frank O’Connell, who is the grandfather of Eoghan O’Connell, who plays with Rochdale.

“He asked me what I was doing for the summer and told me there was an A versus B for the Cork minors, who were playing Limerick the next week in the Munster semi-final.

“I went out and afterwards they said ‘would you join the panel?’ I was on the bench for the Limerick game and then I started for the rest of the championship that summer.”

It was a hectic schedule. Delaney had left Críost Rí with the aim of making it as a professional sportsperson.

“We won a Munster final down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. 

Paddy O'Shea and the Cork minor footballers celebrate their impressive win over Kerry in the 1999 Munster final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger
Paddy O'Shea and the Cork minor footballers celebrate their impressive win over Kerry in the 1999 Munster final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger

"By the first of August I’d joined the FAS soccer course, so I was doing that in the day and then getting a bus to GAA training that evening.

“I didn’t know any better. If there was a session on I went and did it. I didn’t really get tired and I loved playing sport. For that month of August I was doing double football and then GAA. My last Gaelic match was in Croke Park when I lost that day.”

Damien Delaney, Cork in action against Gavin Duffy, Mayo. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
Damien Delaney, Cork in action against Gavin Duffy, Mayo. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

While Delaney knew leaving school two years before his Leaving Cert was a risk, it was one he was prepared to take. The hardest part was disappointing his Corn Uí Mhuirí coach Mick Evans.

“When I left Críost Rí in fourth year I would have had two more years of Corn Uí Mhuirí. I remember going to see Mick Evans and it was only the week before he’d asked me would I be captain the next year. Mick Evans was a strong character of a man and I was petrified telling him!”

Delaney didn’t crack the Cork City first team but did enough in preseason friendlies in 2000 to garner a trial for Leicester after which he was offered a contract.

“Sometimes the door swings wide open, sometimes it’s just a little crack. You have to prepared to take that chance,” he explained to Tomás Ó Sé.

Damien Delaney during a game with Crystal Palace in 2013. Picture: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Damien Delaney during a game with Crystal Palace in 2013. Picture: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Not that he drove on to become a mainstay in the Leicester team. While he’d made his debut at Old Trafford against that Roy Keane powered unit at its peak, it was one of just eight appearances for the club.

Delaney’s best days were still ahead of him.

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