Damien Delaney during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Crystal Palace at Emirates Stadium, London, April 2016.

An ode to Damien Delaney and the best footballer interview of all-time

Professional footballers aren’t normally renowned for their willingness to travel deep into the cultural zeitgeist.

With the dedication to becoming an elite athlete overwhelming, blitzing childhood and severely limiting the teenage rite of passage, your average footballer isn’t allowed the space to develop their acquired tastes.

Food becomes fuel, strictly monitored to provide the correct nourishment for the body. Few venture beyond the mainstream for their music and fashion choices, although this may be influenced by the relentless banter of the dressing room.

And there can only be a handful with a passion for history; for all his life-affirming qualities, it’s hard to imagine Jack Grealish trooping around the Imperial War Museum after a gruelling Manchester City training session.

So the keenness of Damien Delaney to examine the past must be saluted – even if the results were unexpectedly hilarious.

Delaney enjoyed some stellar stints across a number of Football League clubs, most notably Crystal Palace where he played a fundamental role in the 2013 team who earned promotion.

The defender became a defensive stalwart at Selhurst Park, making 193 appearances for the club as the Eagles stabilised themselves in the Premier League.

While the 41-year-old has become one of Ireland’s most thought-provoking pundits, some Palace fans will best remember Delaney for his sensational dinner guest choices for a fantasy ‘Come Dine with Me’ in the club’s matchday programme back in 2020.

With players past and present prompted to choose dinner party guests ‘with no restrictions and no judgements’ on who they choose, the majority chose to fill their metaphorical chairs with football personalities and attractive females.

Such convention was arsenic to Delaney’s cultured palette. Kicking off with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, the Irishman wrote: “He’d be my number one dinner guest. The Stories man. I was a little bit obsessed with the stones and still am, to be honest.”

Fair enough; Richards has lived the life of a thousand Love Island contestants with the war wounds and wistful yarns to prove it. But Delaney’s next choice was the dictionary definition of a curveball; Joseph Stalin.

You might associate Stalin with his brutal dictatorship of the Soviet Union that included the slaughter of millions of his own people, but in Delaney’s eyes, the tyrant was the perfect choice for his metaphorical hor d’oeuvres.

“I’m fascinated by Russian History,” Delaney explained to his piqued readership. “Not because I’m a Stalinist, I’m not. I’m fascinated by Tsarist Russia, the changeover in 1917 and the Bolsheviks and that side of it.

“Lenin and Stalin and then Stalin is in the cabinet with Lenin and rises to power and rules with an iron fist.” With a pinch of understatement, he added: “Maybe not a great dinner party guest if I’m honest…”

But Stalin was Nelson Mandela compared with genocidal warlord Gengis Khan, the third guest to pull up a pew at Delaney’s dinner.

“A guy in a village at 15 rose from literally nothing to become arguably the most powerful warlord there was in an amazingly short span of time,” the Palace man wrote. “His leadership and ferocity are probably unmatched.”

With Stalin and Khan at the table, most of us would be having kittens about getting the starters correct. But, with a textbook example of doubling down, the nerveless Delaney’s next choice was Chairman Mao.

“Imagine uniting a community of a billion or so people,” he wrote of a man who ruled China with an iron fist for 33 years. “The force of personality these people must have had is insane.”

Napoleon Bonaparte received the final invitation to Delaney’s feather-light gathering, the defender justifying his selection by saying: “I don’t admire these people, but I have an absolute fascination with historical leaders.”

You don’t say, Damien? Perhaps Hitler had other engagements, Mussolini was busy washing his hair and Pol Pot was relegated to wine-serving duties.

While the thought of four blood-thirsty megalomaniacs breaking bread and swapping stories in front of a transfixed Delaney is an arresting one, we can’t help thinking what poor Richards would make of it all.

Perhaps he’d just shrug his shoulders and admit defeat; no tale of his womanising days is likely to impress Khan, whose descendants are thought to include five percent of the world’s current population.

In an age where beige personalities document every detail of their existence for the benefit of their YouTube following, Delaney’s willingness to expand his horizons should be saluted.

And, with footballers infamous for giving unimaginative answers to the banalest of questions, the Palace man deserves credit for producing one of the more memorable programme interviews ever produced in this most niche of genres.

By Michael Lee

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