Words: Will Almond 
Images: Offside Sports Photography

You know what Fabian Delph is, right? He’s a utility man. He’s decent. Does a job. Fills a hole in a team full of the greatest footballers on the planet. But long before Pep Guardiola got hold of him, Fabian Delph led a previous life—one where him and his gangly legs absolutely tore League One to shreds.

The year was 2008, and the recession was just beginning to take its toll on the world. Leeds United were a ready-made poster child for fiscal irresponsibility come back to haunt. Out of administration and beginning their second season in third-tier exile, United were in danger of being forgotten about by football. Enter stage left, through the West Yorkshire murk, Fabian Delph.

Delph was all limbs and youth. Jinking feet, an easy speed, and a cool head brimming with confidence. He found Leeds as a club finally freed from the weight of expectation. The chant of, “You’re not famous anymore” which rained down from opposition fans wasn’t abuse; it was therapy.

And so to a scarred Withdean pitch battered by the January weather. The ball is headed clear, bobbling out to Delph ten yards from the edge of his own box. He isn’t going to worry about the surface, or the opposition, he’s just going to run. A lolloping stride that seemed to belong in the Leeds’ glory days of the ‘90s. Running. Running. Running. It’s like watching an NFL back break out into open field. Running. Running. Running. Still no challenge. Then bang. A swing of the left boot. Never in doubt. Leeds United goal of the season.

There were other goals, of course. A lob from thirty yards into an empty net. A platinum pile-driver against Walsall. I did alright at GCSE physics, but I honestly cannot reconcile the power he produced with the size of his calves at the time.

The more he jinked, the more he swerved, the more balls he stroked into the back of the net, the more the country chattered, and the more we worried he would leave. Defeat to Millwall in a brutally contested play-off semi-final tie meant another year in League One, and Fabian was as good as out the door.

In the end, he left for Villa that summer. And watching him sit on the bench the following season became torture even as Leeds waged a successful promotion campaign without him. It seemed impossibly cruel that someone had taken Delph, and didn’t even seem to want to use him. Like the kid next door who already had too many toys to play with, and still did better at Christmas.

Watching Leeds United in the Championship years that followed promotion from League One was to hallucinate Delph into existence on the field. Leeds played with twelve men when I watched. I’d imagine what Delph could do. Delusions of strikes that never were to win games that were lost. Visions of mazy runs that changed games, in my head at least. Delph was the ghost at the feast, and Leeds was a club hungry for success that never quite arrived.

Eventually, the pain faded. But only to be replaced by a new emotion—bemusement. Delph had become a cog in the City metronome, and a part of Southgate’s England revolution. They were chatting about Delph again. But they weren’t chatting about Delph. Not the one I remembered anyway. Commentators rattled on about his “reliability” and “versatility”—which is pundit-speak for boring.

But if you watch him, if you really, really watch him, sometimes you get a glimpse of the old Fabian. A burst of acceleration. A flick. A turn. And the mind wanders back to a time when Leeds weren’t famous anymore and everyone was talking about the fabled boy called Delph. And I am finally, simply, happy for him.

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