HEART OF FOOTBALL

Don't label Delph as a villain

Fabian Delph (right) in action against Manchester City's Jesus Navas. The pair are now team-mates after a topsy-turvy series of events.
Fabian Delph (right) in action against Manchester City's Jesus Navas. The pair are now team-mates after a topsy-turvy series of events.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

The message pinned to the claret and blue gate of Aston Villa this weekend left nothing to the imagination. It read: "DELPH YOU SNAKE!"

It was the reaction of fans who felt betrayed by the pledge of loyalty that their captain Fabian Delph had so publicly made at the start of the week, only to change his mind and become a Manchester City player six days later.

The air turned even bluer once Stan Collymore, former Villa player turned radio broadcaster, got behind the microphone. "He's a complete disgrace," Collymore said. "He completely mugged off hundreds of thousands of Villa fans around the world.

"Any fan - and I'm a lifelong Villa fan - is embarrassed by players who use our great club as a stepping stone to leave for bigger money, but not bigger clubs."

Collymore is a bitter, and a forgetful man.

But be honest: Have you never been tempted to better yourself by an offer to take a new job, a fresh opportunity, a promise of a bigger playing field, more money and competing against the best?

His own career meandered around nine clubs in 11 seasons from 1990 to 2001. He did have a three-year span at Villa, in which he contributed seven league goals in 46 games as a striker.

That compares to Delph's six years and 107 games in midfield.

Collymore's contribution was defined by the fact that he struggled to keep a place because Gary Shaw and Peter Withe were the preferred strikers. And whether it was cause or effect, Collymore had a breakdown with clinical depression which the club tried to nurse him through.

Delph's relative lack of games was caused by a serious knee injury (a torn cruciate ligament) and then an ankle injury. But Villa stuck by him and at one point, when Liverpool made a bid for him last January, Delph stated that he owed a debt of gratitude to the Villans.

"This is my club," he said. "I am a loyal person and committing my future will hopefully show everybody what type of guy I am."

He publicly thanked the club owner, the American Randy Lerner, who he said had shown him personal loyalty when he was down and injured, promising that the club would stick by him.

Again last weekend, when Villa had no choice but to allow City to trigger the £8 million (S$17 million) buyout clause in the contract Delph signed six months ago, the player announced that he would not leave Villa Park.

"I love the club," he said in a statement put out by Villa last Saturday. "I love being here."

And, one more time for emphasis, he added: "This is my club."

Not any more, it ain't.

By Friday, he had had a change of heart. He contacted City to say if the £100,000-a-week, five-year deal was still on the table, he was ready to sign it.

A quick medical check-up later, and he was on the plane catching up with his new City team-mates on tour in Australia.

This is not all about money. It is believed that Villa were talking of re-writing Delph's terms upwards from £30,000 to £80,000 a week to reward his loyalty.

So if it's not financial need or greed, and it's not the rattlesnake disloyalty that the message on the gate implied, what changed between Saturday and Friday?

One thing has to be the turmoil around the once great, but now greatly faded Midlands club.

Lerner, the entrepreneur whose father built up a fortune through his credit card company, has been looking for a buyer for Aston Villa for at least two years.

Negotiations have been going so slowly that the latest word is the owner will now stay, but will not spend as he regrets once doing.

Lerner, though, is as silent as the sphinx. He has found that footballers do not appreciate in value as his art collection might do.

Since January, when Delph decided to stay, the owner has sacked Paul Lambert as manager and appointed Tim Sherwood in a successful attempt to escape relegation.

Villa's rebound under Sherwood was such that they reached the FA Cup final. However, there has been a summer exodus out of Villa Park from the line-up that started and was thrashed by Arsenal at Wembley.

Goalkeeper Shay Given, defenders Ron Vlaar and Matthew Lowton have departed. Midfielder Tom Cleverley, who anyway was on loan from Manchester United, is now with Everton.

And, in quite possibly the defining sale that changed Delph's mind, the Belgian goal scorer Christian Benteke is on his way to Liverpool.

With Benteke, as with Delph, the club were powerless to keep them.

Each had a buy-out clause in their contracts. Benteke's is a huge ransom which Liverpool were willing to pay - £32.5 million.

But Delph's price makes no sense.

As the voluble Mr Collymore said repeatedly: "What kind of a football club puts a clause in the contract that not only Manchester City, but probably even the likes of Newcastle and Sunderland can afford?"

The figure, Collymore believes, was ridiculously low. "Whoever signed that contract on behalf of the club shot Villa in the foot, massively," he said.

Collymore added that he recently met Villa's chief executive Tom Fox, another American, to offer his practical help and contacts within the game to his club. Instead, Villa appointed a sporting director, Hendrik Almstadt, who worked previously with Arsenal on scouting and assessing players.

Perhaps there are sour grapes in Collymore's views on the club he says is closest to his heart.

Delph, I do believe, meant his declaration of loyalty last January, and more than likely he intended to honour his words of last weekend.

But be honest: Have you never been tempted to better yourself by an offer to take a new job, a fresh opportunity, a promise of a bigger playing field, more money and competing against the best?

I know I have. Like Delph, I struggled between loyalty and opportunity. In the end, I chose loyalty, and down the line it stabbed me in the back.

That's life. A footballer has only one career. Delph, at 25, is in the middle of it. And unlike the supporters, who "sign up" forever, there is no guarantee that the club or the employer will stay loyal either.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'Don't label Delph as a villain'. Print Edition | Subscribe