The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw: Rory Delap’s Overhead Kick for Southampton

It was the rarest of introductions to football. I have followed the Saints and Delap ever since.
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Felix Keith
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It was the rarest of introductions to football. I have followed the Saints and Delap ever since.

Delap was one of the most unspectacular midfielders imaginable; a hard-working, loyal warhorse. He tackled, passed and ran around for a whole host of mediocre, mid-table teams across his steady if undistinguished career. A club timeline of Carlisle, Derby, Southampton, Sunderland, Stoke and Burton Albion says all you need to know – a dependable professional, but hardly likely to feature in many highlights reels.

He is primarily remembered for his long throw-ins, which became the main weapon in Stoke’s route-one arsenal (and command their own YouTube compilation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8awv4bWDIw ). But before his days as Tony Pulis’ much-valued trebuchet he spent five glorious years on the south coast plying his trade for Southampton.

Today’s Southampton team are the rising stars of the Premier League, led by a charismatic manager, supplemented by a heralded backroom staff and buoyed by exciting players. However, they were a different prospect in Delap’s time. In February 2004 quick-witted, heavily sarcastic manager Gordon Strachan left the club. Uninspiring Plymouth Argyle manager Paul Sturrock took over. A month later Yakubu condemned the Saints to a 1-0 loss against rivals Portsmouth at Fratton Park. These weren’t the best of times for the club.

Southampton needed a hero. And on the 27th March 2004 the St Marys crowd and an 11-year-old fan got one.

David Pleat’s Tottenham were in town. Jermain Defoe, Ledley King and Robbie Keane would do battle against the likes of Claus Lundekvam, James Beattie and Kevin Phillips. I was at my first ever live football match. There was incredible excitement – I was already a nominal Saints fan due to my family, but had never seen Jason Dodd and Paul Telfer operate at fullback. I had never seen the giant figure of Antti Niemi fill the goal. I had never experienced the atmosphere, tasted the pre-match burger, or sang ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’

I was cautiously pessimistic. I was there for the day out – for the experience, not the result. Southampton were a mid-table side, they had tasted European football that season, but they were likely to remain mediocre for the foreseeable future and I was perfectly content with that. After a goalless first half in which Niemi had stopped Defoe several times and Kasey Keller had denied Beattie, the Saints were now shooting at the goal I was positioned behind.

On 64 minutes all hell broke loose. Centre-back Lundekvam found himself in a crossing position. His initial attempt was charged down, but now in familiar territory he jumped highest and headed the ball into the box towards Delap. Now, at this point any seasoned supporter, or even regular Match of the Day viewer, would have envisaged a disappointing outcome – a scuffed attempt, or a swing and a miss. But I was yet to be schooled in the thinking of the English football fan. In this case naivety won.

Delap swivelled acrobatically and connected perfectly to send the ball rocketing over Keller’s hapless flap of the gloves and into the net. He had scored a perfect overhead kick in the goal directly in front of me. It looked like the most natural thing – perhaps Delap was known for his volleying prowess, I thought later. I wasn't to know that it had ended a two-year goal drought. I wasn't to know that this was out of character. It was simply magic. Everyone round me went mad. They celebrated out of shock. I celebrated out of joy. Southampton beat Tottenham 1-0 that day.

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