WHEN Greg Abbott saw young Fabian Delph kicking a tennis ball against a wall at a coaching centre on the outskirts of Bradford back in 2001, he knew he was witnessing a special talent.
Delph may have been a mere slip of a lad at 11, but plenty had already heard about him on the West Yorkshire football circuit back then, including the former Leeds United academy coach, who played his part in the Whites prising him away from his hometown club after a compensation deal was struck.
Those ball-playing gifts so obvious to all and sundry 13 years ago have now blossomed to such a degree that the boy has truly turned into a man in the footballing sense, with his tournament debut in England’s Euro 2016 opener against Switzerland the most conclusive evidence of that.
Ex-Bradford City stalwart Abbott watched the Aston Villa schemer strutt his stuff in Monday’s victory over the Swiss in Basle with a huge degree of pride.
But while he was thrilled for the Bradfordian, 24, who made his full debut after coming on as substitute in last week’s Wembley friendly against Norway, he was just as delighted for Delph’s mother, Donna, who has been with her son every step of the way on his footballing journey.
Abbott, current assistant manager at Notts County, said: “I actually knew about Fabian because Paul Jewell’s son Sam played in the same team as him.
“We were running a little coaching centre at West Bowling, near where he lived, and I remember Fabian was kicking a tennis ball against the wall on his own.
“He could deal with a tennis ball better than I can deal with a football and I played 500-odd games.
“I said to him, ‘It is Fabian Delph, isn’t it?’ and he replied, ‘It’s Mr Abbott, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘You don’t have to call me Mr Abbott, you are that good a player, you can call me Greg’.
“From then on, things went on to entice him to Leeds United.
“I used to pick him up and bring him to the training ground for about two years as his mum Donna didn’t drive.
“He was an unbelievable kid and all he talked about was buying his mum a house, and a few years ago he said he had managed to do that. It was not about what he could do for himself, but what he could do for his mum.
“Donna deserves a lot of credit as she brought him up and made sure he kept out of things as he was from a tough part of Bradford where people can go astray with the influences you get.
“But Fabian loved his football and has looked after his mum and that tells you a lot about the person. It means a lot to me that he has carried on like that and hope he continues to do that.”
As befits someone raised in a tough part of Bradford, Delph is someone who quickly learned to look after himself on the pitch.
But it was his poise and guile early in his career at Leeds, when he burst onto the scene in a huge way as a teenager in 2008-09, which marked him out as more than just a youngster with promise as he flowered under first Gary McAllister and then Simon Grayson.
That season ended in him being crowned as the Young Player of the Year in League One and he also lifted the players’ player, young player and goal of the season accolades at Leeds’s end-of-season awards.
A new four-year deal and England Under-21 debut also came his way in a stellar campaign, with the Premier League vultures soon hovering before Aston Villa signed him for £8m in August 2009.
Not that it has been easy for him at Villa, with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament sustained in April 2010 and form issues clouding his first three years in the Midlands, before prospering under the command of Paul Lambert.
Abbott added: “I am surprised that it took so long for Fabian to be around the England squad.
“But I think that when he went to Villa, he had a nasty injury that set him back quite a way.
“But like Aaron Lennon, he was one you always felt would go right to the top.
“Now Fabian has got in through his performances for Paul, I think he can go on from strength to strength.
“He gives the team ‘legs’ and bite and can help put that drive into the England team which has been lacking. The commentators summed his performance up perfectly on Monday.
“I think he had a nervous start where he tried too hard to impress, but then calmed down and got into the game and I thought he was magnificent.
“I watched the game with Shaun Derry and we both felt he was close to being man of the match, although maybe we are a bit biased. But I do think Fabian can become a regular as he provides balance being a left-sider.
“It is a great time for up and coming England players as the ‘big boys’ like Frank Lampard, John Terry and Steven Gerrard have had their time and now the door is open for the younger players to come and stake a claim.
“If he keeps his feet on the ground, there is every chance he might do that.”