Matej Delač enjoyed a dream start to life in Denmark. At 26, still some way short of what are generally considered to be a goalkeeper’s peak years, he’s already playing in his 10th different country in an unusual and adventurous career.
On his debut for AC Horsens, he immediately endeared himself to the club’s supporters with a 90th-minute penalty save to preserve a 2-1 lead away to the league’s most successful club, FC Copenhagen. Viktor Fischer struck the ball hard and low to Delač’s left, but the glovesman flung himself across his goal to palm it behind for a corner. He was immediately mobbed by ecstatic teammates.
“It was a great feeling, especially after not playing for so long. It was already one year and two months since my last match with Mouscron,” says Delač, who joined Horsens when his Chelsea contract expired at the end of June. “To save a penalty in the last minute in the biggest stadium in the country, against one of the biggest clubs in Denmark, was a great feeling. That gave me so much more confidence. It was amazing.”
The save was a moment of catharsis, redemption and long overdue reward for more than a year spent in the shadows at Chelsea. Delač saw out the final 12 months of his contract with the development squad, training hard but with no prospect of playing. As had been the case all too often since arriving in England in 2010, his weekly efforts had no competitive release.
“This last year was the difficult one because you’re just training and you don’t have any games to prepare for,” he explains. “The guys are preparing for their games but you’re not. But I think it was a good school for my career. I worked a lot on myself and the things I need to improve. That year wasn’t the best one but it helped me a lot because I could concentrate on what I needed to improve.”
“When you have a match you can’t work as hard on these things because you need to be fresh. In that last year I worked a lot, so now I’m having game time and everything is good. I’m focusing on the present, and the present is good.”
Delač is always keen to emphasise the importance of the present and making the most of his fresh start at a new club. This is a chance for him to settle in one place after a period of uncertainty, and put down some roots with his wife, who has followed him around Europe, and their young son. He has the relative stability of a two-year contract and the longed-for promise that he will be Horsens’ first-choice goalkeeper.
“The offer from the club was the best one. They really wanted me. The goalkeeper coach really wanted me. He’d already known about me for two years because he’d been following me when I was in Belgium. They sold their goalkeeper to Copenhagen so they were looking for a No.1,” he says.
“I spoke to the manager and the goalkeeper coach over there and they said to me that I would be their No.1 for the next season. That’s what I was looking for. Also, I’m now a father and I think Denmark is a nice country to raise my son in. We are happy here and things are going well so far. It’s good to have a contract with the club and not just loan time.”
Delač is philosophical about the path that’s led him to this point. A nine-year association with Chelsea that made him their longest-serving player before he departed in the summer, despite the fact he failed to make a single first-team appearance. He agreed to join the Blues as a teenage prodigy in September 2009, but things didn’t turn out as planned.
At the time he was playing regularly for his first club, Inter Zapresic, having made his senior debut at 16 to become the youngest ever player to appear in the Croatian top division. Delač saved a penalty that day too. A precocious talent, international recognition soon followed with a place in Slaven Bilic’s squad for World Cup qualifiers against Belarus and England. There were plenty of offers on the table but Chelsea’s trumped the rest. Inter Zapresic were keen for him to take it.
“Chelsea are one of the biggest clubs in the world,” says Delač. “My dream was to play in the Premier League so that was the biggest reason why I signed for them. When they offered me the contract I was really happy.”
With Petr Cech well established as one of the world’s best goalkeepers, Delač certainly didn’t expect to play straight away, but he had no doubts that he would get his chance. The five-year contract he signed was a significant show of faith in his ability and potential.
“I believe in myself, like always. I knew that I would not be No.1 at first. That’s normal. I don’t think it’s possible to come into the Chelsea first team at 18 years old, especially as a goalkeeper, but I knew that I would get the chance to go on loan to prove myself.”
It’s a system that has long been a controversial part of Chelsea’s business model. Every year an entire squad’s worth of players are borrowed by clubs around the world. The hope is that the best are able to demonstrate their worth elsewhere and be reintegrated into the first team on their return. Others simply boost their value and profile before being sold on.
Considering the number of players they work with, there isn’t room for everyone to make it at Chelsea. While Delač was someone the club hoped would, various complications arose. He was sent on nine different loans in total, to clubs in the Netherlands, Czechia, Portugal, Serbia, France, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and his native Croatia. All were character-forming experiences for the young shot-stopper, but some stints were more beneficial than others.
“Things didn’t go well on the first few loans but I can’t change that,” Delač admits. “It was a little bit tough but it’s my job and it’s the decision of the club to send me on loan. On many loans I was playing but then they’d change the coach who brought me in and the new coach would bring in a new goalkeeper. I didn’t want to sit on the bench so I’d need to move on. That’s the reason why I moved every time.
“My last loan, to Mouscron in Belgium, was the best. It was the best league out of all of them and I got plenty of game time. The club’s plan was to stay in the top division and we did that. I think I had a good season. In Sarajevo, in Bosnia, I won the championship and a cup with the club. Those two loans were the most successful and the ones I most enjoyed.”
Some didn’t go quite so well, with appearances particularly hard to come by in the first few at Vitesse Arnhem, Dynamo České Budějovice and Vitória de Guimarães. The situation wasn’t helped by his partner being elsewhere. The strain that such a lifestyle puts on family and relationships often goes unseen, but Delač accepts it as a peculiar occupational hazard. Even the most difficult spells taught him some important lessons to take forward.
“I learned a lot. I got a really good experience from every country and every different style of football,” he says. “Goalkeeping techniques are slightly different in every country so I also learned from that. I’m planning to stay in football when I retire so I think that this will help me in my future life.
“I learned English, some French, and Czech too. It was good to learn new things and meet new people. If I’m planning to stay in football then it’s good to have connections all around the world.”
To some, Delač’s fate was symbolic of the danger inherent in stockpiling young players. Numerous talented youngsters arrive at Chelsea from overseas and have helped the club to dominate at academy level, winning the FA Youth Cup in seven of the last nine years. Yet despite the promises of wealth and professional advancement on offer, few make a successful transition to the senior team.
In Delač’s case there were mitigating factors, the most significant of which was the failure to be granted a work permit that would enable him to play in England. Players from countries outside the EU, as Croatia were then, need to have played a certain percentage of international matches in the preceding two years to be issued with a permit.
Partly because of his stalled progress after joining Chelsea, Delač never received another call-up to the Croatia squad and therefore fell well short of the requirements for receiving permission to play. Yet the prospect that the regulations would change convinced him to extend his stay at the club.
“I had a chance to move to a few clubs but Chelsea offered me a new contract,” he says. “Croatia became part of the European community in 2013 and I was hoping it would be easier to get a work permit in England. In that time I decided to keep on going at Chelsea and to find a club in the Championship or League One to prove myself, but I could never get a work permit.
“Some countries don’t allow Croatians to work because we still need to be in the EU for a few more years for that to change. I don’t know what’s going to happen with Brexit and everything else, but I know a few Croatian players who had offers from the Premier League; the club wanted to pay, but they couldn’t get a work permit because they weren’t in the national team.”
Stuck in limbo, more loans followed until that difficult last year at Cobham without any proper matches to look forward to. But despite everything, Delač insists he doesn’t regret signing another contract in west London.
“Honestly, no. Maybe it could have been better, maybe not. Now I’m here in Denmark I’m just looking at the present. Things are going really well at the moment. I’m happy at the club, I’m getting game time and I’m really enjoying it. The league is a good standard. I’m not regretting it, really. I’m just looking at the present – not the future, not the history. I’m OK with that.”
So far, Denmark and AC Horsens have provided exactly what Delač was hoping for when he decided to relaunch his career away from Stamford Bridge, but he hasn’t given up on his dream of one day playing in the Premier League. Croatia’s World Cup success in Russia – and particularly the impressive performances of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic – was another source of inspiration.
There’s no danger of him getting carried away, though. Preparing well and playing regularly is the understandable short-term focus for Delač after all that’s gone before. For now at least, the buzz of being involved on matchday and making a difference for his new team is more than enough. They might be small steps, but who knows how far they could take him.