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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Gone but not forgotten:
Paul Devlin
 
Position: Right winger
From: Birmingham City - 150,000 - September 2003
Record: Played: 83(6) Scored: 6
To: Walsall - free transfer - January 2006
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: A shouty little fella

I'm not very good at Monopoly, I must admit. It's not something that haunts my daily life, but it crops up every now and again, just to remind me. Somehow, I miss the strategy: what to buy, what to ignore, how to build a property empire on concrete rather than sand...and, most of all, how to avoid becoming embroiled in an apparently endless downward spiral of bad luck, poor throws, duff cards, and oh-look-I'm-back-in-jail-again before inevitable defeat. I just don't get it.

Each defeat reveals the fundamental truth of the concept...and the equally fundamental flaw in the game. Defeat in a game of Monopoly is indeed a glimpse into the cut-throat world of business, where your competitors will pounce upon a weakness and exploit it without thought for your own welfare. It's not particularly insightful, but it does contain a certain harsh realism: while a few cards attempt to introduce the possibility of a random change of fortune, there does quickly come a point when you're irreparably ruined and can only wait for your fortune to diminish gradually to nothing. Once you've started losing, you will eventually lose. Eventually. And you will lose, after an hour or so on a very slippery slope, with an increasing sense of resentment and frustration at the crowing greed of the victor, amassing vast swathes of property and ploughing enormous fortunes into hotels on every square, gleefully demanding rent from your every dice throw.

It's not much fun. Really, it takes considerable reserves of patience, grace and "oh-well-played" generosity to lose at Monopoly without permanently damaging personal relationships in the process. You wouldn't wanna play against Paul Devlin, frankly.

Not tremendously good at taking defeat on the chin, Mr Devlin. That board would be up-turned, houses and hotels flying everywhere, long before the inevitable. And there'd be shouting too. There was always shouting. At various times, this was either a blessing or a curse: there were certainly occasions when Paul Devlin was absent when needed, away in his own private tantrum while the game went on without him, and when he jeopardised the team effort by bothering the referee's notebook unnecessarily. Equally, though, there were plenty of times when it was refreshing to see that someone wasn't prepared just to surrender meekly.

Far too late to change him, anyway, and you got the sense that teammates on the receiving end of a blast for failing to play the right pass at the right time knew that it was just his way, that it'd be left on the pitch after the final whistle. If he was never quite embraced as one-of-ours by the supporters - too much of an individual, perhaps - he was still regarded with considerable affection, amplified by a departure so utterly gracious, amicable and charming as to require a double-take. We're sometimes guilty of failing to see beyond the public performance, I guess.

Besides, there was always much more to Paul Devlin than shouting. Arriving from Birmingham in the traumatic weeks following Jimmy Davis' death - a deal paid for by a "mystery" benefactor (cheers, Elt!) - he brought with him hefty experience at various levels, including a bunch of international caps, and a capacity for tricky, burrowing wing-play even with diminishing pace. Not a bad buy at all, then...and even better now that hindsight finds nothing to support his quite remarkable unpopularity towards the end of a spell at Sheffield United, roundly abused by the home fans during one of our previous trips to Bramall Lane.

As with so much of Ray Lewington's reign, we weren't thinking of the future. It was fairly clear that Paul Devlin would be...well, if not quite over the hill, then enjoying a very good view from the top of it while packing up his belongings and preparing for the stroll home by the time that his contract was up. We needed a job done. And it was done well too: particularly in his first season, he was still thoroughly capable of tormenting a left back for an entire afternoon, given half the chance. Better still, you couldn't just kick him over the advertising hoardings to get rid of him; he was tough, ready for a fight.

At his best, he became the conduit for our attacking play. Once Paul Devlin had poked and prodded and scraped and dug to work a hole in the dam, everything went in that direction; just give him the ball and then charge for the box while he ties some poor sod's legs into knots. If a penchant for over-elaboration, and for falling over at the end of it, led to some frustration on your correspondent's part, it's worth pointing out that wingers aren't really my thing anyway. Me, I'm on the full-back's side, unless they're bloody Kozluk. For those with an eye for such things, though, it was enchanting and occasionally thrilling stuff, roared on by an appreciative Rookery.

He didn't ever recapture that early form, not quite. He went through good spells and bad spells and injured spells, and it's fair to say that the team did likewise. Whatever, he was never guilty of spectating: a busy, eager and sometimes angry presence, he refused to let the game pass him by, even if his interventions weren't always positive. He was always there, and I heartily applaud that; others weren't, crucially.

And he was still there, even when you thought that he wouldn't be. When March 2005 happened and was followed by a particularly ruthless summer, you expected that he'd follow other senior members of Ray Lewington's squad through the exit, making way for the new manager's own men. Instead, he seemed to fit into Adrian Boothroyd's way of working with remarkable ease, again suggesting that there was rather more to the man than Saturday afternoons suggested. He was a quieter too, oddly: whether by choice, requirement or something more mysterious, there were none of the furious outbursts that had previously signalled his presence. Not too late, after all. A quite tremendous contribution to a thunderous win at Cardiff - whacking wonderful crosses from the right with none of the usual fannying about - hinted at a fine season ahead, regardless of age. A fine header at Stoke suggested that he might even be about to boost his somewhat meagre goal tally.

Not to be. By Christmas, his legs were evidently starting to tire: in front of the away fans at the New Den, he pushed the ball past his opponent and didn't have the pace to beat him, flopping rather sadly onto the turf in search of a free kick instead. There's no question at all that he still had a role to play, if he wanted; our squad remains thin and inexperienced in key areas, even if we have made a complete nonsense of received wisdom on the subject. But, equally, the agreement between manager and player - genuine honesty and understanding on both sides, the former allowing the latter to leave for the chance of first-team football - represents an unusually adult bit of business, thoroughly laudable in all respects. Paul Devlin shouldn't be sitting on the bench. He's better than that.

A little inconclusive, perhaps. But then, I like that: football is full of heroes and villains, simple stories. Dull stories. Paul Devlin was many things, complicated things...and, for that and quite a lot more besides, he was never dull. Chris Eagles still has a thing or two to learn....

Ian Grant