Unjust desserts

Yes, Delia Smith committed quite the faux-pas with her half-time rantings, says Caroline Bailey, but perhaps it's been taken a bit too far

There was a time when “doing a Delia” meant investing in a non-stick omelette pan. But since that infamous night in February when the Norwich City director, eyes rolling like a colicky mare, tottered on to the Carrow Road turf with a microphone, it has come to mean something slightly different.

For Norwich fans already dumbstruck with incredulity at throwing away a perfectly good two-goal lead over Man City, it was all a bit much. As the visiting support treated its hosts to a half-time chorus of “going down with the souffle”, Sky Sports busied themselves with yet another action replay of Delia’s exhortations.

Needless to say the heady combination of football, celebrity and the scandalous suspicion that Delia had been at the booze proved irresistible. From the playful Shum people are on the pish (the Sun) to the pompous How to make a fool of yourself in public (the Independent), the newspapers duly overcooked their pound of flesh and dished it up with a double portion of bad publicity.

The most inexplicably vitriolic attack came from the Daily Mirror’s Oliver Holt, whom a panel of strait-jacketed monkeys at the British Press Awards has recently seen fit to name sportswriter of the year. “Delia should be hung out to dry for what she did,” he trilled self-righteously. “If that’s not crowd incitement, I don’t know what is.” The baubled one then compared Delia’s incoherent ramble with the gesture that saw Chelsea’s manager José Mourinho banished to a broom cupboard during the Carling Cup final: “If the authorities go after him for his trifling shush to Liverpool’s supporters, they’ve got to go after Delia, too. Call her into Soho Square and tell her she’s just been garnished with a ten-match ban.”

As the week wore on, the scrutiny only seemed to grow. The Mail and Express pitched in with think-pieces on how Middle England’s egg-boiling idol had feet of clay after all; Five Live were still gleefully playing that bloody clip; and the inexorable office jokes were wearing very thin indeed.

I recognised the feeling – it was the same sickly mix of scarlet-faced shame and furious protectiveness I felt when my mum turned up at the school gates with a Norwich scarf tied round her head, bag-lady style, to keep out the cold. Back then the merciless little sods in my class whooped and jeered like something from Lord of the Flies; this time the catcalls came courtesy of big egos with picture bylines.

Meanwhile, one division down, the Ipswich Town chairman David Sheepshanks, busy with his own stint at the Sky Sports coalface, felt compelled to liken his club’s financial collapse of four years ago to the Asian tsunami. His comments made barely a blip on the media’s radar.

Some might say Delia has been asking for it – after all, in the Neanderthal world that is professional football, she has committed the twin crimes of being famous and female. Placid old Carrow Road is quite partial to its low profile and even the most devoted fan flinches when, following a rare Norwich goal, the cameras cut yet again to its resident celebrity. When was the last time Sky zoomed up the hairy nostril of Roger Munby, Barry Skipper or Michael Foulger, City’s significantly less newsworthy directors?

There is, nevertheless, more to Norwich’s majority shareholder than an end-of-the-pier show. When Delia and her publisher husband joined the board in 1996, the club were 15th in the First Division, £8 million in debt and just 24 hours from foreclosure. The couple have since lavished time, energy and the small matter of £7m on their baby – such a large slice of their personal fortune that they have just sold their publishing company in order to secure themselves a pension.

The Daily Mirror may find her a soft target, but in bringing Norwich back from the brink Delia has more than fulfilled her side of the bargain – it’s just a shame the players have failed to do the same. With a barren forward line and a defence you could drive a bus through, they are fortunate that “doing a Delia” drew a veil not only over their defeat that night but also the end of their Premiership season.

From WSC 219 May 2005. What was happening this month