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And you will know him by the trail of defenders... almost as elusive off the pitch as he is on it, the 23-year-old from Ballyboden is being tipped by many to be one of the sensations of the forthcoming World Cup. But away from the pitch, you're unlikely to find 'the duffer' turning up in the pages of Hello. Though you may bump into him at a u2 gig...
John Walshe, 28 May 2002
Summer is here and all around the country, the thoughts of men and women turn to 23 young men who are journeying far across land and sea to do battle with 31 other countries from all the corners of the globe in a bid to become the greatest football team on the planet.
Thankfully, the nation has been spared the sickening drama of agonising over Roy Keane’s temperamental knee, his cruciate ligament or his non-elastic hamstring, as the fulcrum of the Irish team has managed to stay in shape for our far eastern odyssey. The newspapers have also been gratifyingly free of the hysterical ‘Will Quinn’s Back Last 12 Hours In A Plane?’ headlines that many feared would engulf the nation in the run-up to the world’s greatest football tournament, at a time when, traditionally, the fate of so many seems to be tied up in the injury-free fortunes of so few.
The last year or so has seen another name join the list of the ‘Please Jesus, let him get through the game uninjured’ brigade. There he is, standing forlorn-looking on the left wing, hands on hips and puffing like an octogenarian after a steep climb, looking for all the world like his presence on the pitch is some bizarre mistake… until he gets the ball. Then, this blond Ballyboden native turns into something else entirely, the ball seemingly under the spell of his foot as he twists, turns, jinks and glides through defenders with the grace and elegance of a ballet dancer. Damien Duff is the type of player you feel could emerge from a monsoon, dry as a bone, shrugging his shoulders and mumbling something about “dodging the raindrops”.
In person, the Blackburn winger who many expect to be one of the stars of Japan and Korea, is friendly and personable, but it is also clear that he can’t wait to get the morning of interviews over so that he can go home and relax. It is a well-known fact that Duff is not a fan of the media circus that surrounds being a professional footballer these days. You get the impression that the 23-year-old would be much happier if he could spend his entire life with a ball at his feet instead of a microphone in his face.
Does he really hate interviews so much?
“Yeah, I do,” he admits. “Is that someone else as well now?” He has spotted another hack eager to grab a few words with him and his face visibly drops. “I’ve been here all bleedin’ day now,” he grins. “I’m ready to go home and stay in with the family. But it comes with the job so it has to be done.”
It is not surprising that an interview with Damien Duff is a much sought after commodity of late. His sparkling displays for Blackburn, which resulted in his being named the club’s Player Of The Year, also saw him hit the back page headlines, picking up Man Of The Match awards like other players collect yellow cards, along with inevitable speculation linking him with big-name clubs like Liverpool and Leeds United. All in all, a successful season.
“I’m my own biggest critic,” Duff explains. “I’m never happy with the way I’m playing, but obviously it’s going alright for the last few months. I’ve had a few nice performances, scored a few nice goals and set up a few. Hopefully, I can carry on in the World Cup.”
Despite the scintillating form of Duff, Blackburn Rovers found life difficult in their first season back in the Premiership, although they did manage to pick up the Worthington Cup. While the end of the season saw them nestling comfortably mid-table, that final position belies a few months of genuine fear as they fought for their survival amongst England’s elite. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before the season’s end that Blackburn were mathematically safe.
“It was our first year back in the Premiership so it was always going to be hard,” Duff muses. “We got off to a good start, and then mid-season we went through a slump. After the win in the Worthington Cup Final, it picked up from there. We got a lot of important wins and it was great to be finally safe.”
What does a club like Blackburn need to do to compete with the Arsenals, Liverpools and Man Uniteds of this world? The club have proved they are not afraid to go out and buy players, as evidenced by their signing of Andy Cole, but they still left it late to ensure their Premiership survival.
“I don’t think we have the money of the bigger clubs like United and Arsenal,” Duff maintains, “especially after Jack’s [Walker, former Blackburn chairman] passing away. It is not a bottomless pit like it used to be. But we have a good team at Blackburn, the likes of David Dunn and Matt Jansen. There are a lot of young players there. We need a few players, obviously, but there is the basis there of a very good team. We have spent the last couple of years together so we know each other well and we would all do anything for each other. Hopefully, that is the foundation of good times to come.”
On a personal level, Duff’s outstanding performances in blue and white this season have attracted a lot of media attention, and rarely a week goes by without his name being linked with a big money move, the current speculation suggesting that he could be wearing the red of Liverpool next season. I wondered how such media conjecture affects the seemingly unflappable Duff?
“Not at all,” he grins. “It’s nice to be mentioned in connection with these clubs and all, but I haven’t heard anything from any of them. I love it at Blackburn, so it doesn’t bother me at all. I just get on with it.”
His manager, Graeme Souness stated categorically in the press towards the end of the season that Duff is not for sale. Again he smiles: “So even if I wanted to move, I’m going nowhere.”
But it’s not that the deceptively laid-back Duff is lacking in ambition. Ask him if, at some point in his career, he’d like to play for one of the bigger teams in England or Europe, and the answer is unequivocal.
“Definitely,” he says. “I think it is every young fella’s dream to play for a big club. Blackburn are a big club in a way, but I suppose they will never be as big as the likes of Man U., Arsenal or Liverpool. But I love it there for now. I’m really happy. They are a great set of lads and a great manager so I’m not going anywhere for now.”
With all this talk of a £20 million sterling move, I wondered if Duff felt the game has become too dominated by money these days.
“I don’t know about that,” he muses. “With us young lads, we are probably coming in at the right time to earn a good living before we retire. It is not a very long career. It’s usually over when you’re 30 to 35. Obviously, it has gone money mad but I can’t see it keeping going up and up. It will have to stop somewhere.”
Damien Duff has occupied a number of roles during his career at club, underage and international level, from left wing to striker, and even “in the hole” behind the front two. I wondered what his favoured position is?
“I’ve played left wing all my life, so I suppose it is there that I am most settled,” he admits. “I play there week in, week out for Blackburn. People say as I get older that I’m going to end up more central, but I don’t know about that. Left wing is fine for me: it’s where I’ve always played.”
The best game I have ever seen Duff play was a good few years ago in an underage knockout qualifier at Tolka Park against Norway. The Irish were leading one-nil from the first leg in Oslo and were in the driving seat, but the team could take nothing for granted. We needn’t have worried. Ireland won three-nil, with Barry Conlon scoring a hat-trick. And yet the man of the match was a young, blond wizard from Ballyboden, who that night played in the centre of midfield and dazzled everybody in attendance with his otherworldly ball skills.
“Brian Kerr looked after me,” says Duff when I remind him of this game. “He let me get on the ball and get involved. He allowed me to do my stuff. They were good times,” he smiles, sounding more like an octogenarian than a 23 year-old with the world literally at his feet.
The step-up from underage to senior success is not an easy one, and many teenage stars never really make the transition. Over the course of the last two years, however, Damien Duff has come of age in the international scene, justifying predictions that he would turn out to be the most skillful player to wear the green since a certain Liam Brady. Doubtless, there are great moments to come, but that fateful day in 1998, when he won his first cap, away to the Czech Republic, will always be a watershed memory.
“It was absolutely brilliant,” he says. “It was everything I’d ever dreamed of. I remember lining up for the national anthems: it was my proudest moment ever.”
Obviously, ‘Duffer’ is hoping to increase his tally of 22 caps this summer in Japan and Korea, and hopefully he can add to his single international goal to date, scored against Croatia last year.
But even on the greatest stage of all, be sure that Duff will still look a bit like a kid in the schoolyard – unfazed, uninhibited, unflappable. But surely there’s a raging beast within?!? What about when he is getting pulled, dragged, kicked and tripped all over the pitch, as in the recent friendly against the USA? Surely that gets extremely frustrating, especially if the referee isn’t giving him any protection?
“I suppose it is,” he admits, “but I’m not the type of person to lash back out at the defender. That would be stupid and you could end up getting sent off.
“I’m used to it now,” he continues. “I’ve had it all the way up from my schoolboy days. I get it all the time with Blackburn, getting kicked from pillar to post, so it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Does he ever let a roar at the ref?
“Oh yeah,” he says, “but I never lash out. I just get on with it and do my stuff.”
What about players who dive?
“People say I might dive,” he grins. “It does annoy you if it’s against you, but I suppose if there’s a chance of getting a peno, anyone might do it.”
OK, here’s a hypothetical scenario for you. Imagine it is a World Cup Quarter Final between Ireland and Argentina. You go on one of your trademark runs into the box. One of the Argentinian defenders leaves a leg trailing. You can hurdle the outstretched leg or you can go down… which is it?
“Fucking straight down,” he laughs.
Having been born and raised in Dublin, Duff was in the capital during the footballing heydays of Euro ’88, Italia 90, and USA ’94 so he saw first-hand how much it meant to the country to qualify for the world’s greatest football tournaments. That must make it extra special to be part of the team that has made it to the promised land this time around.
“I remember all of them, the big moments, like Euro ’88 and Ray Houghton’s goal against England. They even wrote a song about that one,” he laughs. “I remember the whole country was just on a buzz and hopefully we can do something like that this year as well.”
Excitement is already building ahead of our opening game with Cameroon on June 1st, when the country’s emotion meter will go through the roof. Morale in the squad is at its peak also.
“It’s brilliant,” Duff avows. “They are a great set of lads. They’re all very down to earth and are really close, on and off the pitch, which I think really shows in the performances.”
What about the his fellow players. First up, Ireland’s heartbeat, Roy Keane. The whole country breathed a collective sigh of relief when Keane returned from the hamstring injury that threatened to rule him out of United’s end of season run-in.
“He gets Man United going and I think he does the same for Ireland,” says Duff. “He is the main man and we need him there for the World Cup. He is a legend really with the international team. The likes of me and Robbie [Keane] are in awe of the man, because we have watched him since we were kids. Playing on the same team as him is unbelievable.”
Apart from Roy Keane, I wondered who are the other leaders in the squad.
“Jason Mac, I suppose, and Niall Quinn, all the senior players,” he says. “There are a lot of young lads in the team. But everybody keeps ticking along, keeps everybody going and on their toes.”
I put it to Duff that the aforementioned Quinner must have the patience of a saint, having spent over a decade getting pushed and pulled by international defenders with very little reward. In fact, more often than not, Quinn seems to give away frees for supposedly “backing in” to his opponent.
“To be fair, he does a lot of bullying as well,” Duff opines with a smile. “He has done that a lot over the years, scored a lot of goals and caused havoc. He is a top notch player.”
Speaking of playing quality, the Irish team seems to be in the rather unique position of entering a major tournament with its stars all hitting form at the same time. Apart from Duff himself, Robbie Keane seems to be back to his cheeky best, Shay Given has been magnificent all season for Newcastle, as has Steve Finnan at Fulham. In fact, the latter pair made it into the Premiership team of the year, alongside the ever-brilliant Roy Keane.
“Personally, I hope I don’t peak too early and blow up before the summer,” he smiles. “But they’re all top class players. Roy, Shay and Stevie getting into the Premiership team of the year was great, and rightly so – they’ve been brilliant all year.”
As has Duff himself. In fact, it is hard to imagine him without a football about his person. But what does Damien Duff do when he is away from the football pitch and the training ground?
“Sleep an awful lot,” he sighs. “I like going to the cinema, playing golf and snooker, but I don’t get a lot of opportunities to go out playing golf with all the training. You can’t really go out and get pissed, but I just try to relax as much as I can.”
Duff is a keen music fan. While he admits his musical tastes are broad-ranging, there is one particular band who float his boat: ”Me and my little brother are mad about U2. They played in Manchester last year when his [Bono’s] da was ill. People were saying in the press that he put in a bad show, but it was the best concert I’ve ever been to by a mile.”
He doesn’t get to go out to concerts as much as he might like to. Sometimes it must get frustrating when he talks to his mates back home and they’re getting spruced up for another night out on the tear without him.
“You ring your pals and you’re having an early night on the Friday and they’re all heading out on the piss, you do get a bit jealous, but I think it all evens out in the end,” he says. “Any young lad would like to play professional football, so I’m very lucky in that respect.”
As well as being a sports star, Duff is also a sports fan and when he’s sitting at home in front of the television, he tries to keep up with the latest developments in the world of snooker, golf and rugby. In fact, he played the latter game in his younger days, as a full back with De La Salle, Ballyboden, which might explain where some of his jinking runs have their origins. “But they got too big for me in the end and I had to give it up,” he grins.
A Manchester United fan as a kid, Duff never wanted to be anything other than a professional footballer. “It’s all I’ve ever been interested in,” he admits. “When it came to career choice in school, I wrote down ‘football’ and everybody thought I was having them on.”
Now, everybody knows different. On the eve of the World Cup Finals, there are many predicting that Damien Duff will emerge as one of the new stars of world football. But more important to the player himself is how the team as a whole will fare. And he knows that, for him and for Mick McCarthy’s Ireland, the stakes have never been higher.
“It was great doing so well with the underage teams and Brian Kerr worked wonders for everyone,” he reflects. “But doping well with the senior international team is on a totally different scale. It has given the whole of Dublin and the hole country a lift qualifying for the finals – and hopefully we will do them all proud. I believe we are more than capable of getting out of the group stages, without a doubt. After that, it’s knockout time, so anything can happen.”