James Lawton: Damien Duff sparkles again in twilight of his career
THERE was a time when Damien Duff may have had higher hopes for a defining performance, but after 15 highly lucrative years as a professional, the one he put in for Fulham earlier this week will surely do nicely enough.
He ran with the ball in his most accomplished style, one that when he first arrived as a precocious teenager for Blackburn Rovers persuaded John Giles that he was destined for the highest reaches of the game. "He has tremendous qualities on the ball," said Giles, "that make him very hard to stop. He's going to have a big career."
He did – and he didn't. One hundred caps for Ireland, productive stints at Blackburn, Chelsea, Newcastle and now, at 33, a critically acclaimed Indian summer at the classic old football theatre of Fulham's Craven Cottage, is a journey of some distinction made almost entirely on Premier League terrain.
There was, however, something more dramatic in the air when Giles issued that first acclaim. Duff was signed by Chelsea soon enough and found himself in a run to the Champions' League semi-finals. He played well against Barcelona and scored a goal against Manchester United in a League Cup semi-final.
The West End of London was quite taken with the boy from Dublin and who knows how the burgeoning love affair might have blossomed, but for the arrival of Jose Mourinho and his favoured wide player, the virtuoso Dutchman Arjen Robben.
The fallen manager Claudio Ranieri had seen Duff as a key element in his team, but if Mourinho frequently acknowledged that the young Irishman was too good to leave out, Robben was most valued by the Special One. Nor did it help that in Mourinho's preferred formation of two out-and-out wide-men, he constituted a luxury. Something had to give and it was not surprising that it was Duff.
So, he moved on to Newcastle. He might have gone to Liverpool, but about one thing there was no doubt. He would play as he always did, which is to say with the craft and the full-heartedness which was too much for his old north east club this week and brought Fulham a much-needed first win in seven games.
Duff's manager Martin Jol, who had been made anxious by the slump which followed an impressive start to the new season, was quick to identify the importance of Duff's contribution.
"He is a very reliable professional," said the Dutchman. "He has good skills and an excellent attitude. He is someone you can always be sure of. When the going gets tough you really need such characters."
Giovanni Trapattoni made the same point after failing to talk Duff out of his plan to quit the international game after the ruins of the European championships. "I was sorry to let him (Trapattoni) down," said Duff, "but my gut told me it was the right thing to do."
This didn't reduce the Irish manager's generous tribute. He said: "Damien will be missed by us and Irish fans everywhere. He was immensely skilled and a great example to players who came after him."
That was something to place in the storehouse of memory along the 100 caps – and perhaps also the testimony of one witness to Duff's man-of-the-match performance against Newcastle. England's World Cup-winning full-back and one-club stalwart of Fulham, George Cohen, noted the consistent pressure Duff applied from the right side of midfield, while moving the ball easily on to his stronger left foot as he cut inside; the pass that led to a goal by Steve Sidwell and then the perfectly flighted free-kick which enabled Hugo Rodallega to head home the decisive second goal.
"It was a typical Duff performance," said Cohen. "It was both skilful and good-hearted and pretty much as I have come to expect from him. Not so long ago, I was reading how much the lad has earned from the game down the years, but my reaction was that many others have done so without putting in anything like the same level of commitment. He is a natural-born pro with excellent values.
"Certainly, there was a time in his career when he threatened to move into another dimension. He had plenty of that skill that frequently comes so easily to sports people who favour their left side and you could never fault his approach. Maybe his confidence suffered a little bit under Mourinho ... that kind of experience at an early stage of your career can set you back. But then Damien kept playing, kept going back to his strengths and it has served him very well. It is also making him very popular at Fulham.
"A crowd is very quick to spot someone who is putting in everything he has. Let's be honest, this is something you can no longer take for granted, not even when you know much some of these players are earning. However, there will always be those players for whom playing the game brings its own reward. No one doubts that we have one here."
The affection runs both ways. Duff said: "I like to think that I have found my feet again at Fulham. It's a good environment and the players feel very comfortable in it. This is a club with so much character and I'm very happy if I can help to move it forward."
It seems unlikely that he will pursue a career in football beyond the touchline. Certainly he has made no secret of his desire to return to Ireland, saying: "It's something I look forward to very much, but, in the meantime, I have some football to play."
That he will do it on a bank of the River Thames for the foreseeable future had never seemed more appropriate than it did this week. The old river flows on. So does an ageing, but still vital Damien Duff.