Damien Duff: Going to Longford was like going to Old Trafford... I had butterflies
Published 17/08/2015 | 02:30
As the Shamrock Rovers team bus pulled into Longford Town's stadium on Friday night, Damien Duff couldn't help but contrast it with the venues he graced on the English circuit.
The scene may be altogether alien but, in Duff's mind, the buzz remains the same now in his 37th year and on the last lap of a glorious career back in the native country he departed with an uncertain future all of 20 years ago.
"Coming into Longford, I was just thinking that two years ago it was Old Trafford. It got the butterflies going," he admitted.
"I still had the butterflies. I haven't played in seven months, and I'm there still itching to get on - I guess that's a little bit of nerves as well to see how it goes and how my body holds up."
There was never any chance of Duff making his bow in the midlands - his surprise inclusion on the list of substitutes was a mere formality due to lack of numbers, according to Hoops boss Pat Fenlon.
Tonight against second-placed Cork City is when the real worth of Duff's capture can begin to unfurl, should he be sprung from the bench during a fixture Rovers need to win for the title ambitions laid out by their marquee signing to have substance.
With Dundalk and St Patrick's Athletic also meeting, this evening's fixtures involving the top four carry the potential to be pivotal as all bar the Saints enter single digits of games remaining afterwards.
To be even back playing feels a feat to Duff. The serious ankle injury suffered while playing for Melbourne City in February could, he admits, have scotched his ambition of completing his playing days on home soil.
"Most of injuries I've had could have finished me," he jests. "I suppose it's just hunger and desire. Coming back to the League of Ireland drove me on.
"The past three days have been my first training for seven months but I feel in good shape and ready to play a part.
"Of course, the manager is not going to start me just because I've represented Ireland or played in England for 20 years. It makes me more determined to get fit and sharp to prove to him that I deserve to start.
"There's some really good players in the Rovers squad. Brandon Miele, the young goalkeeper Craig Hyland - even though he made a couple of mistakes against St Pat's - and there's Gary McCabe, a proper footballer.
"Once we get a few more back from injury and suspension, our strongest team will have us there or thereabouts at the top."
Duff's professionalism is reflected in the research project he undertook on his potential first opponents. Rehabilitation work in recent weeks has restricted him to seeing only St Pat's and Longford in person, leaving the new resident of Wicklow to swot up at home.
"I'd taped about four or five of the 'Soccer Republic' programmes and so watched them all together last week just in case I came on against Longford on Friday," he said.
"I've been doing my homework, something you can never stop doing. Pat's are a lovely footballing team, I think Cork will be a bit different and then we have to play Dundalk in a couple of weeks.
"It's exciting to be back here playing for Rovers for the rest of this season and next.
"Being up there challenging for league titles is pressure but it's a nice pressure. It is a different pressure from getting relegated, which happened me three times as well.
"I want to come back here and win something but I don't want to overstay my welcome either."
Duff's former Ireland attacking partner, Robbie Keane, was first on the phone to wish him well, texting a message which read 'Welcome to Tallaght'.
The pair remain close, though the elder of the duo doesn't miss the international scene Keane still inhabits.
"It felt right to retire after the Euros in 2012 and I've not regretted the decision," explained the centurion. "On the pitch with Ireland, even now, we don't have possession in a lot of the games, maybe 30pc. You're not getting a lot of the ball, just defending and playing as a double right-back.
"Robbie is a hero of mine for staying on another four years after me. Fair play to him, he's still the go-to man in the team for goals and as skipper.
"It's just pure love of the game. You see lads jacking it, or not putting it in, the minute they hit 28 or 29 because they've made a bit of money. Money has never changed Robbie or his desire and that's why he's one of the best."
That makes two of them.
Sick children to benefit from salary
Two charities Damien Duff says are 'close to his heart' will receive all income he earns over his 18-month stay at Shamrock Rovers.
In an unprecedented gesture, Temple Street Hospital and Heart Children Ireland are to equally share the amount, believed to be around €150,000.
"Every penny I get is going to charity," said Duff. "I don't want a penny.
"I thought it'd be something nice to do because I just want to play football. Any bonuses, incentives, appearance money or whatever is all going to those two charities, 50-50. I don't want to make a big story out of it, though."
Duff''s four-year-old son Woody was born with a heart problem which was remedied by surgery shortly after his birth.
Duff said: "I've done a bit in the past with the charities because of my son. His operation took place in London but the check-ups have been in Ireland."