'Farewell to Damien Duff, the blond bomber who gave us so much pleasure'
Published 22/12/2015 | 02:30
It was a balmy midweek May afternoon on Dublin's northside in 1997.
Curious eccentricity, rather than rabid avidity, had dragged a few us to Tolka Park from even balmier boozers.
Outside on the terraces, we didn't know what to expect. It always is with kids. Inside, there was just as much trepidation.
Brian Kerr knew this more than most. 'The Greener' was only new to this lark but already his Irish U-18 side were on the cusp of qualifying for the following summer's European Championships; they needed to defend a 2-1 first-leg advantage against Norway.
Teenagers, in whatever the sport as much as life, are capable of veering wildly off the rails, oft-times within the same 70, 80 or 90 minutes.
Some of the squad would be heard of again: the 'Ginger Pele', Gary Doherty, would follow him into the senior gig and memorably rescue three points from Georgia.
Some, like Paul Dillon, would slowly disappear from the spotlight, as talented young kids do.
And then there was Duffer. After Kerr had issued his final instructions to all concerned, who to mark and where to run, when to press and when to retreat, he collared him as the Ballyboden Bomber, head down, drifted towards the door.
"And Duffer?" "Yeah, Brian." "Just enjoy yourself, rasher!"
He did just that. We recall him in the second half putting his hands on his hips, almost looking directly at us on the terrace with grim despair; Ireland were leading 1-0, nervously, and were preparing to make a substitution.
Read more here:
- 'Second only to Alan Shearer' - Fans of Damien Duff's former clubs pay tribute to retired footballer
- 'One of the greatest footballers ever to wear an Ireland jersey' - FAI pay tribute to retired Damien Duff
Duff's number was not up; his legs almost buckled to the ground as agony creased his baby features. Did he always look this tired?
Two minutes later, agony creased all over the Norwegian full-back's features as Duff wriggled and writhed to the by-line by the river and crossed for Barry Conlon to complete the second leg of a hat-trick. Home and hosed.
Not a bad afternoon's work.
More than the skill, it was the attitude that marked him out. The effervescence. The childish enthusiasm.
On a day when FIFA's ugliness was once again exposed to all, it is difficult to remember that football will always be played, and that is all that Duff wanted to do. His departure should reinforce that message to all young kids for he was once one of them.
Only days after Jose Mourinho is once again led kicking and screaming from a premises in predominantly faux anger, it is hard to remember that 'the angry one' once shared Duff's boyish love of the game. The 2004-05 team that housed the Dubliner and Arjen Robben in a 4-3-3 was arguably the most aesthetically pleasing of all Mourinho's teams; only a year after Arsenal went unbeaten, Chelsea lost just once in dethroning them.
We wondered if life would change him when he swapped sleepy Blackburn, where his social life consisted of watching football matches on TV with brother Jamie, for the bright lights of 'That London'.
It didn't; the most exciting thing about his off-field endeavours was that he slept quite a lot.
It was lucky we knew that much; like John Hayes, he didn't hate the media, he just hated doing media.
He had to be forcibly prodded to the dais during Euro 2012 when he earned his 100th Irish cap, all those years after Olomouc and his debut in 1998 under Mick McCarthy.
McCarthy and Duff would bond but Duff would also bond with Keane; he was more emotionally wounded by Saipan than anybody else but he just focused on what he knew how to do best.
His gauche, but utterly typical, reaction to his goal against the Saudis in Yokohama - "You just go mad, don't you?" - was Duff's human response.
He tortured poor Juanfran in the second round against Spain but other events would conspire against Ireland; he had won the penalty.
Later, again typically, he confessed that, like 100pc of his colleagues, he cheated to get decisions. He dived to get free-kicks and penalties. He didn't realise he was being either brave or foolish. He was just being himself.
Like most people have done in the past decade, he had to leave Chelsea but he didn't have to go to Newcastle; he would never again reach the heights his talents perhaps demanded, certainly not those that many of us had expected.
He remained a vital presence for Ireland until that, too, went stale. Like so many others, he seemed tired and devoid of spark under Giovanni Trapattoni.
Had the grand old man retained some of his earlier wit, he may have chosen to centralise his one true genius, rather than insist on him beating up and down the tramlines with less and less threat to younger, fitter full-backs.
Duff, given a glowing tribute by the FAI last night, went to the Euros in 2012 but with a heavier heart and a more battered body; retirement was inevitable, as was a peripatetic finale to his career.
His dream to finish in the League of Ireland was heartfelt; a man who always lodged in his devilish left boot the Padre Pio medal, given to him by his mother Mary years and years ago, would never break his word.
Well, perhaps once. Last summer, when Duff was still brooding about which club he would join, one presumed that a neighbourly Ballyboden address and the shared St Patrick's Athletic obsession of my 11-year-old boy might sway him. "Do the right thing Duffer!" That broad smile.
We next met in Tallaght, he in Hoops, me in a hoop. That broad smile, again. "Ah Jaze, Duffer! Just enjoy it!"
He did until he could no more. "My heart is willing but my body is not," he tells us. His heart will go on for a long time yet.
When he was good, he was very, very good. He changed football and didn't allow it to change him. "I play because I love it."
Now, as he enjoys retirement with his adoring family, we hope he smiles as much as he made us smile.
Damien Duff Factfile
Home: Ballyboden, Dublin
Schoolboy clubs: Leicester Celtic, Lourdes Celtic, St Kevin's Boys
Blackburn Rovers: 1996-03, 184 appearances (27 goals)
Chelsea: 2003-06, 81 appearances (14)
(Won two league titles and a League Cup)
Newcastle United: 2006-09, 69 appearances (5)
Fulham: 2009-14, 85 appearances (13)
Melbourne City: 2014-15, 15 appearances (1)
Shamrock Rovers: 2015, 9 appearances (0)
100 appearances (8 goals)
- On Brian Kerr's U-20 team that finished third in World Cup in Malaysia in 1997.
- Played every game of 2002 World Cup and Euro 2012.