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Loyal Duff to savour magic moment

IT WAS probably the only mis-step of his long and proud international career.

As Ireland's players did their usual pre-match trick and turned to face the flag when Amhrán na bhFiann was being played, they all stood to attention and stared at that emblem of green, white and orange.

All bar Damien Duff, eyes shut and so wrapped up in the moment that he didn't realise he was facing the wrong way.

Yet the fact that Duff was even there, on the turf in Lansdowne Road, sums up something that is remarkable about the Dubliner and, by extension, this team.

On Friday evening, Duff hobbled from the A Le Coq Arena onto the Irish team coach in Tallinn, bent over in pain from a shoulder injury he picked up during the game, the suffering clear on his face. But instead of deeming that Friday's 4-0 win was, to use a phrase from a play-off 10 years ago, a “positive result” and an excuse to miss the second leg, Duff insisted on staying on in Dublin, taking some pain-killing injections, to make sure he was okay to line out.

With so many players across the world showing a lack of interest in international football, the dedication and loyalty of players like Duff, Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Richard Dunne can only be envied by other nations.

We analyse the performances, criticise the style of play and we'd all like to be entertained a bit more, but the commitment of players like Duff to ‘The Cause’ cannot be questioned. That loyalty is reflected by the fact that even players who are no longer wanted by Ireland still support the team, as Andy Reid did by travelling to Tallinn last weekend as a punter and supporter, as Duff also did once when injury prevented him from playing in a qualifier in Slovakia. Hard to imagine Dimitar Berbatov or Ashley Cole taking a Ryanair flight to Tallinn or Bratislava just like any punter.

“I have been taking injections to play, but I would have been wheeled out last night, nothing was going to stop me. I have a few aches and pains after the game but that's usually the case with me,” Duff said after the game, admitting his faux pas in relation to the anthem.

“I was looking the wrong way. I don't think I will ever live that down, a very embarrassing moment. I must have been getting flashbacks to where the flag used to be. I've done this 94 times and I'm still facing the wrong way so I don't know what to read into that.

“It means a lot to the country, hopefully it will give the country a boost. It's hard times for everyone at the moment, not only in Ireland but all around Europe, so it's a massive night. If you walk around Lansdowne Road it's all rugby, rugby, rugby – and I love my rugby, I have no qualms about that and I speak to a few of the rugby lads.

“But it was important that we qualified for a major tournament and got

people thinking about football again. I'm delighted for the manager and I hope he rates this among the highest of his achievements – when you look at his CV it's unbelievable. He's older too, so maybe he'll savour this as much as myself, Robbie, Richie and Shay.”

The key outcome is that 13 years after his international debut, Duff has qualified for a major tournament for only the second time, and this one was special.

He said: “This means more than 2002 because time is running out for us – maybe this was our last chance, I don't know. In 2002, we were young. You think you're going to be there at every major tournament but that's not the case. It means so much.

“You look at things differently at a young age and you don't appreciate things as much. You want to qualify for every tournament but we didn't do that. So I will savour this one more than 10 years ago.

“It's been very hard to watch those tournaments over the last 10 years. I probably didn't watch most of them to be honest. All I live for is football and my family, and when you're not there at the finals, it's hard.

“We were due a bit of luck after the past few campaigns and maybe we had that, with the sendings-off and the Russia game away, the luck of the Irish was on our side for once. Maybe the writing was on the wall this time, so we'll enjoy the night but we have to start preparing and looking forward to Poland.”

Last time out, in 2002, Ireland came out of the group and lost on penalties, so how will we do this time? “Let's see who we get in the draw,” says Duff.

“There will be no mugs at this tournament. The Euros will be smaller than the World Cup finals, and you don't get easy games so it will be tough. We will have to improve again.”