Saturday 21 September 2019

Damien Duff is back where he belongs

Injury-free and in the Premiership again, this is a good moment for Damien Duff, writes Dion Fanning

L ast Sunday, Giovanni Trapattoni told Damien Duff he could go home. Most of the senior players -- and he is one now -- were heading off after Ireland's victory in Cyprus, but Duff saw it differently.

He thought of the matches he had missed through injury in recent years, the key qualifiers he couldn't play in and felt it wasn't right to be heading out of town when he was feeling good. So he stayed in Limerick, watched most of the game against South Africa from the bench and came on towards the end to offer experience and guile.

Time always gets in on the action. For footballers, there are the five-a-sides. One day in training last week, the players divided for the old against the young. Duff was in the old side -- that doesn't surprise him anymore -- but the players were calling out their dates of birth. Duff heard a few and realised they were still in school the last time Ireland played in a World Cup. Duff played in that tournament with a schoolboy's glee. He and Robbie Keane were harnessed in the forward line by Mick McCarthy, with Niall Quinn waiting round the corner if things got tough. It was a tactic memorably described by the late Noel O'Reilly: "It was like two fellas playing on the street, Robbie and Damien, up against the big kids, being bullied, being boxed around the place. Then they get their big brother. On comes Niall Quinn -- 'come and pick on me' -- and while he's doing that the other two lads will pick their pockets."

There were rich pickings in 2002 but Duff has grown old waiting for Ireland's next opportunity.

He is, he says, "a young 30". Duff will be young whatever his age but next summer he will the same age as his then room-mate, Kenny Cunningham, was in 2002. He thinks a bit, looking at you with that quizzical look he always has when he's being interviewed, a look that says there is something not right with this scene. "We always looked at Kenny as a lot older than he was. He had to get up at seven just to get the body warmed up. I think I'm in better shape than that."

He misses Cunningham, he says, misses them all now that he and Robbie and Shay are "the famous" ones, as Trapattoni says.

Last Saturday night in Nicosia, the famous players ensured there would be no more infamy in Cyprus. With 15 minutes left, Robbie Keane turned to Duff and said if he gave him one chance, he would score. Duff has seen his friend do this for years so when the opportunity came to deliver the cross, he kept his side of the deal. Keane headed the winner, Ireland remained in this World Cup, even if Duff acknowledges that it's likely to be in a play-off.

"We believe we're going to get there. That belief is top-notch even if it now looks like a play-off. There are some big hitters in there but whoever it is, we believe we can beat them over two legs. The belief and the spirit can take us a long way."

Duff has waited a long time to glimpse it again. On Friday afternoon, he was sitting at a long table at Fulham's training ground, waiting for a journalist. He wonders, as he always does when he starts to talk, just what he is doing here.

The years have, if anything, made him more cautious. He hasn't blossomed into a quipster, firing out lines. Duff was always wary, at first of himself as much of the journalist, but then the journalist too as he began to avoid the fame that was forced upon him.

"I'd just rather go home and be sitting on a couch watching a DVD. I don't like watching myself on TV talking and if I see an interview of myself in a paper, I can't even read it. Some people love it, some people enjoy it. I fucking hate it."

Last Monday night, he got a call from Fulham's new Norwegian signing Bjorn Helge Riise, John Arne's brother. Riise was in the papers saying that he was better than Duff and Duff was being selected because of his reputation. Duff hadn't seen the story and started laughing. "They get stitched up in Norway too," he says.

Duff had no problem with Riise, but he has had no problems since coming to Fulham and hopes that this afternoon against Everton they can recover last season's form. He believes the training at the club may explain his sharpness in Nicosia, but he showed in Sofia last June that he was returning to form.

Yet the escape from Newcastle has helped, even if he is still baffled and dismayed by how things turned out. He has always been explaining that move in 2006 when he decided to leave Chelsea. He looks back now and wonders if he could have stayed with Mourinho and fought for his place. He knows one thing: he has never known a team spirit like that Chelsea side where "you would die for one another and you don't get that very often".

So he left for a Newcastle of fantasy. He had pictured a shining city on the hill, he remembered Kevin Keegan's vibrant side in a community which, like Duff, lived mainly for football.

There were those who wondered about it at the time. "There's always going to be criticism and people keep going on about Liverpool, but Newcastle was the only concrete offer; 52,000 people, it was an exciting club, I don't know how it can't get you going. I thought it was exciting at the time. They live for the football up there. A good win or a good month and the whole place is rocking. There were some good times like that. But there weren't many."

His first two seasons were interrupted by injuries, one of them a dislocation of the foot. Duff says now he never doubted he would come back from a problem which has ended careers.

It is hard to believe he didn't worry, not when football means so much to him and he dreads the end.

"As you get older you try not to beat yourself up about it. I'd like another hobby or something to do. I like watching other sports but when I'm finished, God knows what I'll do then. You can come across footballers who can take it or leave it, it's just a career but I've never been interested in money. It probably doesn't help to take it so seriously, but what can you do?"

Worse than the injury was trying to come back, he says. he needs to be sharp and he felt like he was "dragging a caravan" behind him. He was left out by Kevin Keegan, but played most of the matches last year, even if he was at left-back and witnessing a sporting implosion.

Newcastle's relegation, he said recently, had left him "suicidal". He wasn't misquoted.

"Well as close as you can get without actually doing it. Football's my life, I probably need another distraction in my life, I don't have a lot of other things going on apart from football and to be relegated, to have two of them on my CV, and with such a big club. It wasn't a nice feeling."

He was initially prepared to stay and a part of him regrets that he didn't. "It still does bite away with me a bit that I did leave them. I was a part of the team that went down so that still does get to me and I feel bad leaving. It's not in my make-up. I stayed with Blackburn when they were relegated but it's such a big year with the World Cup and I'm not getting any younger."

The World Cup remains a target. He didn't read the papers after the Cyprus match, but he heard whispers of the criticisms.

"Once we're winning games, you know. Cyprus away isn't an easy game anymore, I don't know when people are going to get their head round that."

As a man who was on the field three years ago, his words have some authority.

"I remember 2-2 at half-time, we thought we'd go out and play them off the park but they battered us. The gaffer's the one who has brought the mentality to the team, we're disciplined and organised and that's half the battle."

Trapattoni has brought spirit too and he believes this squad are as united as he's ever known. He would like the manager to stay beyond the World Cup.

"I think it's important to keep the continuity, especially when he's done so well. He's done great, the lads love him. It's as tight a squad as I've ever known with Ireland." But, he says, "the hard work's still to come".

He may be talking about his own career. When he thinks of the future, he says he would like to coach kids. He has always appealed to the innocent in everyone, the hopeful idea that football at the very highest level can sometimes be as simple as showing up and doing the same things you did when you were a kid.

"I would have said coaching was the easy option but it's not anymore. The amount of stuff you've got to go through, badges can take up to a year and that's just for the early ones. I've worked with some of the best coaches around, Roy Hodgson, Jose Mourinho, Kenny Dalglish and Alan Irvine, going back. But I'm a bit lazy and there's too much paperwork for me."

He remains close to his parents but he feels most sons would be the same. "I think any son would be close to his parents, but they've always been hands-on. I've let them do everything. I'm practically still getting pocket money from them. I don't know what I have in the bank. I've just got a cash card and if I need a bit of food I go and get a bit of cash."

His parent and his long-time advisor Pat Devlin have always been involved. "Pat took me over to Blackburn and he's always done well for me. I'm grateful for that." He doesn't need much more. He's not interested in the celebrity culture and increasingly it's not interested in him. "I keep myself to myself and you'd never see me at the opening of . . . well, anything really."

He won't find a distraction there even though he knows the time will come when he'll have to mask the void. He doesn't know what he'll do then. He never thought he'd reach 30, he says, not in a rock 'n' roll sense, as he felt the future could always be postponed. "I just need to keep myself sane after football and it will probably hit me harder than most." Right now, Damien Duff is playing again and Ireland will hope that he can keep the future waiting.

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport