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100 and out for Damien Duff?


Damien Duff looked typically uncomfortable
in front of the cameras yesterday

Damien Duff looked typically uncomfortable in front of the cameras yesterday

Damien Duff looked typically uncomfortable in front of the cameras yesterday

Damien Duff has always been happier beneath the glare of the floodlights than the glow of the camera lens.

A fugitive from the media all his days, the occasion of his 100th cap -- and, as he barely conceals without actually revealing it to be so -- most likely his last, prompts a rare public appearance from soccer's Howard Hughes.

"He probably won't want to play and say he'd come on for the last five minutes!" Robbie Keane joked on Saturday.

In the unlikely event Duff needed persuasion, Keane decided to forgo the captaincy for this evening's dead rubber.

The pair started all those years ago -- 14 -- in Olomouc and now there is the slimmest of chances that they may also share the swansong, despite their respective prevarications.

Ireland's supporters will dearly hope not.

Nevertheless, Ireland's final appearance in a hitherto desultory championships is already assuming an elegiac air.

"Yeah, I've been dragged here kicking and screaming," smiles Duff, speaking to a crowded room with all the relish of a patient strapped to a dentist's chair.

"I'm not one to make a big thing out of things in life," he says with several degrees of understatement. "I'll look back in a few weeks ... I just want to get a good result and a good performance tomorrow."

With those words, he hints that this may be indeed be a valedictory appearance, a chance for individual and collective rehabilitation after a tournament when so many of Ireland's senior players, Duff included, have under-performed.

Asked directly about his international future, he discreetly demurs.

"I've made my mind up what I'm going to do but it's probably not the right time to say anything now," he adds.

"The rest of lads know as well. It shouldn't be a problem playing into my mid-30s, I look after myself very well."

Fulham, not Ireland, may appear to be the beneficiary of his aspirational longevity, despite Marco Tardelli's plaintive plea for him to continue his international career.

"I think we need him for the future because he is a very important person for all the players and the younger players," said the assistant manager.

Duff may not be ready to add a final punctuation mark to his international career.

While Duff referred, briefly, to his highs -- World Cup, belated debut goal -- and the lows -- France play-off defeat -- Keane eloquently summed up Duff's influence down the years.

"He will probably go down in history as one of the greatest Ireland players of all time," he says.

"He's such a great fella, very, very humble and does not want a fuss made of him. For anybody to reach 100 caps and to do that in such a special game is a great credit to him.

"He has had to battle with injuries. Although me and Duffer started off at the same time, I am about 20 caps ahead of him.


"Unfortunately, he has had a few injuries along the way but to now get 100 caps is a credit to him. All the lads in the squad really respect him and he's a great guy.

"He's a real character and I obviously know Duffer probably more than anybody on the team. We go back a long way and we are great friends.

"Damien's very, very quiet in front of the cameras and the media but off the pitch he is great company."

Keane barely had to pause when asked to define the qualities that sustained Duff during his career.

"It's down to quality, he's a quality player. Since he started at club level at the age of 17 he has been a top, top player.

"He has not changed and his desire and commitment for his country is great to see. He is now reaching 100 caps and it's well deserved and the desire and hunger he still has for the game is great."

While Duff, Shay Given and Richard Dunne move nearer retirement, Keane notably bristled when asked his intentions.

"Have you asked Stephen Hunt or Keith Andrews? They are the same age as me so we will see. I am still the same age, does it make any difference?

"I am not thinking for one second about retiring. I am not thinking about anything but this game, to be honest with you.

"After that, I will not even say that I will think about it because it is something that I have not even thought about at this moment so I will concentrate on the Italy game. And that's it really."

Duff, as is his undemonstrative wont, will keep things simple. At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho used to rotate the pre-match team talks. Duff may not need to say much tonight.

"It's been a while," he smiles. "It shouldn't be a problem to rally the troops, we need to restore pride in the jersey.

"I don't think the lads will need a team talk to be sure."

Duff will hope to bow out of these championships on a high.

He was not the worst performer against Spain but a YouTube video doing the rounds, capturing every touch of the World Cup clash with the same opponents a decade ago, starkly illustrates the passage of time.

Brian Kerr used to tell a story about Duff from his successful, double European Championship-winning days as Ireland's underage coach.

After he delivered his final instructions to 10 of his starting line-up, he would turn to the faintly distracted figure slumped in the corner of the dressing-room.

"And 'Rasher'!" he would exhort, "just enjoy yourself, okay!"

It's all he's ever wanted to do.

Irish Independent