Wednesday 21 February 2018

'We said beforehand we'd give it a f****** lash. Sometimes it can be that simple in football' - Damien Duff

Damien Duff in action against France in 2009. Photo: Sportsfile
Damien Duff in action against France in 2009. Photo: Sportsfile

John Fallon

Were he ever to follow the lead of friend Shay Given by penning his memoirs, Damien Duff's sole World Cup play-off experience would be favourite to feature - but he has no desire to revisit the painful events of Paris eight years ago.

Injury had kept Ireland's most skilful player of the generation out of the play-off to reach a 2002 World Cup he would come of age at in Japan and Korea. The Stade de France in November 2009 was his last shot at engineering a return to that stage and Duff confirms, as Given revealed in his recently-published autobiography, that Giovanni Trapattoni's safety-first approach was defied in the bid to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit against France.

The plan hatched at the back of the team bus by the pair, along with Robbie Keane and other senior members of the squad, soon delivered results when the captain completed a flowing move to bring Ireland level in the tie.

Classic caution under the Italian's regime gave way to adventure extending into extra-time, producing a series of chances for the visitors to pinch the lead and a second away goal. That they went amiss wasn't criminal; instead that badge of dishonour belonged to Thierry Henry. After Ireland crashed out, an emotional Duff sank to his knees, unable to contain the emotions.

The tears stemmed from a sense of loss, rather than the injustice of what had unfolded. Ever the pragmatist, Duff distanced himself from any calls for a replay in the spirit of fairness and wasn't to know of the embarrassing attempt by the FAI hierarchy to shoehorn them into the South Africa showpiece as an additional qualifier.

"That night in Paris was just a blur for me and I've never watched it back," confessed the Dubliner, now retired and part of RTé's punditry team for the upcoming play-off against Denmark.

"I've no problem with their goal because I would have done exactly the same. Excuse the pun, but I wouldn't have put my hand up to the referee to say, 'I handled the ball there'.

"The disappointing part was us not winning after taking the game to them and deserving to win. It was just we said beforehand we'd give it a fucking lash. Sometimes it can be that simple in football."

Duff's trademark smirk expands when he's informed about Given's version of the pre-match uprising.

"Lads would do anything to sell books," he jests. "Fuck me, Shay giving team-talks? It wasn't like Shay brought us all into his room to be given roles and responsibilities.

"Listen, it happened down the back of the bus, where all the senior players sit, when we were going to training the night before the match and then on the way to the match. It was proper Paddies off the street stuff, just going, 'Let's have a crack off these'.

"The talk amongst us in the dressing room and during the warm-up was that we'd nothing to lose. You still work within the guidelines but there was nothing coached. We just went for it and I think that showed in the performance."

After this latest erratic campaign, which Ireland began ablaze, dipped midstream in and recovered at the death to snaffle second spot, consistency of performance is desirable over two legs against Denmark.

This is Ireland's first play-off for a World Cup since Paris, highlighting the opportunity facing this group on Saturday in Copenhagen and four days later on home soil.

"This is life or death, isn't it?" asserts Duff. "If you mess up, you're out, whereas there was a chance to bounce back during a group of 10 games.

"There's no better feeling and you'll never feel more alive than in a play-off game.

"People talk about friendly games being flat and it can be like that around the hotel for those matches. Competitive games are the pinnacle of an international career, so before you get to a major tournament, a play-off is the most important. There will be a sense of excitement in the camp.

"It probably suits the team being away in the first leg because we don't pen sides in. Sucking up the pressure, playing the long-ball and working off set-pieces suits us more.

"Still, sometimes being away first, that can bite you in the arse. I've had it before where you're alright bringing the tie home but if you concede an early goal, it soon dampens the mood around the ground."

Goals on the road in the last two play-offs against Estonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina provided the springboard for Ireland to clinch their spot at the last two European Championships back in Dublin. Martin O'Neill won't get too concerned if the pattern doesn't continue in the Danish capital, conscious that his players have displayed an ability to retrieve seemingly lost causes under his tenure.

"During my time with Ireland, some people have been pretty quick to nail us halfway through," reasoned O'Neill, who was appointed four years ago today.

"I am not one to draw analogies but I don't see Aidan O'Brien talking about a horse having won when there are another three furlongs to go. You have to wait to see what happens over the line.

"If you think you are written off, then you're written off as a team. I listen to some of the great rugby players talking about it, whenever they've heard someone say, 'Your time is up', they have responded to the threat of being moved out by being extra motivated. It is something that is pretty common in sport. It is a little like that old siege mentality that people talk about."

Duff will be watching the action from a television studio, urging his successors to create another chapter of the World Cup scrapbook he's contributed to. He's content to allow others chronicle his career rather than providing a primary account of becoming a two-time Premier League winner and member of the coveted 100-cap club for Ireland.

"We all have our secrets but I've nothing to air in public," he said in typical Duffer parlance. "I'm a borderline recluse and writing a book just isn't me.

"I didn't think coaching or punditry would be for me and I've ended up doing them now but not a book. Good luck to Shay with his one. He's a top man but I'm reading World War II National Geographic at the minute. It just caught my eye and I'm enjoying the read, just like a proper geek."

Damien Duff has launched the FARE football weeks, which are co-ordinated by Sport Against Racism Ireland (SARI). During FARE football weeks, SARI tour the country delivering free anti-discrimination football training workshops in primary schools.

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