‘You hear so many sad stories and I didn’t want to go down a slippery slope’
Damien Duff sits down for an in-depth interview with his old boss to discuss keeping busy in retirement, the drive that set him apart, and dressing-room egos
When the man entered the hotel and confidently walked past the well-heeled businessmen who were talking about Brexit, share prices and golfing weekends in Portugal, everything seemed to stop.
Striding purposefully through the lobby and towards my table, all around me office workers were voicing the answer to the puzzle in their heads. "That's Duffer, isn't it?" they asked.
He's 38 now, father of two, 15 months retired, and adjusting nicely to the sporting afterlife, busily filling his time between the school runs and the punditry, the coaching and the family. "Good to see you," he says.
And the truth is it's always good to see him. From the first time we met - 20 years ago this month - there's always been a warmth towards him, an admiration not just for the player he was but also the person.
"He's the sort of young fella you'd be proud to call your own son," I remember saying to Noel O'Reilly, my late friend and assistant manager.
And nothing has changed in that respect. He's still the same humble Duffer he was then. The difference now is that, to use his own words, he has "come out of his shell".
Once he deliberately avoided publicity. Now he's an opinionated pundit on national television, but also one who tirelessly does his research and is aware that the license-fee paying public have to be respected.
"It's pressure," he tells me. "I may not look it, but I'm sh**ing my trousers before every show. But look, I love that. And I need it. I miss playing at a top level, miss the adrenaline.
"When I first retired, for two months, I relaxed. I enjoyed that period, too. I'd go for a few pints. It wasn't like I was drinking from lunchtime but almost every evening, I was having a couple of drinks.
"And then, after a couple of months, it dawned on me that I could end up on a slippery slope.
"You hear so many sad stories about former players. So I had to stop all that and get myself busy.
"Being live on TV, having to perform, that's a good thing."
So much about his life is good. He has found a path into coaching, working with the Irish U-15 team and the Shamrock Rovers U-15s, too. And having spent two decades of his life living away from Ireland, he's glad to be back home, even if he treasures the memories he has from a career that took him to 100 caps for Ireland, a World Cup, European Championship, two World Youth Cups and the small matter of a couple of Premier League titles.
It all seems perfect until you remember the pain he had to go through, the operations to repair a broken bone in his foot, the dislocated shoulder, the torn Achilles tendon, the ligament problems in both knees.
"There's a screw in there to keep my left knee together," he says, "there's no tendon in my right foot. I can barely kick a ball with my left foot and know there's a knee or hip replacement coming down the line.
"When I wake up in the morning, I can barely move my left knee. It's the price you pay, I guess."
If all this sounds self-pitying then you've got the wrong impression. There aren't regrets, more a quiet pride that he extracted so much out of himself, but also that awareness that he pushed himself too far.
"I worked too hard in my career," Damien says. "I wasn't clever with my workload. The day my knee went… that was in training. And it was never the same again. But the thing is, I was meant to be off that day.
"I'm like a car, I guess. I ran myself into the ground. I remember Jose Mourinho one day telling me to calm down. 'If you water the flower too much, it'll die. Go home and rest' Jose said. He was right, of course. But that was just the way I was. I wanted to be as good as I could be."
All of this I became aware of 20 years ago.
Two months into my new job as Ireland's youth manager, I travelled across to Ewood Park for a midweek Youth Cup match against Nottingham Forest, wondering if this young 18-year-old was physically capable of coming to Malaysia with my Irish U-20 squad for the upcoming World Youth Cup.
Sitting in the stand that night, I could sense this buzz, even in the warm-up.
"That's him there," one of the people around me said, pointing their arm towards the far touchline where Damien was warming up. "He's the blondie one."
Soon the blondie one was destroying Forest's defence all on his own. And that Wednesday evening in February 1997 has stuck in my mind ever since because that was the night I experienced this get-off-your-seat excitement that I've only ever encountered on two other occasions from all my years watching football.
The first time was when I was a kid, and George Best arrived in town for Manchester United's game against Waterford United.
And the next? In 2005, when this young Argentinian called Lionel Messi swaggered around the Nou Camp.
And what excited me about Damien was not just the fact he was one of ours but also that he was so thrillingly exciting, unperturbed by his physical disadvantages when confronted by bigger men, the excellence of his technique matched by an iron-clad belief.
So even though he was an 18-year-old boy and the rest of the Malaysian bound squad were 20-year-old men, I decided to bring him down to a training camp in Limerick, one of 22 players to be considered for an 18-man squad.
"He might surprise us," I said to Noel.
Instead, he blew us away. Five minutes into the training session, he was leaving defenders in his wake. Good enough to make the squad?
"Noel," I said. "He's going to be a star of the tournament."
And so it proved.
"You have to remember, when I was a 14-year-old, I was heading across to Huddersfield and training with their first team then," Damien says.
"So being an 18-year-old stepping up to play football with 20-year-olds was never going to be a problem in my head. I had an inner confidence, not something that jumps out at you, but it was there.
"So when I went down to Limerick that time, I was desperate to go to Malaysia - and I'm sure all the lads were hungry, too. But I probably wanted it more than them, not just to go to a World Cup, but to have a career in football.
"Nowadays people think it is too easy to get that career, whereas when I look back now, there was only ever going to be one outcome for me because I worked hard at it and wanted it more than any one in my age group. So it was inevitable in the end.
"But when I see kids now - and people are probably sick of hearing me say this, and I hope this doesn't sound arrogant, but it's not possible for a kid to do what I did unless they go out day after day, hour after hour, and practise until they perfect their skill.
"I go to a load of underage games in Ireland, and all I'm seeing are teams lumping it forward. I see other international teams - Poland, Holland - and they all seem more comfortable with the ball at their feet than Irish kids. For us, it seems to be a battle.
"And that makes me a little angry. It frustrates me.
"If the public are looking for the senior team to start playing like Spain, well the reality is that if our kids aren't doing it at U-14 or younger, then a change in our style of play is not going to come around any time, soon. That's just a fact."
Other realities annoy him too. As a player - who I managed at two World Youth Cups and also in my term as senior manager - he cared deeply, not just about his country, but also the pride he had in being on a winning team. Losing hurt him.
And that simplicity he talks about - "about just wanting to play and forgetting about all the distractions" - was always evident.
So when we bring up Saipan, and the desperately unfortunate row that unfolded there, his response doesn't surprise me.
"I remember we kept having all these meetings," he says. "And I just sat there day-dreaming through them. I'd be in my room, chilling out. I'd get a call, 'there is another meeting' and remember thinking, 'here we f***ing go again'. For me, the most important thing was doing my stuff on the pitch, not what happened between Roy and Mick."
That World Cup transformed him, though. After it, the world knew who Duffer was and the top clubs all wanted him. Manchester United called. So too Liverpool.
In the end, though, this charming Italian called Claudio Ranieri convinced him his future was with Chelsea. And it proved the right call. Three years there - the first under Ranieri, the latter two under Jose Mourinho - yielded three major trophies and saw him play the best football of his career.
And now, over a decade later, as he watched his old managers lose their jobs after guiding teams to the Premier League title, he's openly angry by the way players behave.
"Claudio was charismatic," he says. "You couldn't help but like him. So I was thrilled for him when he won the Premier League last year.
"Then for that to happen to him this season… it stank. When they won the league last year, the players gave 100pc for every game and they were obviously not reaching those levels this year. And you can see that by him going and (Craig) Shakespeare coming in, that it stinks.
"I don't know what happened. But I blame the players. Even if I detested the manager, I always gave him 100 pc.
"But dressing-rooms, since time began, are full of egos. It was disgraceful that the Leicester players screwed him over. You can argue the point it is a results business but it was horrendous."
Similarly, when Mourinho lost his job at Chelsea, the loyalism in Duffer came out.
"How that happened, I'll never know," he says. "People may not like him but inside the dressing-room, players loved him. Absolutely loved him. I'm lucky in that sense. I played for a lot of different managers - from Roy Hodgson, to Jose, Big Sam, Claudio, Mark Hughes, Martin Jol… there must have been about 20.
"Some were better than others. A lot better. Jose was special. Mick (McCarthy) was good to me, Roy Hodgson, Alan Irvine too.
"Graeme Souness, I liked. He didn't tolerate bull***t. He couldn't get his head around players drinking champagne after a defeat. And, let's be clear here, nor can I. It's nuts. So Graeme was my type of man.
"And so was Trap. He might have got a lot of stick but the players who gave out about him tended to be the players who didn't get picked.
"I liked him. So did Robbie (Keane), Shay (Given), Hunty. I know it didn't end well at the Euros - we trained too much, were flogged to death - but I've great time for the man. Of course you were the best of them all Brian (laughs)."
It was under Giovanni Trapattoni that Duffer's Ireland career reached an end. And there was something classy about how he said goodbye, having reached his century of caps against Italy at the Euros, all the while knowing he had reached the end.
"Even before the tournament, I realised it was time to go," he says.
So he retired, one hundred not out, like a batsman in Test-match cricket, announcing his retirement in a quiet, humble way, in keeping with his personality.
And yet part of me thought more of a fuss should have made of him, this wonderful servant to Irish football, just the fifth Irishman to reach the century mark. Instead of a fuss, though, there was a meeting with John Delaney in Heathrow Airport.
"And a quick shandy in Wetherspoons. Just John, myself and my dad, with the cap in its case, sitting there on a table," he explains.
"The way it was done kind of suited me. I know other people think differently, but if they'd wanted to have a presentation, I wouldn't have wanted the fuss. Some people would want a picture and stuff, but that is not the way I roll."
Yet if there was something a bit farcical about the presentation of his 100th cap from the FAI, then something shoddier was still to come. UEFA commissioned a special cap to be made for Damien that year. Big deal?
Obviously it wasn't for some people - because it took five years and a chance discovery of the cap inside the FAI's headquarters before Damien became aware of it.
"Apparently it was sitting in a drawer somewhere," Damien says. "The way it was presented to me - by the U-15 team I help coach - after a game we had against Holland last month, was nice. It took five years for it to happen, mind you. Still, to be fair, it's back in another drawer somewhere in my house."
For me, though, he deserved a lot more. After all, he gave us everything.
Read more here: