Wanted: The old Duff in full flight

Time for blond bomber to reassert himself in the green jersey, writes David Kelly
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Football - somebody once said it was a funny old game. It ain't meant to be. It's meant to be thrilling, exciting, exasperating, controversial, electric, invigorating; all that and more, but never, ever funny.

Damien Duff isn't laughing. Those of us who love football in this country have rarely seen Damien Duff smile in the past few years, rarely seen the tousle-haired, blonde bomber eject a laugh from his limpid, unfettered persona.

Mention his name now and sepia-tinted memories are almost irretrievable, his career slump defined by relegation in an ill-fitting left-back's garb, a swinging knee casting him so ironically from the limelight he both craves and dreads.

A conversation with a colleague elucidates a worryingly hazy recollection of his brief, hip-swinging sorties home to Croke Park, thence to embrace the more sincere warmth of a loving crowd, soothing balm from the toils of a black and white comic strip.

He played well against Brazil, you insist. A counter riposte; only first-half, two years ago. Or was it three?

But what of Cyprus? Such intelligence to realise he wasn't tightly marked! The instinct to spin inside Lambrou and Garpozis! The intuition to spot the unmarked Keane with a pinpoint cross!

A shrug, shared communally, it seems. What of it? Many more see in Duff a football supernova.

But can he be, at just 30, a story whose pages resemble a tattered scrapbook of fading memories? Are there no more chapters of unfulfilled glories to write?

Circumstantial evidence seems to dictate, sadly, that this is so. Championship football beckons. His days as a dancing winger, one of the world's best earlier this decade, supplanted by dreary shifts as an emergency left-back.

And more, emergency shifts at left-back in which he excels, as if to mournfully confirm that the once proud poacher has now irrevocably turned grim game-keeper, so incapable of performing creative feats that once made fans leap from the seats and catch their breath, he now seeks to destroy those who now inhabit his former guise.

How is it possible to smile in the light of such sadness? Especially when all one has ever wanted to do is play football?

His pay still wings its way home to the foothills of the Dublin mountains where his parents call home. The money is obscene.

"It's the job I'm in, it's not my fault," he once said. "I didn't ask for the game to be like this. I play because I love the game. That, and the fact that it's the only thing I'm good at."

And yet in the public's eyes, he deserves centre stage in a line-up of Newcastle United failures that embrace such dubious fellow travellers as convicted thug Joey Barton, reluctant international Mark Viduka and cash-guzzler Michael Owen.

He pleads loyalty to the club and is smacked in the face. At more than £1m a goal, perhaps the best fans in the world -- even better than the Irish, we are told! -- may have a point.

Isn't there room for at least one lone voice of reason in football's nuthouse?

A local football writer, Stuart Raynor from the Newcastle Chronicle demurs to this newspaper.

"Not only has he failed to produce the sort of form he was capable of when he was younger, but for much of his time here it looked like he didn't care," is his toxic summation.

"Granted, his attitude seemed to change towards the end of this season, but it was too little too late. Duff isn't the most ostentatious here, but he isn't exactly shouting from the roof-tops about how he loves Newcastle."

There is also a common perception that the neglect has been self-inflicted. Even though he cried himself to sleep at the thoughts of the foot injury which almost permanently scarred him two years ago, the alleged wanton lust for higher wages at Newcastle has invited Karmic debts, ridiculing his refusal to join Liverpool, Manchester United or (cough) Spurs.

"Damien has slowly let his career slide away," is the opinion of sports agent Johnny O'Shea. "It's hard not to think that he's contented to have two league medals in his back pocket and that big pay cheque.

"I think it's too late for him to be considered one of our greatest ever sports figures. Damien hasn't had enough big-time opportunities to show what he can do, and unfortunately for him his legacy will be one of what might have been."

So this is it, then. Duff has relinquished the very gifts bestowed upon him from such an early age. It is the tale of Dorian Grey in reverse; in our innocent minds, he retains the brio of old yet in reality, his is a talent slowly withering on the vine.

Brian Kerr is one who differs violently, although he acknowledges that the violent rancour which has seeped through the fog on the Tyne this year has deeply affected him.

"I met him recently and at the time he was very intent on doing his bit with Newcastle. He has a much more bigger view of the world than many other players. He may like to see something outside Britain in the future, possibly playing abroad at some time.

"But now he wants to be part of Newcastle getting back up. I didn't see much change in him as a person, he's been upset with the injury problems and all the instability at Newcastle compared to Chelsea when he was winning league medals and all that.

"But he's aware of what's going on in the wider world. I get the impression from him that he probably feels more than other players that he contributed to the fact that they had a poor season. He didn't get going last season at all, and it didn't go very well for him even when he did play.

"This season, while he has played, he is aware the players have to take some responsibility despite all the madness going on around the club. He's prepared to dig in and get the club back out, whether he has a say in that who knows, but I don't think there'd be a shortage of people willing to take them on whether in England or outside."

And while the Padre Pio medal Duff conceals about his footwear may not have bestowed upon him much good grace of late, Kerr feels his innate decency deserves to ride out his current slump.

"There are plenty of players who have been paid for not playing and not worried, but he loves playing, the matches, everything around the football," adds Kerr.

Duff followed Ireland to Slovakia in the last campaign, even when injured. "Much more so than other players he'd feel upset at not playing his part. He does have a conscience, he feels guilty and because not many others feel that way, it seems strange. It makes him a little different."

So much for now, what of the future? "There's plenty left in him," says Kerr. "He'd be fresher after missing so much with injury and the responsibility of playing at left-back will have helped his game. Playing there wasn't about him, it was about Newcastle and it won't have eroded his ability to get on the ball.

"There's an attitude Ireland don't need him because Aiden McGeady is there and Andy Keogh can do something. I still think we need him, he has that spark that can light up that game. That bit of magic, in terms of opposition, they're still scared of him when he can do his stuff."

The stuff of dreams. We yearn for their return on Saturday in Sofia. To see Duff, as was once Kerr's sole pre-match prompt, "just enjoy it." To see a happy Duff make us happy. It has been too sad otherwise. Sad to see him play at left-back, sad to commit himself to a Championship team, sad to stand accused of moral thievery.

Football is not a funny old game. But neither is it a sad one. This child of Italia '90 is too young to join O'Leary in Irish football's grave. Romantic Ireland, with its 'schema' and systems and 7-3-1 formations, may be dead and gone. But surely not Duffer too? Say it ain't so, Damo.

This story was sourced from Independent.ie