Jose slowly takes a shine to the Duff diamond

Everyone agrees Ireland's talisman is a match-winner. But will he win over his club boss?
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The Independent Online

It is commonly reported that there was a clause in Damien Duff's contract at Blackburn Rovers which stipulated that any club wanting to buy him had to pay not a penny less than £17 million. The clause didn't exist; or, at least, so sources close to Chelsea now claim. It lapsed six months before they bought him in the summer of 2003.

It is commonly reported that there was a clause in Damien Duff's contract at Blackburn Rovers which stipulated that any club wanting to buy him had to pay not a penny less than £17 million. The clause didn't exist; or, at least, so sources close to Chelsea now claim. It lapsed six months before they bought him in the summer of 2003.

However, Chelsea were willing to pay the extraordinary figure for two reasons. Firstly, they wanted him and, secondly, they were sympathetic to the stance of Blackburn's chief executive, John Williams, that it was the only way they could sell the deal to their fans without protests. Such was Duff's immense popularity. He was even Roman Abramovich's favourite Premiership player.

The revelation helps explain why the deal dragged on so long and why it was only Chelsea's fourth bid that succeeded, to make him what was then London's most expensive footballer. Duff was in demand and had also excited the inter-ests of Manchester United and Liverpool, but although it is true that he would probably have preferred to stay in the north, Chelsea's was the only bid on the table.

Duff is now as popular at Stamford Bridge as he was at Ewood Park, where he spent seven successful years. But there is a crucial difference. He is much less certain of his place. When asked about how he regards his Chelsea future he says, "I'm hanging in there", which is not the response expected of such a talented and highly regarded player but probably reflects his natural modesty as well as his understandable concern.

Indeed, one of the reasons it is clear that Duff is so popular is the crowd reaction when he is either substituted or brought on from the bench. He has not played 90 minutes for his club since the game against Tottenham Hotspur away on 3 April and, staggeringly, only completed eight games in total last season. For the Republic of Ireland, meanwhile, he has played - and not been substituted in - five games already this season, and has frequently been the man of the match.

When he came on for Chelsea against Spurs last month, he transformed the game. At the end, the hug from the Spurs striker Robbie Keane, his international team-mate, lingered a little longer than usual. There were words of sympathy from Keane in his friend's ear. He, too, was saying, 'Hang on in there'. Since then, Duff has had three starts and has shone in each. As with last season, when he plays, Chelsea play. Their football looks more exciting. Keane says: "Damien, obviously, is someone you want to play in every game, someone you can trust to turn it on. It's great for us [the Republic of Ireland] that he has reclaimed his place in the Chelsea team."

The comparison with Ireland, following the last round of World Cup qualifiers and before the Champions' League starts again in midweek, with Chelsea at home to CSKA Moscow, is worthwhile. The question is: will Duff ever become the talisman for his club, in the way that he is for Ireland and the way that Thierry Henry is for Arsenal and Wayne Rooney is threatening to be for United? When Ireland played Switzerland last month it was Duff, not the returning Roy Keane, whose presence agitated the Swiss.

At a book launch in Dublin during the week, Jack Charlton, the former Ireland manager, was clear in his assess- ment. "He blows them away," Charlton says of Duff. "England have been trying for years to find a naturally gifted left-winger. They are very hard to find and we never found one. The game now has become a passing game, where it's unusual to see somebody like Damien Duff actually go at a man, take him on and leave him for dead."

The rarity of his type may be his problem. Not many managers know how to deploy such a player. When he arrived at Chelsea Jose Mourinho, who wants his team to pass, pass and pass again, was a sceptic. Duff's team-mate William Gallas says: "He is a great player and you never know what he is going to do." Which Mourinho may regard as a negative, despite Duff's impressive consistency and work-rate.

In fairness, part of the problem has been Duff's unavailability - he greeted his new boss with his arm in a sling from shoulder surgery - and Mourinho's predecessor, Claudio Ranieri, shared his concern over Duff's ability to withstand injuries. Analysis has even been done on his running style.

Moreover, such a natural winger, although able to play inside or up front, did not necessarily fit into the system Mourinho planned, and the Portuguese grew exasperated at the constant questioning of whether - and when - he was going to play the Irishman. He even returned to the theme on Friday ahead of yesterday's match against Manchester City. "It was almost a dramatic situation when Duff was not in the team," he said. "It was a drama because everyone was speaking about Duff and Duff and Duff. But at this moment Duff is happy, Duff is playing well and nobody speaks about him." Apart from how well he is playing.

However, Mourinho has also made it plain that Duff does not figure as part of the core of his team. "Cech, Ferreira, Terry, Makelele, Lampard and Drogba," he said. "This is my spine, and the rest can change from time to time." It is a shame. But Mourinho said, instead, that it is part of "football at the highest level". "If a player wants to be the king of the club and play 60 matches a season and always in the team he should join a small club," Mourinho said. "At big clubs there is always rotation."

It's instructive, but so are the words from one of the players who is part of that spine, Frank Lampard. "I think we're better balanced when Damien Duff plays," the England midfielder said. "He gives us more width, because going wide is his natural instinct. Once you have that width, there's the threat to the oppo-sition." Mourinho appears to be taking heed.

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