Old-fashioned leftie seeks role in the modern world

Chelsea's winger Damien Duff may be a throwback to an era when football was in black and white, but it has helped him keep a refreshingly uncomplicated outlook. Jason Burt reports
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Damien Duff allows the pronouncement to hang in the air, like one of the tantalising crosses he delivers. "Maybe," he says, "we are a dying breed." He adds: "My heroes would be Best and Giggs, and more recently Pires and Figo. They are the players who have excited me."

Damien Duff allows the pronouncement to hang in the air, like one of the tantalising crosses he delivers. "Maybe," he says, "we are a dying breed." He adds: "My heroes would be Best and Giggs, and more recently Pires and Figo. They are the players who have excited me."

The young Irishman talks in an endearing, honey-coated drawl that comes straight out of Dublin's south side. "But a lot of teams don't play with wingers nowadays. It's very rare to see two out-and-out wingers in a team. But that's what I love."

Not that he has accepted his fate. If it were down to Duff himself, then the role of left-winger would be cast across his shoulders in Chelsea blue, as readily as his surname. But the 25-year-old knows that football is not that simple any more and has learnt to adapt, learnt to evolve. "Maybe three or four years ago I was a bit more one-dimensional and would stand out on the wing all day," he says, "but I'd like to think I can come inside now and get the ball, pick passes, score goals and cause problems."

Listening to Duff brings to mind a comment made by Niall Quinn in his autobiography a couple of years ago. "The game has hardly touched Damien Duff," Quinn wrote. "He's not hard. He has no ego."

He's still the same old "Duffer". Indeed, Duff liked the nickname so much he used to have it embroidered on his boots, and even his parents, Gerry and Mary, use it. But his £17m transfer from Blackburn Rovers to Chelsea the summer before last has forced a necessary maturity upon him which has helped him cope with the "pure madness" - as he calls it - of such a move.

Seventeen million pounds. Even now it's a figure that Duff finds incredible. "It's an unbelievable amount of money, but I honestly don't think about it a lot," he says. "It's only when people, like you, remind me of it ... I suppose I've always just laughed it off."

He is equally, politely, dismissive of any suggestion that the stellar price tag may have weighed heavily on him. "I can't say it ever bothered me or affected my game." Indeed it is interesting to note that of the "big money" signings from the first extravagant flush of Roman Abramovich's cash - Juan Sebastian Veron, Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu - only Duff and the more functional Claude Makelele now feature.

Except that Duff has not featured as much as he would have liked this season. "It's not been the greatest of starts for me," Duff admits. "I'm not starting games and have sometimes not even been in the squad. Maybe a couple of years ago, it would have got to me. It probably would have killed me off, to be honest. But I've stayed strong and worked hard. I'm not one for banging on the manager's door. I've just kept my head down and tried not to let it affect me."

It did not help that when the new manager, Jose Mourinho, arrived, Duff was standing there at Chelsea's training ground in Harlington, near Heathrow, with his arm in a sling. Surgery on his dislocated shoulder - "a freak injury for a footballer" - was still healing and Duff was glad that Mourinho not only registered his concern but was eager for the Irishman to join in as soon as possible. "It's been straight down to work with him," Duff says. "It's not about talking, it's about training."

As Duff continued to heal, he first saw the new arrival Arjen Robben perform in pre-season in the role he covets, before the Dutchman himself was injured, and then Joe Cole. There may not be scope for all three of them, or even two, in Mourinho's side.

"We'll see," Duff says. "It's early days. I'll take whatever role the gaffer wants me to play. When called upon, I will be there. We play a tight midfield at present with maybe someone pushing out on the left so there's definitely a place there. I'll just have to push my way into the team." He has done. Two brilliant cameos as substitute - against Paris St-Germain and at home to Tottenham Hotspur - led to his first start under Mourinho at Middlesbrough last weekend, when he shone, having shaken off the inevitable "fear" that his shoulder would pop again. His performance prompted the shell-shocked Middlesbrough full-back Stuart Parnaby to declare: "I'd say Duff is just about the most difficult out-and-out winger you can face in the League. He's that good. It was tough out there."

Even more interestingly, the Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, so strong in the air, so eager for those crosses, added: "It makes it easier for me when players like Damien are in the side." Duff provided for Drogba on Wednesday evening, after retaining his place for the Champions' League encounter with Porto. He also provided the sublime flick for Chelsea's first goal and was both incisive and elusive throughout. He will hope to start once more against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge tomorrow.

Fighting for a regular place is something Duff has never really experienced before but he has no regrets. "At Blackburn I got used to playing every week," he says. "And I simply could not turn down a club the size of Chelsea. Coming to play and challenge for League titles with world-class players and playing in the Champions' League. I could not say no and I believe I definitely made the right decision. This is a massive club and you have to be on your game all of the time, even in training, to impress the manager. It's the place to be - and will be for many years to come."

The last comment is clearly deliberate and engineered to scotch rumours that he is seeking a move and that Newcastle United, where his former manager at Blackburn, Graeme Souness, is in charge, may come calling this January. "I've seen the speculation," Duff says. "But I love it here." Given the whirlwind comings and goings in the 14 months he has been at Stamford Bridge, such speculation is no surprise. After all Claudio Ranieri built a new team last season, only for Mourinho to rip it up and start again. "I think you have to expect that," Duff says. "With the resources we have here, you are always going to be looking for top players, especially when a new manager comes in, with his own style. So there were always going to be changes and if you started worrying about them, then it would affect you."

Duff does admit that he did find Ranieri's rotation - his tinkering - a little "hard to get used to". "There was a lot of chopping and changing," he says. "I don't think the new gaffer does anywhere near as much as Claudio did." In fact, Mourinho has used more players so far, although there does appear more Portuguese method than Italian madness in his ways. Not that Duff is too critical of Ranieri - even if he found the "running around pitches all the time" during training a little irksome. "We came awful close in the Champions' League and the League - if it wasn't for Arsenal having such an unbelievable season, we may have won it."

In that disarming style of his, Ranieri once revealed that Duff was his mother's favourite player. "I heard the story," Duff says. "But she never picked the team!" It is telling that his most cherished games under Ranieri were the home match against Newcastle and away to Lazio. "That was two games on the bounce. It was the first time that Claudio kept the same team all season. They were enjoyable, but there were also lots of others."

Duff was brilliant in those two matches, in which Chelsea scored nine goals. In Rome, in particular, he was almost unplayable. Indeed, he was brilliant for most of the first half of last season. When he played, Chelsea played, and they scored at the same pace as Arsenal. In a team of stars, opposition managers identified Duff as the danger - "We have to keep him quiet," said Arsène Wenger.

"And then my shoulder gave way," Duff says, picking up the story, "and that hampered me for the rest of the season, and the start of this. So that has been a nightmare." The injury happened on 20 December and was followed by a tear on his Achilles tendon - and then another fall on his shoulder. Still, it was not until April that Thierry Henry, regarded as the most effective goal-provider in the Premiership, as well as its top-scorer, overtook his total of 15 assists.

Duff, now "100 per cent recovered", can recall them all. And the goals he has scored. "I keep them all up here," he says, tapping the side of his head. "I know how many. But that's my job, after all, to score and set up goals." Does he play them back in his mind? "Yeah, I do. What I've done right, what I did wrong. I suppose you are always looking at the wrongs more than the rights, to correct them."

Duff may not have videos of his matches, but his father does. And his proudest moments have come playing for the Republic of Ireland. It is unusual for a footballer to be so passionate about playing for his country. "It's great being at a club like Chelsea, but playing for my country, especially at Lansdowne Road, there's no greater feeling. I just want to get as many caps as possible. I know in a lot of international teams you get people pulling out with niggling injuries, but I was devastated in the summer when I had to get my shoulder operation and missed four internationals." Even though they were just friendlies? "Yes, even though. They were four more caps to me." Next week he will face France and then the Faroe Islands in the next batch of World Cup qualifiers. Indeed, despite Roy Keane's return, it is Duff who is Ireland's most important player and has been ever since the finals in 2002.

His passion was undoubtedly stoked by Ireland's performances in an earlier World Cup - when they reached the last eight in 1990. It fired a belief that football, rather than rugby, where he was full-back for his rugby-playing school, was for him. Duff was 11. He lived in the Moyville Estate in Ballyboden and turned out for Leicester Celtic and then Lourdes Celtic. (The Celtic connection explains why he was aware of Mourinho earlier than many of the other Chelsea players - he recalls vividly how Porto beat Celtic in the Uefa Cup final two seasons ago. "I saw then what he was all about," Duff says. "That he was a top manager and he wins things.")

Duff was spotted by Pat Devlin, who was scouting for Blackburn, and he joined the Lancashire club in spring 1995 when he had just turned 16 and they were two months away from becoming Premiership champions under Devlin's friend, Kenny Dalglish. Much has changed since then - not least for Blackburn, where he first earned the "Duffer" nickname - but it again says a lot about Duff that Devlin is still around. "I've stuck with him and there's no point changing. I trust him. He's a close friend of the family now," Duff says. "I'm not one for having lots of people clinging on. You see some players and they have five or six people with them but that's not me. I've got my family, my friends, my girlfriend, and Pat looks after everything else."

Indeed, he is impervious to the publicity that surrounds football. It is the downside of the game and he is scathing about newspapers. "A lot of rubbish gets written," he says. "I don't bother reading them. It's the amount of stuff that's not true and I've no real reason to talk to them, I know it comes as part of the job but I'd rather just keep my head down and play football. I let the others do the talking," His image is what he looks at in the mirror in the morning.

This attitude has led some to portray him as some kind of hick from the sticks - an impression apparently given credence by the fact that while at Blackburn he lived alone, high in the Ribble Valley, and that he hesitated a little too much before joining Chelsea. And then there is his legendary liking for sleep. Brian Kerr, the Ireland manager, says Duff suffers from "Adhesive Mattress Syndrome", such is his ability to nod off. "I like to rest up and have my early nights," Duff says.

It meant that when he did sign for Chelsea, an inordinate amount of time was spent at his first press conference establishing his attitude to London's nightlife. When he, not unreasonably, said he enjoyed a drink "but at the right time", the qualification was omitted from some reports. Instead Duff was portrayed as a would-be playboy desperate to cavort down the King's Road. It made him all the more wary. In truth, his experience of the West End is usually limited to the occasional trip to a musical, most recently Blood Brothers. "It's better than going to the pub," he says ruefully, mindful of the previous headlines.

He doesn't live in London. Like many other Chelsea players his home is in Cobham, in the Surrey commuter belt, where the club's new training ground, due to be completed in 2006, will be. Duff hopes to be there too. "It's a close-knit squad," Duff says. "We all live a mile or two from each other. If there's a players' night out, most of the lads will go." It has added to the sense of togetherness. "We are all desperate for trophies and with the new manager we have, and what he's won, there's no one better." And, hopefully, with Duff on his side.