All last week the mobile phone of Pat Devlin was left switched on. Switched on in the hope that Manchester United may come to the rescue of his star client, Damien Duff. Not that the Republic of Ireland midfielder appeared in need of rescuing. Chelsea had just tabled a £17.3m offer and were proposing to pay wages of £70,000 a week. Except Duff did not want to go. More specifically, he did not want to leave his home in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire and move to London. The city is anathema to this shy 24-year-old Dubliner, and Devlin was not averse to suggesting as such to callers. A reluctant superstar, indeed.
Duff is no ordinary footballer, and not just for his extraordinary talents. Money, despite his renegotiation last year of an impressive four-year, £35,000-a-week deal at Blackburn Rovers, is not so important. "I genuinely don't think he cares about money," said one international colleague. Ask for an interview and he looks pained at the prospect. Why, his face betrays, would you want to talk to me? Famously, his favourite pastime is sleeping - his international manager and mentor Brian Kerr refers to "Duffer" suffering from "Adhesive Mattress Syndrome". He can, it is said, sleep anywhere, and always has the appearance of having just tumbled out of bed.
Duff has plenty to sleep on at present. His advisers, a party which consists of Devlin, Duff's father, Gerry, and solicitor Pearse Meighan, have stalled Chelsea. For their part, those at Stamford Bridge are bemused that he should not wish to board the Roman Abramovich bandwagon with Glen Johnson, Géremi and Wayne Bridge, who is expected to sign tomorrow. Johnson was in the side beaten 2-0 by Lazio in a friendly in Rome, watched by the Russian billionaire owner.
Privately, Chelsea feel that Devlin, a scout rather than an agent who has known Duff since he was 13 and whose main job is managing the Irish club side Bray Wanderers, is out of his depth. They are also aware of Duff's shyness and are willing to play along. The deal would make Duff, who has scored four goals in 36 Ireland appearances and 11 in 32 games for Blackburn last season, the most expensive Irish player ever, surpassing the £13m paid by Internazionale to Coventry City for Robbie Keane.
Duff knew that he would probably move this summer after last year's outstanding World Cup displays and an injury-affected, yet successful, season. But he had hoped that United, the team he fervently supports, or Liverpool would call. It had been discussed with team-mates, both at the club he joined from school and on international duty.
Duff has already mentally noted that the time it would take for him to drive from his home to Carrington, United's training ground, is 30 minutes. At United, of course, are his friend and international colleague John O'Shea, who he knows as "Josh", plus Roy Keane, a player he respects. Duff feels there would be more support and protection. At Stamford Bridge, that price tag may weigh heavier on the shoulders of a young man who has suffered from lack of confidence.
Nevertheless, anyone who has worked with the likeable Duff speaks with boundless enthusiasm. Graeme Souness, his club manager, says he is simply world-class, team-mate Brad Friedel ranks him higher than Ryan Giggs, while Mick McCarthy, his former international boss, says he is more skilful than Michael Owen.
Few players have as prodigious a talent or scare the life out of defenders more. His biggest fan is Kerr, who has played an influential role, and there is genuine, paternal affection. Kerr, who coached Duff through the Irish youth squads, once ended a team talk by saying to him: "None of that applied to you, just go and enjoy yourself. And Duffer, we all love you."
Tony McNally, Duff's former coach at Dublin boys' club Lourdes Celtic, concurs. "When I saw him he was the greatest player I'd seen," he said. "He was a born player. He did not really need coaching." That was at the age of 10. The shyness was there, as was a passion for United. "There were others who were more street-wise, but no one had the same talent," McNally said.
At Duff's next club, St Kevin's, Ken O'Donoghue added: "Damien was a very, very quiet, nice, well-mannered lad. You knew immediately, though, that he was special. He had a fair few choices, Celtic and a few others were interested in him, but it was always sticking out that he would go to a club that wasn't in a big city. Blackburn were the ideal club for him, because he was a shy and quite young fella, as he still is now." Question is, will Duff continue to "stick out"?
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- Stephen Carter