Newcastle eye Duff-Warnock swap

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The Independent Online

There is fresh uncertainty over Damien Duff's future at Newcastle United after the 29-year-old Republic of Ireland winger was mentioned in connection with a return to Blackburn Rovers as part of a proposed deal that would take Stephen Warnock in the opposite direction.

Newcastle offered £2m a fortnight ago for Warnock and raised that by approximately £1m last week, and Duff has been included in negotiations. A straight swap is a possibility.

Duff joined Blackburn in 1996 as a teenager from his local club in Dublin. He quickly established himself as a favourite at Ewood Park, staying loyal to Blackburn when they were relegated under Brian Kidd, despite the lure of several offers.

It took £17m of Roman Abramovich's fortune to persuade Duff to move to Chelsea in 2003, but after three years at Stamford Bridge he left for Newcastle, signing a five-year contract in 2006. Duff's time on Tyneside has been marred by injury and indifferent form and he is one of the high earners with whom Newcastle's new regime would be willing to part company.

Only last week, however, the Newcastle manager, Kevin Keegan, was talking up Duff's pre-season fitness but, with cover at left-back a priority for Keegan, Newcastle are prepared to do business with Duff included. There are obvious difficulties, though, a pay-off for Duff being one, and Blackburn's reluctance, thus far, to countenance selling Warnock.

Keegan was once again unable to field one of his two new signings at Doncaster on Saturday. Having said that he expected Jonas Gutierrez's registration to be sorted out by last Monday – "unless there's something I don't know about" -– Keegan was still without his Argentine for an unimpressive 1-0 defeat.

Speaking to Radio Five yesterday, Keegan nevertheless said that a "top eight" finish next season is the aim and would be regarded as a success. That would require a 14-point improvement on last season and supporters on Tyneside will be sceptical about that possibility until further signings are made.

Keegan's input in that process remains undefined as Dennis Wise and Tony Jimenez are guiding recruitment. Publicly, Keegan has so far disguised any frustration he may be feeling. He once again said yesterday that Mike Ashley "could be the perfect owner for a club like Newcastle" while confirming that Ashley would like partners to share the financial burden at St James' Park.

Keegan added that Joey Barton will be welcomed back when he leaves prison – at least by the manager – and that Michael Owen's new contract should be clarified within three weeks, though Keegan has been making that comment since April.

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