Reflecting on the storied careers of Irish soccer greats, Green Giants is a feature that will be written by SWAI members, tapping into their knowledge, experience and interaction with some of the best players to pull on a Republic of Ireland jersey.
This latest profile is on former midfielder Damien Duff.
By Aidan Fitzmaurice (The Herald)
Over a decade and a half, Damien Duff played 100 senior international games for his country. When I look back on his international career, two moments from his Republic of Ireland days stand out, neither of them was a successful occasion for Ireland and in one of them he didn’t even play in the match.
The first was in far-off Belgrade in 1998, a time so distant in the past that the country who were Ireland’s opponents that night (Yugoslavia) are no longer around as a football team. Mick McCarthy’s team lost 1-0 but in the Red Star Stadium that night, Duff was astonishing, taking on a superb Yugoslavia side who had some of the top players in Europe at the time (Savicevic, Stankovic, Mijatovic) with a talent and vigour that belied his age (Duffer was still only a teenager) and his experience (it was his first campaign with the senior side).
When you cover the Ireland team for a living you can, like supporters, get wrapped up in the overall side of the event, the result, and file away an Ireland defeat as one of those bad news stories, but even in defeat, Duff’s performance that night in Belgrade was something to remember and treasure and amazing to think that, just a few months earlier, he was ‘only’ in the Ireland B team alongside players like Sean Devine and Willie Boland.
I saw another side of Duff a decade later. Again it was away from home, in the old Eastern bloc, in a qualifier. Sitting down for coffee in an outdoor cafe in downtown Bratislava the day before the game, Duffer appeared in view, ambling about the streets, probably on the hunt for a good cup of coffee like everyone else.
Seeing an Ireland player in the city centre in daylight hours shouldn’t be a surprise (they are allowed out of their hotels for a bit every now and again, you know) but it was a surprise to see Duffer there in Bratislava as he wasn’t even in the Ireland squad, omitted due to injury.
But that didn’t stop him wanting to see Ireland play so Duffer, on a day off from club duties, hopped on a budget airline to Slovakia’s capital just to see the game, and show his support for his team-mates. It’s hard to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic booking himself on a Ryanair flight to see Sweden play in a game he wasn’t involved in himself.
Badge-kissing and insincere flag-waving are horrible elements of the modern game, as it’s so easy for a player to fake his love for a club (or his country) when it had no meaning. The fact that Duff was willing to travel 1,000 miles, while injured, on his day off, to see Ireland play showed just what international football meant to him.
In time, I think fans will look back on the recent age, where Ireland managers could call on players like Duff, Dunne, Given and Keane – the ‘famoose’ as Giovanni Trapattoni used to call them, as a golden era, just as an earlier generation had the good fortune to watch an Ireland side containing names like Brady, Stapleton, O’Leary, Whelan and Lawrenson, players who were (genuinely) among the best in Europe at the time.
Duff won medals, played for a big club, was involved in a couple of big-money transfers and was recognised as one of the top players in his position in the English club scene. I know that players like James McCarthy and Shane Long have moved clubs for big transfer fees in the last while, but Duff’s move to Chelsea was probably the last time that an Ireland player was genuinely in demand by some of the top clubs in England. There is no Irish player on the horizon now, bar maybe Seamus Coleman, who will get club managers as excited as Duff did 10 years ago.
Underlying it all was his desire to play international football. The last time I had the chance to sit down with Duff for a one-on-one interview, I asked him about international retirement. He joked that it wasn’t in his plans and said he would keep turning up for Ireland squads until someone told him not to.
Of course we know it didn’t pan out that way as Duffer retired from the Ireland scene after Euro 2012 and carried on his club career. After 100 caps and 14 years of service, he knew his time was up so he shuffled off the stage.
His Ireland career was a proud one: 100 caps, appearances at two major finals and a large dose of highlights. We have high hopes for what the likes of Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy, Robbie Brady can do next in their careers, but until they achieve true greatness, we will hold onto the memories of Duffer for that big longer.
Check out previous articles on Irish legends…
Noel Spillane profiles Denis Irwin
Neil O’Riordan profiles Niall Quinn
Paul Lennon profiles Robbie Keane
Sean Creedon profiles Johnny Giles
Emmet Malone profiles Paul McGrath
Sean Ryan profiles Liam Brady