By Ronan Murphy
Back in 1998, Northern Ireland appointed Lawrie McMenemy as the coach who would herald in a new era. His first game in charge was a 'B' international against old rivals the Republic of Ireland, whose manager Mick McCarthy was also undergoing a transition period after inheriting a wizened squad from Jack Charlton.
The history books record the match as a 1-0 win to Northern Ireland in front of a capacity crowd at Tolka Park, but they fail to note that it was McCarthy's first chance to properly see Robbie Keane and Damien Duff in action. Duff, then 19, showed glimpses of promise early in the game but lacked the experience to change the outcome of the match. McMenemy saw the potential Duff had, telling the Irish Times after the game that "Damien Duff has great quality. He takes set-pieces like Matt Le Tissier."
By then, however, most people involved in Irish football knew all about Damien Duff. The wing wizard had been part of Brian Kerr's 1997 Fifa World Youth Championship semi-final squad, and scored the first-ever golden goal in the knockout stage against Morocco. At club level, he had already made the breakthrough with Blackburn Rovers after signing from St Kevin's Boys in Dublin. A man of the match-winning debut performance on the last day of the 1996-97 season was followed by an excellent 97-98 campaign when he became a first-choice winger at Ewood Park.
Duff captured the attention of many people with his exciting attacking play for Blackburn, and there was much clamour for his inclusion in Mick McCarthy's Ireland squad. Just a month after the 'B' game against Northern Ireland, he was handed his first senior cap, in a friendly against Czech Republic, when he beat his marker three times in the first 10 minutes to announce himself on the international scene.
Another friendly appearance against Mexico followed, before McCarthy's new-look Ireland began Euro 2000 qualifiers with a 2-0 win over Croatia at Lansdowne Road. Duff was withdrawn at half time as Ireland defended a two-goal lead, but Kenny Cunningham liked what he saw of his new team-mate, telling the Irish Independent that Duff was "a very tricky customer to mark...Where Damien is concerned, looks certainly are deceptive. He has a very languid, laid-back style, and looks to be ambling about the pitch most of the time. But give him the ball and he's transformed. He's got explosive pace over 10 yards, and if he gets half a yard on you, you're gone because he can deliver a cross onto a sixpence. He's one of the best crossers I've seen, top class."
|Ireland debut: March 1998
Caps/ Goals: 100/ 8
Clubs: Blackburn Rovers 1996-2003, Chelsea 2003-06, Newcastle United 2006-09, Fulham 2009-
Honours: Football League Cup 2000-01, 2004-05
Premier League 2004-05, 2005-06
Community Shield 2005
Intertoto Cup 2006
Carling Nations Cup 2011
Uefa Team of the Year 2002
The 2002 World Cup was Duff's finest hour in a green jersey. He played all three group games, netting against Saudi Arabia; his bowing celebration paid tribute to local fans and became one of the most iconic moments of the tournament. A stellar performance against Spain in the knockout round followed, but despite Duff winning a penalty and shining up front and out wide, Ireland exited the competition on penalties. Duff's performances saw him named in the Uefa Team of the Year for 2002, the only Irishman to ever achieve that feat.
Following the departure of Mick McCarthy, Duff was reunited with Brian Kerr, who continued to partner him with Robbie Keane in attack. Duff was a regular provider for Keane at international level, and impressive performances at club level saw Chelsea splash out £17 million for his signature in the summer of 2003. His first season at Stamford Bridge was hindered by injury, but he did have a fantastic return for Ireland with four goals in nine games during 2003.
The following two seasons saw the Dubliner pick up Premier League winners' medals, as well as a League Cup and a Community Shield. The arrival of Arjen Robben at Chelsea saw Duff swap wings to the right, where he proved to be just as adept, with standout performances against Barcelona in the Champions League and Manchester United in their League Cup run.
Jose Mourinho could not guarantee Duff first team football at Stamford Bridge, and he moved to Newcastle United for £5 million in summer 2006. Steve Staunton had just taken over as Ireland boss, with Duff out wide and Kevin Doyle partnering Robbie Keane in attack. Staunton's tenure as Ireland manager was as disappointing for Duff as his spell at Newcastle was, with the winger missing seven months with knee and ankle injuries.
Following Newcastle's relegation, Duff moved to Fulham under Roy Hodgson, which reignited his career. By that time, Giovanni Trapattoni had been appointed Ireland manager. A stellar start to his Fulham career saw Hodgson compare Duff's work ethic to that of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona, telling the Guardian that he was surprised Fulham faced little competition for his signature. "When he left Chelsea to go to Newcastle he suffered quite a few injuries. Maybe there was that perception that he'd lost his way or the injuries had taken their toll," Hodgson said. "These things permeate the world of football and people listen to them. But luckily when I saw him playing for Newcastle last year I saw in him what I've always seen."
Duff's consistent performances for Fulham were mirrored in his Ireland form, helping Trapattoni's side reach the playoffs for the 2010 World Cup, when he put in a fantastic display against France. Duff finally returned to a major tournament when Ireland beat their playoff hoodoo to knock out Estonia and reach Euro 2012.
The 33-year-old was one of few Irish players to come out of Euro 2012 with praise after the team put in three disappointing performances against Croatia, Spain, and Italy. That final group game against Italy was Duff's 100th international appearance, and he was awarded the captain's armband to end his Irish career as only the fifth player to reach that milestone. Robbie Keane had no problem handing over the armband saying that Duff "will probably go down in history as one of the greatest Ireland players of all time."
After Duff announced his international retirement, FAI Chief Executive John Delaney echoed Keane's sentiments, commenting that he has "no doubt that Damien Duff will go down in history as one of Ireland's greatest ever players." There won't be too many people disagreeing with Delaney on this occasion.