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Fulham winger has endured bitter disappointment along with his colleagues at Euro 2012 but they owe him a memorable display on the occasion of his century cap against Italy

 Peter Staunton
 Ireland Expert Follow on

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There are precious few reasons to celebrate at Ireland's final game of Euro 2012 against Italy in Poznan. A campaign which drew supporters from the Emerald Isle in their droves came to a premature and whimpering end as a result of damaging, damning on-field performances from the Boys in Green against Croatia and Spain.

Ireland now have nothing to play for but pride. Seven goals conceded, one scored and no points - a truly horrific, dismal return from two matches, three goals away from the worst-ever display at a European Championship finals. But the Irish team do not only owe a decent display to their 30,000-odd fans, they owe one to one particular man within their ranks.

Damien Duff should have been marking his 100th cap for the nation against the Azzurri in a game which had something riding on it. He should have been able to thrive under pressurised, tournament conditions and attempt to lead Ireland from a tough group into the quarter finals. Instead it has become, for Giovanni Trapattoni's team, a glorified friendly.

But that should not detract from the significance of the occasion for Duff, the stand-in captain for the night. One of Ireland's most naturally-gifted and electrifying players, the 33-year-old will now take his place among Irish centurions Shay Given, Robbie Keane, Kevin Kilbane and Steve Staunton. 

And if there is one positive to come from this ramshackle campaign, then it should be homage to Duff. Not that he'd thank you for it.

DAMIEN DUFF | CAREER PROFILE

Read more on Duff
INTERNATIONAL STATS
Caps 99
Goals 8
Debut 1998 vs Czech Republic
CLUB STATS
Career appearances 553
Career goals 79
Clubs Blackburn, Chelsea, Newcastle, Fulham

“I suppose when you get there and get close to it you want to get there," he told the press before the tournament commenced.

"But I have never really been thinking about it to be honest. Nearing it would be a nice goal and a nice feat but points on the board are more important than caps.”

Duff has not enjoyed the Ireland career his talent deserved. Despite exploding onto the scene, making his debut alongside Robbie Keane in Czech Republic in 1998, and stealing the stage at World Cup 2002 following a hugely productive international youth career, Duff had to wait another decade to grace a major tournament. And look how that turned out.

In between there have been bitterly disappointing playoff defeats, underwhelming qualification campaigns and, in all honesty, inferior players around him.

In contrast, his club career has occasionally bordered on the spectacular, despite prolonged periods of injury.

Italy v Ireland preview

When people fondly remember the scintillating football purveyed by Jose Mourinho's first Chelsea team, they invariably reference 'Duff and Robben'. Two left-footed wingers with pace to burn, with ability and skill, tearing defences apart and loading the bullets for Didier Drogba.

His spell at Chelsea was preceded by a gradual but steady rise through the public consciousness at Blackburn Rovers, the club he eventually left for £17 million for Stamford Bridge.

When he was no longer part of the process in west London, after two Premier League title-winning campaigns, he moved to Newcastle with the good wishes of Mourinho. There, admittedly, Duff came to epitomise the Magpies' habit of overpaying under-performing players.

But a late career renaissance back in west London, with Fulham, has restored some of Duff's lustre in the English game. He no longer roasts full backs with pace but is still capable of tricks, goals and assists. Consistency is the name of the game now , and he credits the Cottagers' renowned medical team for his current fine condition.

In Sunday's pre-match press conference, he was non-committal about his international future despite his willingness to play on 'well into' his thirties. He is part of the generation of players, including Shay Given and Richard Dunne who may call time on national duty. He admitted that the France World Cup playoff defeat took its toll on him, personally, and has spoken of a desire to return to the World Cup stage in 2014 and score a goal to make amends for that disappointment. But whether that's a realistic or quixotic goal, we'll have to wait and see.

Damien Duff has played in some underwhelming Ireland teams in his time and deserved more from his time in the green shirt. But let's hope he at least gets the centenary celebration he deserves against Italy in Poznan.

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