THE playing career of Mark Hughes was just winding down at Blackburn when Damien Duff was coming through the ranks – and now the Fulham manager believes the winger is back to his very best.
Hughes played alongside Duff between 2000 and 2002, when the Republic of Ireland star was earning a reputation as one of the best natural wingers of his generation.
Duff’s superb form earned him a £17m (€20m), move to Chelsea, and two Premier League titles, while regular appearances in the Champions League’s latter stages duly followed.
But his career was in danger of petering out after he moved to Newcastle in 2006. Relegation to the Championship – sealed by Duff’s own goal at Aston Villa on the final day of the 2008/09 season – was the nadir, before Roy Hodgson rescued him from the doldrums just over a year ago.
Now Hughes has succeeded Hodgson at Fulham he is the man tasked with getting the best out of the mercurial 31-year-old, who is set to return from a groin injury for today’s Premier League clash with Everton at Craven Cottage.
And having seen Duff as his principal supplier of ammunition at Ewood Park, the Welshman is well placed to judge that the 84-times capped international is at the top of his game.
“I’ve known Duffer a very long time, having played in the same team as him,” said Hughes. “We have protected him from injury in the last couple of games, but he has been playing really well since I’ve been at the club.”
And Hughes admits that both he and Giovanni Trapattoni can ill afford to underestimate a player who has won two League Cups to go with his Premier League medals.
“Damien has won things, and that is very important to have in your group,” added Hughes. “He is a very experienced guy now, and knows what it takes to have an impact in big games. And his form has been excellent – long may it continue.”
But while Hughes is delighted with Duff, he is rather less enamoured with the heavy tackling that has left strikers Bobby Zamora and Mousa Dembele facing lengthy injury lay-offs.
Zamora will be out for five months after breaking his leg in a challenge with Wolves’ Karl Henry, while Hughes is still fuming over the tackle by Stoke’s Andy Wilkinson that has sidelined Dembele for up to three weeks with ankle ligament damage.
The 46-year-old admits rough treatment was an accepted part of the game during his own playing days but says times have changed. “In years gone by, when I was playing, the first 20 minutes used be a free for all,’’ he recalled.
“The centre-halves would kick you up the backside for the first 10 to 20 minutes and then you would kick them back for 10 to 15 minutes. Then everything settled down and a football match broke out.
“That isn’t the case anymore. Any incidents on the ball or off the ball are highlighted and you can’t get with things that you used to. Or I used to.”
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