Damien Duffer: a star is born again

On a number of levels, what a lovely surprise that was to see Mr Damien Duff turning up all hale and hearty on RTÉ’s ‘Soccer Republic’ the other night.

Damien Duffer: a star is born again

The welcome sense of glad tidings from the Irish abroad reinforced by the fact that he was communicating with home from far-off Australia via Skype, just like the rest of the diaspora.

Of course, the first surprise was that Damien was on our screens at all, the mild colonial boy being famously the most camera-shy Irish footballer in living memory.

The characteristic story is told of an FAI official once trying to coax him into doing a promotional gig by stressing how much good it would do his profile and so on, to which – after listening respectfully to the pitch – the Duffer is said to have replied: “But how will that improve me as a footballer?”

Collapse, as they say, of stout party.

Still, just because Duff has a reputation for saying nothing, that shouldn’t be taken to mean that he has nothing to say. On the only occasion I managed to snare a one-on-one interview with him – at the club’s Cobham training ground back in his Chelsea days — he proved refreshingly opinionated on a range of issues, not least the-then plans to depart Lansdowne Road for a temporary home in Croker while the old ground by the Dodder was being levelled and replaced.

“The likes of Thierry Henry don’t like going to Lansdowne Road but he’s gonna like going to Croke Park,” he told me. “Lansdowne Road was our stomping ground.

"It was a kip and the changing rooms were cold and you’re on the toilet and there’s a train going by your head, so Croke Park is going to be an awful lot more comfortable and welcoming to the opposition. Croke Park is a beautiful stadium and I’m sure all Irish fans would love to go and watch big games there in front of 80,000 people and — maybe I’m speaking out of turn – but I’m just saying that for opposing teams it’s going to be a nice place for them to play too.”

For Croker, read also the Aviva, and you’d have to say the man had a point.

At this late stage in his career, the stakes are obviously not as high, yet even that awareness didn’t detract from the other pleasant surprise arising out of his appearance on the box this week – the fact that Damien Duff clearly feels he has football left in him despite sustaining that horrible double-injury which brought his Oz adventure to a premature close.

Indeed, far from having his career terminated with extreme prejudice, as we all initially feared, Duff was able to make the headlines this week by assuring Tony O’Donoghue that he’d always meant what he said about coming back to play in the League of Ireland and that, more to the point, he’s now targeting the end of April/early May for when he’ll be “home for good and looking for a job.”

By and large, this prospect was greeted with predictable delight, Stephen Kenny on hand in the studio to note that there’d be more than one League of Ireland manager licking their lips at the thought of adding the Duffer to their ranks.

There are those, it’s true, who worry about the league degenerating into some kind of retirement home for fading stars but the presence of the excellent Colin Healy – whose homecoming admittedly predated those of Liam Miller, Keith Fahey and Stephen McPhail – among the nominees in the latest FAI Player Of The Year awards, should be enough to confirm that former internationals ostensibly past their prime can still make a more than meaningful contribution to our national league.

It’s important here not to confuse the return of established players in their 30s with the phenomenon of long ago whereby some of the biggest names in English and, indeed, world football – George Best being only the most stellar example – fleetingly touched down on these shores for what amounted to no more than a lucrative cameo in the twilight of their careers.

By contrast, if Damien Duff can regain his fitness, then his widely acknowledged love of playing football – allied to the serious professionalism which has always underpinned that passion – should ensure he would be a vital, as well as a marquee, addition to whichever SSE Airtricity club is lucky enough to secure his talents.

On a related note, I see that some of the league’s devotees are up in arms about the coverage ‘Soccer Republic’ gives to football matters not directly related to the domestic game. ”We get just one hour,” was one comment posted on the RTÉ website. “Why can it not at least be about the League of Ireland.? A terrible pathetic effort by RTÉ.”

There are times when some LOI fans remind me of nothing so much as those inverted music snobs who lose the plot the minute their favourite band actually begins to shift a few records — the football equivalent, if you like, of that ‘ Of course, I much prefer their early stuff’ schtick.

So, sure, if we want the League to retain the status of a cult band then, fine, let’s keep it in the isolation lab and ensure that it’s not contaminated by any association whatsoever with the glamour of the global game. On the other hand, seeing League of Ireland players and games rubbing shoulders with international stories and stars could just be the very thing, it seems to me, which might prompt the uninitiated to start making some positive connections for a change and, then – who knows? — maybe even surprise themselves one of these nights by vacating the armchair in front of the box and getting along to their local ground to sample a real, live football match.

And if the great Duffer happens to be on that pitch, all the better.

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