DAMIEN DUFF says he will welcome Stephen Ireland “with open arms” should the Manchester City player decide to return to the Irish team.
And the Newcastle United winger reckons that some of his Irish colleagues have been “naive” in expressing reservations about the prospect of the Cobh man resuming his international career.
However, Duff doesn’t believe that his fellow Magpie Kevin Nolan will avail of FIFA’s new eligibility rules to declare for the Republic.
The Irish international was speaking in the wake of playing 45 minutes in Newcastle United’s 3-0 win in a friendly against Shamrock Rovers at the Tallaght Stadium on Saturday.
Asked about rising hopes that Stephen Ireland is planning a return to national service, Duff was initially cautious in his response.
“We’ve heard that before so we’ll wait and see,” he said. But he then went on to leave his listeners in no doubt that he would be delighted if Ireland returns. Said Duff: “If he does come, I will – and I’m sure the rest of the lads will – welcome him with open arms. He was the best player last season so I’m sure he’d improve us.”
Recently Stephen Hunt was much more equivocal when discussing the possibility of a Stephen Ireland comeback, something to which Duff – without actually naming names – seemed to be alluding when he went on to say: “There would be no problem with me but I’ve seen some of the younger lads who are probably a bit naive saying things in the press. I think we know who they are – saying they wouldn’t be happy. But as I said, whatever problems Stephen has had, he is a top player and if he comes back, fair play.”
However Duff doesn’t think that Kevin Nolan – who also played for Newcastle in Tallaght on Saturday – will belatedly declare for the Republic and, by the sounds of things, he won’t be losing too much sleep about it if that’s how it pans out.
“I think he has mentioned it but I think he likes his days off and a few beers when the international time comes around,” said Duff with a smile. “I don’t think (it will happen). The lads are doing well already so I don’t think there is any point in upsetting the applecart. He is a great lad and a top player – very clever. But I think he said no before so there is no point in pushing away at him.”
For Duff, facing into a season in the Championship with relegated Newcastle, the prospect of Ireland’s World Cup run-in has clearly given him a great lift.
“Even lying on my sunbed in the summer that was all I was thinking about,” he admitted. “I’m sure all the lads were. We finished off the season on a high with a good result in Bulgaria. We are all geared up for it – even now.”
First up, is a September return to the Mediterranean island which has haunted Ireland’s fortunes in recent campaigns.
“We can’t go to Cyprus thinking of it as a revenge mission,” said Duff, “we are just thinking about the group and obviously we need three points. We are definitely good enough to go there and win but you can see what has happened to the teams that have gone there already – Italy only sneaked a win in the last few minutes.
“People think you are going to go there and spank Cyprus but it just doesn’t happen. The result a few years ago (the 5-2 defeat in Nicosia) – we know what that was like. But we are looking to go there and win.
“We obviously need the three points and we are desperate to get them. We are still thinking after the Bulgaria game about winning the group. We obviously have Italy at home (in October) so nothing else will do against Cyprus. I don’t think we are exactly looking behind at Bulgaria – we all still believe we can win it.”
As for last Saturday, Duff said he enjoyed the opportunity to play at Shamrock Rovers’ new home.
“Obviously the stadium has been a long time coming and it still isn’t finished yet, but it was nice to come and play here and see what it’s all about,” he said. Some time ago, the Dubliner had let slip that he could see himself finishing his career with the Hoops, “shuffling about Tallaght” in his elder years as he put it.
On Saturday, the Hoops fans indulged in some good-humoured mickey-taking, chanting “You’ll never play for Rovers” when Duff appeared in front of them to take a corner. Asked if he’d heard them, Duff deadpanned: “Ah yeah, so now I’ll be looking to go back and play for Bray. If they don’t want me, I don’t want to play for them anyway.”
Meanwhile, former Irish international Chris Hughton, who once again finds him as caretaker manager of Newcastle – while Alan Shearer waits in the wings for news of a buyer for the embattled club – was only too happy to pay tribute to Damien Duff.
“First and foremost, Duffer is always a joy to work with,” he observed. “He’s a very humble lad who likes to train, and train hard and sometimes too hard. If I look back on previous seasons, sometimes he’s been disrupted a little bit with the odd injuries. But he’s done a full pre-season last pre-season and he’s back on the back of two good international results and he’s working as hard as anybody this pre-season.”
Asked if playing in the Championship could be detrimental to Duff’s World Cup ambitions, Hughton’s response was unequivocal.
“No. Damien is a very focused footballer. He always wants to do well and is always disappointed if he doesn’t do well and I don’t see any changes in him at all. What he has done is show a desire to want to do well and to stay and whatever the circumstances are he’ll be very focused. And when he’s like that he’s very much a plus.”
But not, he hastened to add, at left-back, the position Duff ended up filling for Newcastle as they fought in vain to escape the drop at the end of last season.
“No, I don’t see that. I think because of who he is, Duffer – when we had a problem in that position – was the first one to put his hand up and do a job. But, no, we don’t see him there. He’s got to play higher up the park and affect the game.”
Hughton, who starred for Ireland under Jack Charlton in their first ever major championship finals – in Germany in 1988 – has been impressed by Giovanni Trapattoni’s first year in charge of the national team.
“I feel the manager has done a very good job,” he said. “At times, perhaps when he’s had selection difficulties through injuries and so on, they’ve pulled out very, very good results, particularly the result in Bulgaria.
“I think he’s put us in with a real fighting chance not just of qualifying (for the play-offs), but of possibly winning the group – which I don’t think many would have thought at the beginning of the campaign. I don’t think he could have done any more than he has done.”
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