AND so the week begins as it’s sure to go on, with Irish footballers being asked as many questions about a World Cup game against Cyprus which took place three years ago as about the World Cup game against Cyprus that’s coming up in just five days’ time.
But then, as if anyone needs reminding, Nicosia in September of 2006 was no ordinary away game, Ireland’s humiliating 5-2 defeat holing Steve Staunton’s reign below the waterline and casting a shadow which won’t fully be rolled back until an Irish team returns from the Cypriot capital with three well-deserved points.
Damien Duff was one of those who was in the spotlight during Irish football’s darkest hour and a half – “a shocking result and we got slaughtered, rightly,” is how he nutshells it – but, even now, he struggles to put his finger on how and why things went so catastrophically wrong .
“We worked all that week,” herecalls. “There’s a great spirit within the lads, that’s always there. I don’t think you can go into any game feeling that you’re going to concede five. From what I can remember of the goals, there were a lot of individual errors, so hopefully there won’t be any of them Saturday and we can go and win the game.
“I’m looking forward to it and I’m sure the other lads who were there a few years ago are looking forward to the chance to put that right. But I think our biggest motivation has to be, from the World Cup qualifying point of view, to get the three points.”
Damien Duff has never been one to disguise his underlying mood, and the relish with which he is anticipating a return to the scene of the crime is surely a reflection of the calmer waters he has reached at Craven Cottage after three years on the storm-tossed seas of Newcastle United.
Fulham’s start to the season might have been decidedly mixed – progress in Europe contrasting with a struggle for points in the league – but Duff says he is “loving every minute” of his return to a part of west London he knows well from his Chelsea days.
His flight north was originally designed to get him regular top-class football after the opportunities dried up at Stamford Bridge but even though St James’ Park turned into something like a lunatic asylum, Duff says that it’s too easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to categorise his decision to go there as an ill-advised move.
“At the time it was a very exciting move – I thought anyway,” he reflects. “With Newcastle, you always think exciting football and great fans. I went there thinking it would work out great. It obviously hasn’t and it’s very disappointing. People can say it’s a mistake but it could have been a great move. Looking back now though, it’s easy to say it wasn’t.
“I could have stayed at Chelsea and picked up my dough and taken a chill pill. But I made a big decision. Newcastle would be most people’s second team – or they were in KevinKeegan’s days when they were flying high. I suppose that’s what I waspicturing when I went up there. It hasn’t worked out and I think it was best for both parties that I left. In the end it was a no-brainer when I heard of Fulham’s interest.
“They are a good club, they are in the Premier League, I know the area and the manager (Roy Hodgson) as well. I’m still a kid at heart. I just love going out, working hard and playing football every day. And even though I know the area, it’s not even theLondon thing. Wherever I am playing my football I spend most of my time in my house – so I could be in Siberia for all that matters. It’s nothing to do with lifestyles or anything like that It’s a short career. I live for football and I do everything right, so I just rest at home. It’s nothing to do with waltzing down the King’s Road.”
He might like to think of himself as a kid at heart but even the still boyish-looking Duff can’t deny the evidence of the calendar. At 30 years of age, he doesn’t believe he’s anywhere close to retirement but, at the same time, he only has to look around the Irish dressing room to be reminded that a lot of water has passed under the bridge since he was a rising star of the World Cup finals in 2002.
“I think this squad is younger, or maybe I’m older,” he grins. “I was a nipper then. There was Quinner (Niall Quinn), Roy Keane. I was rooming with Kenny (Cunningham), who was like a grandad. I’m the granddad now! But things are still as tight as ever; the Irish spirit is as strong as ever.
“We’re coming to the business end of qualification now, three massive games. We still think we can get first. There will be twists and turns to come. Italy are a point ahead, with a game in hand, but they’ve two tough games coming up next week. If we want to win the group, we have to win in Cyprus. A draw wouldn’t be the worst result in the world as we’re still hanging on to second and the play-offs but we’re not looking at that. I think we need nine points (from the last three games). Definitely nine to be in with a shout.”
Meantime, Duff’s thoughts arecanvassed on some of the hot topics of the day.
Stephen Ireland? “I think from whispers for a long while now we’ve kind of known that he wasn’t going to come back so it’s no great surprise but, yeah, it’s disappointing, he’s a top player and he’d bring a lot to the squad. But it’s not meant to be so we’ll carry on with what we’ve got and got us into a good position.”
Diving? “Don’t think it’s a bigger problem. It’s always been there. It’s been highlighted more because of the coverage. I’m probably opening a can of worms – I could end up getting done as well! – so I probably don’t want it opened up. Some are blatant but I thought it was harsh on Aidy (Aiden McGeady). I’ve never seen him dive. He skips by players. People nick at his heels, and he’s going to be off balance, and he’s going to fall over. It’s harsh for him to get a red. Where do you stop?”
A new contract for Trap?“Definitely. We’ve got into a great position in the group. The lads love working with him, we’re all behind him.”
And, finally, does Damien Duff feel he has fulfilled himself as an Irish player?
“No. But I still think I’m going to be around for a bit,” he smiles. “I want to score more goals. I’m due one, and it would be nice in the next three games. So, more goals and get to a World Cup.”
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