The Bridge builder

It is no coincidence that Chelsea’s dip in Premiership form coincided with the absence of the injured Damien Duff. Now back to fitness, Duff is ready for the pivotal months of the season. He spoke to Bill George.

AIRPORTS and the attendant frustrations are synonymous with life as a top-flight professional footballer. Just ask Damien Duff.

A perusal of his schedule last week illustrates the point. It was enough to make even the most intrepid traveller blanch.

Monday began with a Chelsea training session. In the afternoon the squad of players and officials reported to the airport for a flight to Stuttgart. On Wednesday, Chelsea edged to a tentative 1-0 win over Stuttgart. Duff saw 20 minutes action, his first competitive football in eight weeks.

Chelsea stayed in Stuttgart after the match, an unusual decision nowadays clubs tend to leave for home as soon as they clear the stadium. The Premiership team trained in Stuttgart on Thursday morning and flew back to London in the early afternoon.

On Friday, there was training in the morning and that afternoon the squad gathered once more at the airport for a flight to Manchester. A three-hour delay at Heathrow had to be endured stoically before take-off.

Three precious Premiership points were filched from the strongroom at City of Manchester Stadium on Saturday before Chelsea boarded their flight to London once more.

Duff took advantage of the delay on the way to Manchester to respond to some of his calls. And because he had a realistic hope of playing some football at journey's end, he was unperturbed at the inconvenience.

"The flight's been delayed," he said, "it's been delayed all afternoon. It's a bit of a nightmare. I don't know what's up, it's not the weather or anything like that. We're just waiting to get on now."

The growing programme of games for club and country means some footballers clock up more air miles than pilots. FIFA moved to curb some of it last year when they banned inter-continental travel for friendly matches during the season.

But Duff's laid-back attitude to life is legendary and he sounded quizzical when he said: "Travel? It's part and parcel of it. You get used to it, living out of a suitcase.

"I can't say I get annoyed with it. You get to see a lot of countries because of football, even if most of the time is spent on the pitch or in your hotel. But once you get out on the pitch and play that makes it all worthwhile."

There, in a succinct few words, is the essence of Damien Duff, footballer. There is the signpost to his very core, the turbine that drives his motor, the energy source of his inspiration.

Playing football, for Damien Duff, makes everything worthwhile. The adrenalin rush that floods your being when you step across the whitewash line, the thrill of the contest when the referee's whistle sounds, these are the nutrients that feed the player's craving, for craving is what it is.

Duff's love affair with football was a life-changing experience. It caused him to leave school and home early, to withstand the dispiriting effects of home sickness, to embrace the rigid discipline of the professional sportsman with uncommon enthusiasm.

His affection for football has always been of obsessive proportions. And even though he is now breathing the rarefied air reserved for players at the very top of their profession, his devotion to football is still laced with the coltish exuberance of his formative years.

Said his lifelong mentor and Bray Wanderers manager, Pat Devlin: "He is unique on and off the pitch, he doesn't change, that's the way he is.

"He is totally focused on football, football only. Nothing else seems to take a feather out of him. And his family, they are lovely people and if anyone deserves success they do."

Devlin is the man who discovered Duff in Dublin at 12 years of age. He followed his progress, arranged his transfer to Blackburn Rovers and was his chief adviser when he signed for Chelsea. Nobody knows him better.

Even he is surprised at how Duff's dedication to the hard grind of improving his game has endured. He said: "Football-wise there is nothing else, there is only total honesty in the way he plays the game. There are no grey areas at all and in this day and age it is quite refreshing."

This honesty was illustrated by Duff's sustained drive to regain fitness when his progress this season was arrested by two unusual injuries - a dislocated shoulder and then, within a week of his return, damage to his Achilles heel.

"We were over recently for a Chelsea match, against Charlton I think. Damien was still not fit and he slipped away soon after the start of the match. When we enquired we learned he was in the gym, working on his fitness while the match was going on."

This constant striving for improvement fits comfortably into Duff's background and into the values inculcated in him by parents Mary and Gerry from his earliest years in Ballyboden and Rathfarnham.

His sense of values is such that even though, at 25 (his birthday was on March 2) and after 50 international appearances, he is still anxious to prove to his employers at Chelsea that the e24m they spent on signing him was an investment that will yield rich dividends.

This is why his most recent run of ill-luck with injuries and the enforced absence from competition were so frustrating.

After leaving Blackburn Rovers and a seemingly never-ending battle with dodgy hamstrings he believed he had left those days behind. "The only injuries I've had since I came to Chelsea was my shoulder and my Achilles and they have been two freak injuries really.

"Up until then I've been spot-on and I have been doing a lot of work on injury prevention. But I'm back now. Obviously I still have a few aches and pains, but hopefully I'm back for the rest of the season."

Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri had a special assessment done of Duff's physical condition when he signed. There was talk of improving his gait and special exercises to strengthen his hamstrings.

Duff testified to the success of the work programme Chelsea drew up. "It was just a lot of work really in the gym with the Swiss ball and stuff like that.

"I feel an awful lot better for it, I feel stronger and fitter and quicker, so I do feel good for it. It's just a pity I have had the two injuries."

Devlin took Duff over to Blackburn on his 16th birthday after four years monitoring his progress and advising his parents. He laughs now when he recalls how shy the youngster was.

Devlin can remember clearly the instant he knew Duff had to commit to a full-time career: "Damien was very small and very timid but he had lots of ability, lots of skill.

"He was a very quiet young lad. I made an approach to his parents and when I went to the house he wouldn't even speak but we just seemed to hit it off. I got on very well with the parents, I got on well with him, and I didn't persecute them.

"Mary says I wore out a carpet but I didn't really. They were playing one day quite close to me and I went over to see them play.

"Damien did something with a ball; he was 20, 25 yards out. He got on it, one-touch, second touch, the ball was in the back of the net.

"He lobbed the 'keeper from about 20 yards and didn't even attempt to sort of do any celebrations, he just turned around and ran back for the kick-off and everybody in the place was amazed."

Kenny Dalglish was manager at Blackburn and Devlin continued: "After that he got into the U15 international team and he was maturing but not at the rate you would have hoped.

"Finally we brought him over to play at Ewood against Blackburn's U16s at the time. I remember sitting with Kenny at the game and after a short time he turned to me and said 'You're right, this is some player'. The rest is history. We signed him then and that was that."

Until recent times Duff remained shy and retiring despite the growing excitement his developing career engendered. To this day he is reserved, but he now copes comfortably and confidently with the round of media interviews he attracts.

Like all the professionals, however, he is cautious, and with justification. A growing tendency is for newspapers to lift a section of a reported interview and 'work it' so it appears to convey a meaning different to the one intended.

A typical example of that was a comment made by Michel Platini to a group of reporters, myself included, at the World Cup draw in Frankfurt in December.

Platini, ever the gentleman, suggested that French followers did not know the Irish players because they played in England, that Duff and Robbie Keane were the ones most readily recognised.

The following day a tabloid newspaper carried a story that conflicted hugely with the facts. The reporter, who had not been in Frankfurt, misrepresented Platini's comments by suggesting he had rubbished the Irish players apart from Duff and Keane.

Such reckless misrepresentation of the facts does journalism no favours and professional sportsmen tend to be cautious in their public comments as a result. Once an element of trust exists, however, Duff is frank and outspoken in his responses.

An example was his evaluation of Ireland manager Brian Kerr. "Brian is brilliant, I can't speak highly enough of him," said Duff, and, totally without affectation, he added: "I love him to bits and I'm sure the young players who worked with him will say that."

Clearly, success has not changed Duff and he will remain as he always has been quintessentially Irish. His relationship with Kerr goes back to 1997 when he helped Ireland's U20 team win a bronze medal at the World Youth finals in Malaysia.

The appointment of Kerr to the top job with Ireland excited Duff. "He's done wonders at underage level and I think he's building a good, young, squad now with the Irish team.

"It was obviously disappointing not to qualify for the European Championships but with the squad we're building and with Brian as boss I think we can definitely qualify for major tournaments.

"On a personal note I just love working with Brian, he's always got the best out of me and as I said I love him to bits."

Family and friends are clearly important to Duff and you just know that will never change, no matter how successful he is. And more qualified judges than me are on record as saying there is no limit to how far he can go.

Meantime, he is luxuriating in a lifestyle that reflects his relatively simple tastes and endorses the relationships that are important to him.

The only two items that could be termed luxurious and reflective of his wealth are the Range Rover he drives and his luxury home in the verdant Surrey countryside.

He said: "My mother and father are over all the time. Ma loves it over here and she loves the shops as well - there are plenty of them for her.

"I knew when I came here that my Ma and Da, as they always are, are always over with me, so I made sure I got a house with enough bedrooms.

"I brought my mother over a few weeks ago with me and I brought her to watch the Rod Stewart musical, Tonight's the Night, and we really enjoyed it.

"No, I haven't been to Les Mis yet. I've been to a few of them but I'm working my way up to the hardcore stuff."

Damien Duff is a superstar in football terms. He may not always be a superstar, but, one thing is certain; to his friends he will always be Damien Duff of Dublin.

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