Duff: Keegan can turn it around ...

WITH Newcastle thumped3-0 by Arsenal for the second time in four days, it was little wonder that the press corps gathered in Portmarnock yesterday wondering what sort of mood Damien Duff would be in.

As it happens, the Ballyboden man was positively chipper.

After almost nine months out of the game through injury, ‘Duffer’ has finally managed to get a run of games under his belt again.

Kevin Keegan’s second coming has served as a serious ballast to the mood in the north-east (if not the results), Brazil are visiting Croke Park on Wednesday and, to top it all off, he got to meet Diego Maradona after Tuesday’s game in the Emirates Stadium.

The Argentinian legend popped into the Newcastle dressing room shortly after the league defeat and, with David Ginola also in tow, Duff admits to feeling like a “little kid in a sweet shop”.

It’s the clean bill of health that raises the biggest smile though. For a man who claims to live for football, nine months without it was the worst form of purgatory but the efforts of surgeon Mark Davis are now paying off.

“I feel grand. I’ve done a pre-season on my own with a guy called John Green down in London. He did Michael Owen’s rehab. I felt I needed that after all the injuries I have had. My body feels strong and fit.

“The foot is still a bit achy but I’m told it will be like that for a few months. The surgeon tells me it is going to be like that until April so I’ll just get on with it. Muscle-wise it is grand.

“You can’t do anything about freak injuries like the one I had. Touch wood it is all finished with. Some days after games I can hardly walk. I’m still popping the anti-inflammatories. If it wasn’t for them I’d be struggling.”

In the weeks after the injury , Duff would ask Davis if he would ever play again and the surgeon’s raised eyebrow wasn’t much of a comfort.

He was in good hands. Davis runs a specialised foot and ankle clinic in the English capital.

Wayne Bridge, who Duff soldiered with at Chelsea, was one of his previous success stories after the left-back suffered a bad break.

So, the fitness is fine and the form isn’t too shabby either.

“I am (playing well), considering I’ve been out for eight-and-a-half months. It obviously doesn’t help with the results we’ve been having. That doesn’t reflect well on my form or anybody else’s but I do feel really good and want to start winning games with Newcastle.”

Which will be easier said than done. Middlesbrough are no-one’s idea of world-beaters but the derby factor will make for a tough 90 minutes in United’s next game at St James’ Park on Sunday.

After that it is high-flying Aston Villa in Birmingham followed by Manchester United on Tyneside. It could yet be March before Kevin Keegan tastes his first league win in his second spell at the club, but the optimism from his appointment has yet to ebb.

“The mood is really good. The gaffer has been brilliant even though we haven’t won a game, not counting Stoke (in the FA Cup), since he came in. He’s a god up there. The fans love him. He has a bit of craic with the lads every day. He’s very hands-on. He is enthusiastic about the game of football and I love that about him.”

WHETHER King Kev can turn the listless ship around entirely remains to be seen. Trophies are what the Toon Army are crying out for and, exciting as Keegan’s first spell in charge was, he failed to deliver one then.

The appointment of Dennis Wise in a technical director type of role has muddied the waters still further but Duff is confident that Keegan can work his unique style of magic at the second time of asking.

“If there’s one man who can do it, it is him. We needed someone like that to turns things around. I know we haven’t won a (league) game since he’s come in but we’ve only got 11 or 12 fit senior players. We have four away at the African Nations, a few more injured and suspended or what have you. Not many teams could cope with that.”

Given Keegan’s penchant for wingers and entertaining football, Duff’s future at the club looks bright and the fans will hope that the presence of Ginola in the dressing room at Arsenal two nights ago will be symbolic of a return to better days.

“I would like to think so, given the teams (Keegan) has had in the past, especially at Newcastle. The wingers then were a big focal point of the team, along with the two strikers. I can’t wait to start working properly with him.”

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