“There was a big posse of people around Kenny that night, everybody was all over him trying to point out this player and that,” said Devlin. “At halftime, Kenny comes up to me and says: ‘The boy Damien Duff is a player. We have to have him.’ “
In many ways it was the perfect match. Blackburn was the ideal place for a quiet and intelligent youngster like Duff to take his first steps as a pro, ambitious and upwardly mobile yet still a small-town club in many ways. That he has blossomed into the talent who was undoubtedly Ireland’s finest performer at last summer’s World Cup is proof enough of the wisdom of his decision to go there. Unfortunately, there is a time in the career of every great player when it becomes them to leave behind the place where they made their name. For Duff, that time is now. To stay at Ewood Park any longer, and condemn himself to another season of laudable midtable jousting, would be failing to do justice to the gifts he has been given.
“We signed him on a new deal last year [and] our intention is to keep him and nothing has changed,” said the typically defiant Rovers manager Graeme Souness when confronted by the latest fervent bout of tabloid speculation linking his brightest star to Manchester United last week. “We have heard nothing from anyone about Duff.”
Shortly before his 21st birthday, Roy Keane left Nottingham Forest for Old Trafford. It wasn’t an easy move to make. Forest had given him his chance in the game, offered him a wonderful opportunity to grow as a player and improved his pay packet every chance they could. But even though he gave an interview to the local paper proclaiming his love for the town just weeks before, he jumped at the chance to work for Alex Ferguson. To do anything else would have been foolish. Keane knew that to reach the next level he had to challenge himself more and that being the best player at a small club would be of little benefit in the long term. So he went to United, and for the first couple of months was so shocked at how good his teammates were in training that he resolved to become better than them all one day. And he did.
Closing in on his 24th birthday, Duff is already older and more experienced than Keane was when he made the big leap. This is what makes it so imperative that he and his advisers realize time is of the essence, because the truth is that his performances in Japan, and particularly that exhilarating evening against Spain in Suwon, will soon fade from the memory of many in the English game. They will forget that this is the guy who tormented the parsimonious German defense and reduced the wily Spaniards to tatters, and will lazily lump him in with so many other half-decent wingers around the Premiership. For somebody of his age, the World Cup must be regarded as base camp, not the summit, of his achievement.
“To appreciate just how good he was against the Germans, you have to remember how difficult it is to make your name when you’re an attacking player playing international football,” said Noel O’Reilly, who worked extensively with Duff as an assistant coach to Brian Kerr with the Irish youths. “When you’re a player like Duff, there’s a person breathing down your neck either side of you. And still, the Germans were scared stiff of him. They’d done their work on him, no doubt about that. They had six players all working at one stage to try to stop him getting the ball, but the sort of skill he has is precocious. Nobody in England has what he has, that particular style with which he beats players.”
Since he burst onto the scene as the bulwark of Kerr’s youth team that finished an incredible third at the 1997 World Cup, there has only ever been one worry about Duff. He is almost too laid back to succeed. Despite the prevailing trend toward footballers looking after themselves better, this is a guy who cheerfully admitted last year that he’d only recently started looking after his diet and eschewing the lure of the McDonald’s Happy Meal. Not the sort of individual to march into the manager’s office demanding a move or getting his agent to leak stories about his ambitions to the press, the humble character is part of his genius but in this instance, there is concern that he has grown too comfortable with where he is.
Under the circumstances, we can fret only about whether he is motivated enough to uproot himself from the only club he’s ever known and chance life at Old Trafford or Anfield, venues where there are maybe 20 players realistically battling for a place in the first XI. Notwithstanding Liverpool’s current travails, both those sides have genuine notions of playing in the Champions’ League each season and really, that is the sort of stage Duff needs to be gracing at this point in his career. If the World Cup proved anything, it was that the better the standard of the opposition, the more we can expect from the most naturally gifted Irishman since Liam Brady. Speaking of whom, Brady went to Juventus all those years ago because he was anxious to see if he could actually mix it with the best in the world on a regular basis. It’s time for Duff to ask himself the same question.