By Joe Behan
Ballyboden’s Damien Duff came on the scene in 1997-98 when his attacking abilities were the talk of the town — and the country. Many believed that Duff was the next superstar from Ireland as he danced on fullbacks with blistering balance. Then there was a slump in his performance, from which he struggled to recover the lofty standards he had set for himself early in his career.
In the last couple of seasons, however, he has picked things up again and it has been during Blackburn’s escape from relegation this season that Duff has approached his enormous potential. The next platform for Duff to establish that he is indeed back is the World Cup.
In the last month or so, Duff has simply been one of the best players to watch in the English Premier League. It all started when Leeds United beat Blackburn 3-1 a few weeks ago.
It seemed Rovers boss Gr’me Souness accepted he was defeated by a better premier side in Leeds United. However, the following defeat, 2-1 to Leicester City, rocked Souness as the reality of relegation began creeping in to Ewood Park.
Understandably, Souness hammered his team after the City loss.
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“The players fully understand the predicament we’re in,” he said. “I don’t think I need to point that out to them.”
Souness blamed individual errors and lapses of concentration as their downfall. Winning the Worthington Cup had, he said, “camouflaged the situation.”
Indeed, for Souness, the next game, against Southampton, was a must-win for Blackburn to avoid the drop for a second time in four seasons.
It was time for Souness to call for such drastic must-win measures against a revived Southampton, with games against Liverpool, Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Newcastle looking a daunting task for the Rovers to survive.
The Southampton game proved to be the beginning of Rovers shooting out of the relegation zone with some special football under the influence of Republic of Ireland’s international Duff. His brilliant goal and Matt Jansen’s superb performance gave Souness a savored 2-nil win over Southampton and the Rovers have not looked back since. The Ballyboden son continued to dazzle the crowds and defenders with some devastating runs at goal and some world-class crosses.
Spectacular goals have also helped the reemergence of the young winger. His performance inspired draws with Chelsea and Newcastle, plus victories over Boro and Everton, 2-1 last weekend.
Jansen and Andy Cole struck for the Rovers once again with Duff causing havoc down the left flank against Everton. Duff’s constant threat led to a Rovers corner, which Jansen crashed home. Just after the hour Duff let fly with a shot outside the box that resulted in Cole heading in the rebound.
It comes as no surprise to hear that the likes of Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds are showing interest in Duff. With the World Cup around the corner it’s a lesser surprise that Rovers want to extend Duff’s contract even though he has two years left at Ewood. Souness repeats the 23-year-old is not for sale despite the lucrative price of _10 million said to be offered by Liverpool.
“He’s not going anywhere; we are not a selling club,” Souness claimed.
The Rovers boss feels Duff has a great future because of his attitude on and off the field.
“He excites people, he runs at defenders, he’s very direct, and he can dribble. He is down to earth,” concluded Souness. After Ireland’s 2-1 victory over the U.S., American goalkeeper Brad Friedel hailed Duff as one of the best wingers in the world.
While Blackburn and Souness work to keep Duff at Ewood, Andy Cole continues to put the ball away for the Rovers. After Manchester United lost faith in the hard-working striker, Cole has found a new lease of life and is scoring for Rovers. He has turned out to be one of the best buys of the season, but next year will truly measure just how good a purchase he is.
While Cole is more associated with his misses, one should not forget he won the Golden Boot in 1993-94 with 34 goals.
Cole will relish next year in what he will see as a chance to ultimately prove his critics wrong. He has come back before, not only as a goal scorer but also from pneumonia and then two broken legs in a tackle with Neil Ruddock. He returned from such bad luck in 1997-98 with 25 goals for Untied. Then the arrival of Dwight Yorke saw one of the best partnerships in the world score 53 goals to help United win their Treble.
In 1999-00 Cole hit 22, making it over 100 goals for Manchester United. Cole has also beaten Dennis Law’s European record of 14 goals. While he has not found the net for his country records show he has played an important role in assisting many goals, a part of his ability he does not get a lot of credit for.
With the likes of Duff and Jansen accompanying Cole, we could be in for a treat next year with talk of Dwight Yorke rejoining Cole at the Rovers. Alex Ferguson has finally released the rude boy after giving him some serious lessons at Old Trafford, lessons Yorke may benefit from, and, indeed, Ferguson may regret. What an interesting season next year is already shaping up to be: the possibility of Cole-Yorke versus United is very exciting, though perhaps not for Sir Alex.
For Souness, it has been a nervous ending, but one in which the Rovers boss believes his team kept their composure. The ex-Scottish international and Liverpool great made it clear that he will be buying and releasing players. Souness is a hard hitter with his words, as he was with his tackling as a player. He takes no nonsense and says it the way hee sees it. Of course, he had a lot less to say about refereeing after Rovers won, but that’s the competitiveness in the man.
Look out for Rovers next year, and whom they buy from the middle of the field back.