The glory days of Blackburn Rovers have long since faded from view, but the small troop of faithful romantics out there might well take some bijou of comfort from the innocent belief that the majestic dreams of their beloved club’s past are a great deal more palatable than the grim reality of the present.
Sometimes it can pain a fan to reflect back on the better times. They paint nostalgic pictures, steeped in a mix of contrast and colour, but there are special players that can make the reflection all worthwhile and for Rovers, Damien Duff is certainly one of those.
Once a powerhouse of English football, the Blue and White Army used to be a competitive outfit that were rarely a walkover for anybody on their day. Now, they are currently struggling in the Championship, destined to live out yet another season struggling in one of the most challenging tiers in European football. To make matters worse, they are miles off the pace of their biggest rivals Burnley who look on course to gain automatic promotion to the Premier League.
Their memorable title win at the culmination of the 1994-95 season is now but a distant memory and although there are plenty of morals for the club to learn from across the fallout of the successive campaigns before the arrival of the millennium, many will feel that there is little comfort in those fables now. Worryingly, the fans are used to the blandness that currently consumes them and have been for quite some time, but there was a brief period of virtue in the intervening years between their crowning success and their current mediocrity that gave the fans plenty to get excited, and riled up, about – and Duff was pivotal to it.
His time at the club wasn’t the rosiest of periods in his career, but amidst the fire and brimstone of being a part of a team fighting for survival and working hard to make the fans proud, there were enough moments of passion and individual brilliance to see him become an adopted Lancashire legend and he is to this day remembered as one of the finest footballers that have ever graced the hallowed turf at Ewood Park, alongside the likes of Alan Shearer and Morten Gamst Pedersen.
Unlike many of today’s young stars attempting to make their way from Ireland towards a bright future in British football, Duff never actually played for one of the League of Ireland’s top clubs. In fact, the Dublin-born winger was just a precocious teenager when he was snapped up by Blackburn in 1996, but the big move didn’t faze him whatsoever and in his debut for the club, he produced a man-of-the-match performance against Leicester City on the final day of the 1996-97 campaign to kick-start an adventure that would see him earn his spurs and mature into a well-rounded winger and, eventually a Premier League champion.
He always let his football do the talking and his opening address on the big stage offered excitement, intrigue and hope for the future, but it was his ability to develop that promise into full-blooded orations that earned him quite a fearsome reputation.
Shunted into the limelight, he quickly adapted to the demands of world-class football but his ability to overcome the odds and outshine everybody else on the field of play was not merely a reactionary tick from a young lad programmed to keep his head above water. Although he impressed immensely with his initial offerings, there was plenty more to come from the youngster dubbed “Duffer” by his devotees.
Over the course of his Rovers career, he bagged 27 goals in 185 league appearances. His blistering stampedes down the left flank made him a force to be reckoned with and the characteristic performances he unleashed with the Riversiders allowed him to gain some real confidence. A fleet-footed mover, he caught the eye with his darting runs, delightful dribbling skill and chipped in with his fair share of goals. Scything down blades of grass with the scissoring studs of his boots, the defenders hell-bent on stopping him were fences only a thoroughbred could jump over with ease, and he made sure he zipped over them with a hop, skip and a gallop time and again; it was mesmeric to behold.
More importantly, though, alongside the likes of Matt Jansen, Tugay Kerimoglu and Andy Cole, he used his talent to bring silverware to the club’s trophy cabinet for the first time since their massive league triumph under Kenny Dalglish as he played a vital role in their 2002 Worthington Cup coup.
That was one of his most outstanding traits – the way he brought his whole being to the pitch. Nobody could ever accuse the Irish star of producing a half-hearted effort wherever he went, and he was always loyal no matter what colour jersey he was wearing. He was an industrious performer and he was very effective at what he did, so it was no surprise to see a trio of big clubs engage in a bidding war for his services in the summer of 2003 after proving his mettle at a side with limited resources. Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea attempted to lure him away but it was the rising force among them that came out on top.
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The Londoners won the battle as well as Duff’s signature as the tricky flanker became one of Roman Abramovich’s first major signings. The happy collision of raw talent combined with the ushering in of a new super-club era culminated in a fantastic end product. They dovetailed impeccably when things could have quickly gone sour, and it was thanks in large part to Duff’s raw energy and vivacity that the partnership quickly accumulated silverware, points and plenty of firepower in their stab at challenging the title oligarchy that had been governed by both Manchester United and Arsenal from the mid ’90s to the mid-noughties.
As one of the first players to arrive under the Russian billionaire’s ownership, Duff was entering a very experimental phase in their history, so the ground was a little bit shaky despite all of the optimism and excitement that had been brewed by the fans. It might have been easy for them to fall into the trap of viewing Duffer as their knight in blue and shining armour ready to deliver immediate success, but the pressure bounced straight off his shoulders as he became a cult hero, delivering two Premier League titles, an FA Community Shield as well as adding to the League Cup he had already won with Blackburn.
Tested from the get-go, a lesser player’s resolve would have been found out but, ever the cool customer, Duff stayed focused and centred on sticking to what he did best.
While his off-field persona was an easy-going, winsome one, his match-day psyche was a completely different one altogether and he feasted on its football banquet like a starved wolf. The sight of the blonde-headed speedster ghosting past opposing full-backs became a regular occasion for the Stamford Bridge faithful to behold and even the arrival of Arjen Robben failed to scupper the former Irish international’s rapport with the fans as he relied on his versatility to maintain a place in the starting XI by taking a starring role on the right side of midfield.
His time with the Londoners was certainly the highlight of his club career especially when one considers the 19 goals he netted there – one of which came against Barcelona in the Champions League – even though he would enjoy decent success with Fulham as he helped guide them to the Europa League final. Stints with Newcastle United and Melbourne City didn’t exactly harbour the best of memories for him, but injury had really hampered him later in his career and the blistering pace which had earned him a frightening reputation deserted him not too long after he parted ways with José Mourinho’s Chelsea.
If his Premier League triumphs were a roaring fire, his latter-day stints bore a closer resemblance to a hearth of swaying embers.
However, it was his spell on the international stage with the Republic of Ireland that provided him with some of his most potent experiences. Having amassed 100 caps since his debut against the Czech Republic in 1998, the impish winger is one of only six Irish men to acquire that many appearances for the national team, a testament to how tireless and dedicated a star he truly was.
Followers of the Boys in Green will forever dream of what might have been had their team overcome Spain on penalties in the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, but their overall performance continues to garner praise to this very day, and Duffer’s goal against Saudi Arabia in the group stage, along with the way he infected defences everywhere with a dose of ‘Damien Duff Dizzinness’ remain celebrated parts of Irish soccer folklore.
Nobody will ever describe Duffer as the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of boots, which really issort of a shame because it shows how under-rated he has become, but it’s unsurprising in many ways because he didn’t push to be noticed in the same selfish way so many of his peers did; he wasn’t fame-hungry or ostentatious. On the whole, there was an air of humility to him as a player and a celebrity. He didn’t hog the limelight or buy into the flashy razzmatazz that often accompanies the life of a modern-day footballer, he just stuck to the game and played it with everything he had.
Even his incredibly generous decision to donate all of his wages from his short stay at Shamrock Rovers to charity was as far removed from a publicity stunt as one could possibly imagine. As it was Duff, everyone knew that he was doing it because he wanted to help; he wanted to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Frankly, that was all he ever wanted to do when he took to the field, too, and he achieved that time and again with tremendous passion and flair.
He was a nifty player, he had his own set of bamboozling tricks, and he knew how to get the most out of himself. Due to injury, his engine gave out before many would have liked, but he achieved so much at his peak, it’s selfish to feel unsatisfied with what he provided.
Due to his humble nature, Duff wouldn’t have deluded himself with thoughts of being considered in the same league as the Johan Cruyffs or Ronaldinhos, but he played with an innate sense of self-belief that, for a few seasons at least, saw him reach those same levels of jaw-dropping brilliance. He was one of the best players Ireland have ever produced and he was certainly one of the Premier League’s greatest imports. He made a lasting mark on the game, pushed himself past his own personal limits and gave everything he had to create some exceptional souvenirs.
Now, he’s dipping his foot in the punditry waters, working his way towards getting his coaching badges and looking to pass on his wisdom and insight to the next generation of rising Irish starlets. If his dedication as a player is anything to go by, we might just see him winging his way to glory as a coach, too.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90