by Leighton Cullen
Damian Duff is the best left winger I have ever seen gracing the Irish football jersey. He had a spark that very few possess, a bolt of electricity that charged the terraces when the ball was at his feet and it is this trait that I’ll miss the most now that the 33 year old has announced his retirement from international football. Over his 100 caps and fourteen years impeccable service to his country what separated him further from other wide men was his conscientious work rate – he never failed to track back, dig in and help out his full back. No wonder Jose Mourinho used to rate Duffer so highly for his style of play.
A century of caps for Ireland is some going for Duffer and I’ll always remember his first start back in 1998 against the Czech Republic. It was immediately apparent that he had that something special – his desire to beat a man wasn’t motivated by extrovert showboating but rather it was pragmatic and direct and always followed by a decent delivery. It was this combination of philosophy and end product that made him the ideal winger for Ireland and he has since gone from strength to strength.
Everyone in Ireland knew about him anyway thanks to his impressive performances for Ireland at youth level under Brian Kerr but despite Duff playing in two Under 20 World Cups there is always a nagging doubt about whether a player – no matter his obvious talent – can replicate it at the highest level. That doubt soon vanished with Duffer and he has gone on to become a household name in Irish homes ever since, making the left wing role his own and playing a pivotal part in qualifying campaigns and major tournaments.
In 2002 he was the stand out performer in Japan, a series of brilliant displays that led him to taking a well deserved bow after a storming 90 minutes against Saudi Arabia. That’s a memory I’ll always cherish, seeing a likable, dedicated homegrown hero fulfil his potential and shining on the biggest stage of all.
Then came the lows and sadly there was many of them in the green shirt. Seeing Duffer crying after the robbery in France thanks to the Hand of Henry was hard to take. He must have thought that was the last chance he would have of representing his country in a major championship.
Luckly for Duffer and the squad they used that massive low as the driving motivation to reach our first Euros since 1988 and he was vital in getting us there, a reliable source of energy and creativity that unlocked stubborn Slovakian and Macedonian defences.
This summer could be viewed as a disappointing final flourish but, as ever, he was one of the only few who could hold his head up high following Ireland’s dismal group exit. Duff was his usual self giving it his all despite him being surrounded by a sub-standard set of players.
I don’t think we’ll ever unearth another Damien Duff but the rebuilding process that must now take place will hopefully at least bring through youngsters who have learnt a great deal from the great man. On what it takes to excel for your country. On what it takes to become a legend.