HE MAY BE a millionaire who has achieved more than most in the game, but one thing is certain — even after all these years, Damien Duff loves football in the purest sense. He still loves it with a fervour that you suspect many current players would struggle to match.
“Football’s my passion. It’s possibly the only thing I’m interested in, so yeah, it has to be football,” the Ireland legend says, when asked a question about where his future lies.
And while he may retain the same spirit that prompted him to play for hours on end on the street as a child, his body is not quite the same these days.
As Duff’s career approached its conclusion, the injuries and the niggles became tougher to withstand, and last December, he finally relented and confirmed his retirement.
It was the night of a Leinster Senior Cup match against Bohemians, during his brief stint with Shamrock Rovers, when the Irish footballing legend knew it was all over.
I couldn’t kick a ball 30 yards,” he recalls. “I think we got through to the final that night but I went home depressed. The missus was, like, ‘what’s wrong with you?’. I didn’t even tell her but I just knew in my heart of hearts. I always thought it would be a big decision in my head, but the next morning, I went straight up to Pat (Fenlon) and said, ‘Listen, that’s me…’”
And while Duff no longer plays professionally, his footballing addiction hasn’t entirely abated as yet. Since leaving Rovers, he played alongside his brother in a friendly for Leinster Senior League side TEK United.
“I’d possibly still be there except I saw a couple of tackles going in that night and I was, like, ‘I ain’t getting involved in this stuff,’” he says.
“It was a friendly, like, but with a view to signing… It was LSL obviously so it was just fuckin’ no chance — I’ve had enough operations and enough problems, I’d like to be able to walk so I haven’t been back.
I was just stood over on the wing, not coming inside, I just didn’t want to know so it’s five-a-side now for me. And to be fair I probably have options going forward. A couple of weeks ago, I was over in Russia playing five-a-side tournament in a big indoor arena beside the Olympic Stadium and it was really great fun. I had Mendieta, Zambrotta and the likes on my team. That’s just me being a football fan, going across, wanting to still play competitive football.
“You don’t want to be going around tearing the arse out of it, excuse me French. But that (Moscow) was an exciting trip. I always liked the Eastern Bloc countries. I don’t know, they’re weary, dark but just really interesting. It was great, but the Spawell on a Thursday is enough for me at the minute.”
Such is Duff’s abiding love for the beautiful game that he even decided to rent a pitch down in Loughlinstown to play on alone a few weeks back when he happened to be at a loose end.
“I felt weird going up asking for ‘a pitch for one please,’” he says, jokingly. “I just had a kickabout on my own, just kicking a ball against a wall, practising with my right foot. I don’t know what I’m practising for, but it’s just the love of the game.”
This incredible passion, this innate “love of the game” is something that too many young Irish footballers lack nowadays, according to Duff.
He is well placed to comment on young Irish players, given that he spends three days a week (two for training and one for matches) coaching Shamrock Rovers’ U15 side.
A recent Irish Times article by ex-Arsenal youth player Graham Barrett was highly critical of elements of the current underage structure in Ireland — a topic that Duff, for obvious reasons, has a keen interest in.
“I read it over a weekend, it took a while,” he jokes. “I’d be in touch with Graham, he’s a good guy, he’s passionate about football. You have to listen to these people.
Graham would have an awful lot more insight than me and I’ve spoken to him about it. He’s seen it first hand since he’s he’s come home (to Ireland). But with regards to hours, that’s something I’m passionate about. I don’t think kids get anywhere near the hours that they should (compared) to what England are doing.
“I remember when I was a kid I’d go out, train once a week, have a five-a-side and go home and then just play on the Saturday. So for me, it’s just hours of practice… My whole childhood was (playing football) before school, lunchtime and when I got home. If I had a game on a Saturday, I’d go home and play football after.
“I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s that desire to go out. I just think there are so many distractions — tablets, iPhones for 10 and 11-year-olds. I was probably lucky because I didn’t have those distractions.
Whether I was hitting 20 or 30 hours a week back in 1990, I don’t think kids get anywhere near that now. So it’s not hard to understand, it’s not rocket science. If the kid’s doing four or five hours and I was doing 30 hours, he can’t lace my boots. It probably sounds arrogant, but that’s the way it is at any job — a writer or whatever.”
He continues: ”You’re teaching 10, 11 and 12-year-olds where to stand on a pitch. Just let them go out and play and express themselves — that’s what I did. I didn’t really get any coaching until I went to England when I was 16.
Everyone keeps saying ‘we don’t have the coaches,’ I just think it’s absolute nonsense, it’s ridiculous, just go out on the street and kick a ball, that’s what I did, that’s what Robbie did. If you go to anyone that’s gone to England, it’s just hours.”
This shy football obsessive, of course, grew up to become one of the most successful Irish players of all time. In the modern era, Denis Irwin, Roy Keane and John O’Shea are the only other Irish footballers who have been regular starters in Premier League title-winning sides.
Former manager Graeme Souness once spoke on Sky of how Duff became “a man” towards the end of his stint at Blackburn, before somewhat reluctantly leaving the club he had grown to love for a big-money £17 million move to become part of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea revolution in the summer of 2003.
Duff even portrays himself as somewhat a football nerd when he initially moved to Blackburn as a teenager, having played for Leicester Celtic, Lourdes Celtic and St Kevin’s Boys in Ireland.
Nowadays, by contrast, he is amazed when he comes across a young footballer who, for instance, has never heard of Man United legend Mark Hughes.
Especially as it was the player who I was comparing to Mark Hughes,” he adds. “I was giving him a compliment. I could talk to you about players from the ’50s or ’60s, I’ve heard of everyone. Nowadays, they’re on Facebook, taking photos, chatting up girls or whatever. I hadn’t even kissed a girl when I was going to England at 16. It’s sad, I know (laughs). I tell the lads out of (Shamrock) Rovers this every week — it’s just love of the game. I don’t think you can teach a kid that, they either have it or they don’t.
“Maybe we’re lucky in a way as well that we were inspired by a generation of (Irish players) years before, 88, 90 or 94 and maybe kids don’t have that now, I don’t know. You can look deeper but on the surface level it’s about getting out on the roads, as that’s where it starts.”
Duff is enjoying retirement. He appreciates the freedom it brings following years spent putting up with the monk-like lifestyle of a footballer.
I guess I can jump on a plane with the kids whenever I want and that is nice. But me, being hard-working and honest, I’d like to feel as if if I’ve earned a holiday or a trip. I don’t want to turn into… I was going to compare myself with Kim Kardashian or someone there. A little socialite or something, off doing these things. I like to earn nice things or even a weekend away.”
Yet as much as the former Ireland winger is savouring these new luxuries, you get the sense that nothing will ever quite beat playing football on the street with his mates.
“I’m aware of the perils that come about for retired footballers so I’m doing my coaching, going to the gym. But even that’s hard. I was always getting fit and sharp for something, now it’s just to fill a morning.”
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To celebrate the new Republic of Ireland jersey going on sale at Life Style Sports, the brand announced today that it will be supporting Irish supporters by putting 12 football trips to France up for grabs for anyone who buys their jersey at Life Style Sports from today, 10th March, to 27th May. The first winner, Gary Kinsella, from Coolock, Dublin, was chosen this morning and he is pictured with Irish soccer legend DamienDuff in Life Style Sports on Grafton St. For further information on how to enter please see www.lifestylesports.com/greenticket.