'He was a very slight lad, and appeared unfit at times. Then all of a sudden, he'd get the ball and do a bit of magic'

How Damien Duff reached the very top as a player, and what he has been doing to ensure his coaching career is just as successful.

genius week

This article is a part of Genius Week, a series of features reflecting on sporting genius in its many different forms.

Below, Ben Blake looks back at Damien Duff’s beginnings and how he became one of Ireland’s greatest footballers — before finding out what makes him such a highly-regarded coach. 

Pat Devlin was out in Clonshaugh to watch a Dublin schoolboy match when he laid eyes on the little fair-haired kid for the first time. 

“He was a very slight looking lad, and he appeared to be unfit at times,” Devlin recalls. “He had this thing where he would put his hands on his hips. Then all of a sudden, he’d get a ball and could go past anybody, just glide by people, and then he would do a bit of magic. He would whip in a great cross or score a brilliant goal, he was creative in that way.

“I just wanted to see what he had as a player and how intelligent he was, on the ball and off the ball. It was clear he possessed that something you look for in young footballers. You’re just hoping that someone can produce something and he always looked like he could do that.”

The next time the then-Bray Wanderers boss went to see 12-year-old Damien Duff in action, a small crowd dotted along the touchline in Sallynoggin were treated to a moment of class that ensured Devlin would be keeping a close eye him from then on. 

“He went by a player and just as he’s making his way into the opposition’s half, he chips the goalkeeper. I remember saying ‘Wow!’. So I followed his career and just felt that this boy had a real chance.”

damien-duff-1996 Duff representing Ireland at underage in 1996. © Patrick Bolger / INPHO © Patrick Bolger / INPHO / INPHO

Duff would line out for Leicester Celtic near his family home in Ballyboden, before joining Lourdes Celtic in Crumlin and subsequently travelling across the Liffey to sign for St Kevin’s Boys. 

Devlin had already helped a number of players earn moves to England, including David Collins (Liverpool) — who’s the father of current Stoke City defender Nathan — and Thomas Morgan (Blackburn Rovers). 

Football agents weren’t common in Ireland at the time, plus Devlin wanted to remain involved in the game so being an agent wasn’t for him. Instead, he set up his business as an advisor and took Duff under his wing. 

In recent years, we’ve seen Duff the pundit speak his mind and refuse to pull punches on the RTÉ panel, but during his adolescence you could barely get two words out of him. 

“Damien didn’t speak, he was a shy young kid,” Devlin explains. “I remember saying to him one time ‘You’ll have to start communicating with people’.

He didn’t really have to early on as he took things on board really quickly and was a very intelligent lad from a football point of view. He knew exactly what was expected of him, what was being asked and what had to be done, and he got on with it.

“You’ve seen throughout his career that he is his own man and he did what he wanted. Even at a young age, he wanted to go away to Blackburn and that was it. You could see the determination, the hunger, the desire and the love for the game even then.

“It was obvious that he was going to have a chance. Did I think it was going to come that quickly? No, not really.”

Devlin had been a long-standing friend of Liverpool great Kenny Dalglish, Blackburn Rovers’ manager at the time, and rang up the Scot to arrange for the Ireland U15s to travel to Ewood Park and take on a Rovers academy side behind closed doors.

The Ireland team included Alan Maybury and Nicky Byrne, who both joined Leeds United, but it was Duff who shone brightest to earn himself a contract with the 1995 Premier League winners. 

He signed for Rovers in 1996 and by the following year the winger was making his first-team debut in England’s top flight — voted man-of-the-match in a 4-2 home defeat to Leicester City on the final day of the season.  

“You have to give great credit to the great people around him at Blackburn during that time,” Devlin says, “Alan Irvine, Kenny Dalglish, Tony Parkes, Ray Harford… they gave him a chance early on and he took it.

“The reason he got the opportunity is because he really deserved it after what he had done with the youth teams over there. He became a really top player very early on.”

soccer-vitesse-arnham-v-blackburn-rovers Lining out for Blackburn in a pre-season friendly in August 1996. EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

In 19 years as a professional footballer, ‘Duffer’ would go on to dazzle fans at the very highest level — winning two Premier League titles with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, earning 100 caps for his country and scoring at a World Cup finals. 

Though the vast majority of his career was spent in England with Blackburn, Chelsea, Newcastle United and Fulham, he enjoyed a year lining out for Melbourne City in the A-League, where Spain great David Villa was briefly a team-mate. 

The last port of call before hanging up his boots was back home to Dublin, but having joined Shamrock Rovers in the summer of 2015, the then-36-year-old announced his retirement that Christmas — later admitting his mind was made up after his body had struggled in a Leinster Senior Cup semi-final win over Bohemians. 

But football is all he ever knew and his obsession with the sport remained. Duff played one friendly game with his brother’s Leinster Senior League team, TEK United, before deciding the tackles were too full-blooded for his liking. He has also told the story of how he once rented out a five-a-side pitch in Loughlinstown for a kickabout by himself as he adjusted to a new life without the comforting routine of daily training sessions.

When Rovers invited him to begin his coaching education with the Tallaght outfit, taking charge of their U15s and becoming part of the first-team’s backroom staff, Duff discovered the new focus he needed. 

Current Hoops captain Ronan Finn recalls rejoining the club for a second spell in December 2016 after two trophy-laden years at Dundalk. Being shown around by sporting director Stephen McPhail on one of his first days back, the pair walked into the gym only to find Duff doing pull-ups alone.   

“I was a little taken aback as it was Damien Duff and you are awestruck by him,” Finn tells The42. “It was a day off and he had retired, yet he’s in there working hard. I had never met him but straight away I could see his work ethic and his attitude. Just in those few moments, you learn that this man is the ultimate professional.

From there it grew and after a few weeks you understood why he had such a successful career in England.”

With first-team coach Glenn Cronin and manager Stephen Bradley taking training, Duff didn’t do a huge amount of coaching at Rovers in those early days and would often join in as a player. When he did, however, Finn says his ideas were clear. 

“He would have done a few sessions and it was his mentality and his appetite that stood out — his pure passions for it. He was only entering coaching but he knew exactly what he was talking about. He wasn’t second-guessing anything and he had a firm plan, in a similar way to Stephen Bradley.

“He just believed in what he was saying and backed himself. I’m sure he did that as a player too.”

damien-duff-with-stephen-bradley Chatting to Rovers boss Stephen Bradley. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Duff explained to Finn and others that he and some Chelsea team-mates would often stay back after team sessions to work on their touch and play head tennis. Soon enough, there was a group at Rovers doing something similar. 

“He used to love lads doing extra and not wanting to just go home after training,” says Finn. “I’d be a firm believer in that too, and a little gang of us then started to play in the hall — Graham Burke, Luke Byrne and Stephen McPhail.

He loved being out on the training pitch purely to improve technique and couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t want to do it. He just loved football and I think he would have really liked working with our group now. As good as that squad was, it has got even better as the manager has brought in more players and established that frame of mind.”

Duff formed a strong bond with his U15s as he went above and beyond to prepare the youngsters for a career in professional football — although they would lose out to rivals Bohemians in the race for the league title. 

“He loved them and they loved him, he was a real father figure to those players,” Finn tells. “Luke Byrne, who is a very close friend of mine, worked with Damien and sings his praises. He holds him in really high regard.

“I’m sure they were disappointed they didn’t win the league, but they were a very talented group. He loved technical footballers and he wants players to also work hard.”

He also introduced double sessions five times a week in order to give his players more contact time. The squad would be in before school at 6.30am and then back that evening at 6.30pm. The idea received criticism from some quarters but was laughed off by Duff as “dinosaur mentality”, and Finn agrees. 

“I didn’t understand that argument because elite rugby players and swimmers would early in the morning,” he adds. “Suddenly when it’s soccer, the methods were being questioned.

“It’s good enough for other sports and Ireland have proven to be very successful in rugby. Young lads I know from private schools would train before school but when Damien suggested it people were questioning him.

“That’s just typical, backwards mentality that we need to get away from. Certain people wanted to stick their noses in, maybe just to have a go.

“Unlike when Damien or even when I was growing up, there are more distractions for kids now with social media, phones and computers. The idea was to get the lads more contact time with the football.”

damien-duff Duff is just as determined to succeed as a coach. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

In January 2019, Duff was named among 19 coaches — alongside former team-mates Robbie Keane, Keith Andrews and Andy Reid and All-Ireland-winning Gaelic football manager Jim McGuinness — on the FAI’s latest list of Uefa Pro Licence participants. 

Run by FAI Coach Education manager Niall O’Regan, the course began the following day and was to take place over an 18-month period. 

Ex-Cork City manager John Cotter had been on the same Uefa A Licence course as Duff and the pair ended up together again this time around.  

“We had four ex-Ireland internationals, a lot of good League of Ireland people and some fellas from England,” current Waterford coach Cotter says. “So it was great to have that knowledge in the room and pick those brains over the duration of the course.

“We’d have discussions with people giving their opinions. You take what you want from it really and there’s no doubt there was a lot of good information coming from these people when they spoke.

Damien was the stand-out candidate on that Pro Licence for me. He had a presence about him, he has an unbelievable work ethic and his attention to detail was very good.

“He got respect from everyone for the player he was and will get the same going into the Ireland set-up, but as a coach he was top class — brilliant to watch and brilliant to listen to.”

That September, the participants travelled to Geneva as part of a four-nation seminar. Each country had to put on a session and a presentation. Duff was selected to do so from the FAI course, with Keane as his assistant. 

“He did the presentation and the session in front of everyone and, to be fair, it was on another level altogether,” remembers Cotter. “Anyone from the four nations would have said the same. That was an eye-opener to see the level that he’s at.

“I’d have no doubt that he’ll be a success because the work ethic that he has and you’d love to see him do well.”

In the same month that the Uefa Pro Licence began, Duff was officially announced as the new reserve-team coach at Celtic after months of speculation. However, with manager Brendan Rodgers departing for Leicester City weeks later, he was quickly promoted to first-team coach under the returning Neil Lennon. 

Cotter and a few others had the chance to see him in action at Lennoxtown training centre. 

“Towards the end of the course, a group of us were lucky enough to go over to Glasgow. Niall O’Regan had organised that we would have full access for two or three days. We watched Damien working up close with the Celtic players and you could see why he has gone on to become a coach at the top level.”

Glowing reports came out of Celtic as Duff played his part in helping the Hoops claim nine-in-a-row. He has since left that role to concentrate solely on his new job as first-team coach of the new Ireland senior set-up alongside manager Stephen Kenny and assistant Keith Andrews. 

“You can see how he has positioned himself with the coaching,” says his former mentor Devlin. “He came home and got involved with Rovers, then he went off to Celtic and now he’s going to be part of the senior international set-up. It says a lot about him, he’s very astute. I think Damien has a future in coaching, there’s no doubt about it.”

Cotter agrees: “The way he talks about Ireland, it will no doubt be a huge honour for him to go in and coach with the senior team.

I wasn’t one bit surprised that Stephen Kenny took him in and I think he’ll do a great job as his passion and enthusiasm came across when he spoke.”

Finn worked closely with Kenny during their time at Dundalk and he is certainly not alone in looking forward to seeing what they can do together when international football returns later this year. 

“They’re two football men, they just love football,” Finn ends. “Stephen would love players doing extra — those who wanted to learn and be the best. Damien is the exact same.

“It will be an exciting time for Irish football as they’re both really passionate about being successful. Stephen is very good with young players, and likewise with Damien.

“Hopefully we have a crop from the U21s who can come through and join the established players to give us a real chance to qualify for the next tournament.”

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