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'As soon as we landed in Dublin, the phone rang': The inside story of Duff's record Chelsea move

Man United and Liverpool flirted with the idea but it was the Londoners who broke the Irish transfer record to sign the Dubliner and kickstart the Roman revolution.

The Special One... and also Jose Mourinho.
The Special One... and also Jose Mourinho.
Image: EMPICS Sport

DAMIEN DUFF WAS on a plane. It was a Wednesday afternoon – day six of a transfer saga that still had another week to run. Seated in the middle aisle, dressed in his Blackburn Rovers tracksuit, Duff only had to read that morning’s Guardian to realise this pre-season tour wouldn’t be the only trip he’d be making that month. 

“Chelsea [have] made a very substantial offer but it falls short of what we require,” Blackburn’s chief executive, John Williams, told the newspaper. “Even if Chelsea did get to the figure negotiated in his contract then we would hope Damien would want to stay with us.”

There was little chance of that. Time moves fast in football. Earlier that afternoon, Duff had met his father, Gerry, and his sporting adviser, Pat Devlin, at his home in the Ribble Valley. By this stage, according to The Guardian, Chelsea had faxed an offer of £16 million on the Monday evening and telephoned back the following day with an increased bid. Still, it fell short of the £17.7 million price Blackburn were seeking.

In any case, the three men couldn’t wait around. There were flights to catch. Devlin and Gerry Duff were heading back to Dublin, Duff with Blackburn on their pre-season tour to Colorado. “We said goodbye at the airport,” Devlin told The42. “Then, as soon as we landed in Dublin, the phone rang. It was Blackburn. ‘Pat, Chelsea have matched it (the offer)’.”

Meanwhile, back at Manchester Airport, there was panic. The Swiss Airlines flight was preparing to leave but long before it was crossing the Atlantic, its most famous passenger had disembarked. It wasn’t Colorado that Damien Duff was heading to that day but Chelsea.  

**

Three weeks earlier, Duff’s likelier destination appeared to be either Old Trafford or Anfield. Gerard Houllier wanted him, so too Alex Ferguson. In fact both teams could have got him a year earlier for a considerably smaller amount than Chelsea eventually forked out. Instead they dithered. “I wasn’t sharp in the summer after my illness (Houllier had suffered a heart scare). And when you are not sharp you do not make the right decisions and there were a few I took that were wrong,” Houllier would subsequently say.

on-this-day-liverpool-beat-barcelona-to-reach-uefa-cup-final Houllier (centre) wanted to sign Duff in 2002. Source: PA

Mistake No1 was signing El Hadji Diouf instead of Nicolas Anelka, who had spent the previous six months on loan from Real Madrid and who ended up at Manchester City. Then there was his procrastination over Duff. “With Damien, we were told by Blackburn he was not for sale,” Rick Parry, the former Liverpool chief executive, told The Telegraph earlier this year. “Maybe if we had overbid and gone to £15million, they would have softened. The fact is he signed a contract with an £17 million buy-out and Roman Abramovich came in a year later and paid it. We were not going to pay that.”

Nor were United – their former chief executive David Gill telling shareholders in 2003 that they had ‘asked for the value of the player and had discussions with his agent’.

In fact, Duff revealed in an interview with The Irish Independent that his first round of discussions with Ferguson had taken place after the 2002 World Cup. “I spoke to them (Manchester United) a few times,” Duff said in 2017. “I wanted it to happen but the fee back then was for £17m. I don’t know what the equivalent fee is now – but in 2003, that was a massive deal. Alex Ferguson spoke with me the summer I left for Chelsea (in 2003) and also the summer before, after the World Cup.”

Offers speak louder than words, though and United never got around to tabling one.

“The truth is that while Manchester United and Liverpool were interested in 2002, no one contacted Blackburn with an official bid,” Devlin says now. “I’ve no doubt they could have got Damien if they had put in a big enough offer. But they didn’t and so we took everything into consideration and decided to stay where we were. Damien became one of Blackburn’s highest earners and everyone connected to Damien – as well as Blackburn – were happy with that.”

Their bank manager had further reason to be happy on the opening day of July 2003, when a then unknown Russian, Roman Abramovich, bought Chelsea for £140m. And in the blink of an eye, the landscape changed. Wayne Bridge was going to Stamford Bridge for £7m, Juan Sebastien Veron for twice that price; Glen Johnson and Joe Cole both cost £6m, Geremi £6.9m.  Edgar Davids and Christian Vieri were also targeted. In this new footballing context, a £17.7m buy-out clause for a star of the 2002 World Cup didn’t appear so steep.

chelsea-1-cole-ranieri-veron Cole and Veron also joined Chelsea in 2003. Source: PA

“Blackburn’s £17m price was based on the fact Rio Ferdinand, an England defender, had moved for £30m the year before,” Devlin says. “Damien was a different type of player to Rio and had had a magnificent World Cup. It was a price Chelsea were happy to pay.”

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Trevor Birch, the then Chelsea chief executive, explained why: “Damien’s a top player,” he said in the week after the Duff deal was completed. “Claudio has been really interested in him for some time but we didn’t have the money to buy him at that stage so he was not one of our top priorities. This summer he was Claudio’s No1 preference.”

From a distance of 17 years, you’d be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was. Chelsea, after all, have turned into serial winners during the Abramovich era, collecting five Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, one Champions League and two Europa Leagues since that game-changing summer.

But back then they were only seen as a cup team, having just sneaked into the Champions League on the final day of the previous season. Their stars, Gianfranco Zola, Graeme Le Saux, Marcel Desailly and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were all in their 30s. Frank Lampard had only scored 15 of the 211 goals he’d eventually get for the club while John Terry had only 69 of the 717 appearances that would end up on his Chelsea CV.

So when United and Liverpool once again expressed their interest, you can understand why Duff and Devlin were prepared to listen. “In the week after Chelsea made their bid, there was a lot of activity from a lot of clubs including Manchester United,” Devlin said. “Contact was made (from United) to register their interest but the bottom line is they didn’t match Chelsea’s offer.”

pat-devlin Pat Devlin was Duff's sporting adviser during the Chelsea deal. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Gill, subsequently, would explain why to the club’s shareholders, saying Ferguson didn’t believe Duff was worth the money. Liverpool had the same opinion. “Generally, I must say hindsight is nonsense in football,” Parry said this year. “We would all be champions in hindsight because everyone can go back to a game and pick a different team. If we had bought Duff and, later on, Dani Alves, would we have won league titles? Who knows?”

Duff did win leagues, two of them within three years. “When I saw the squad they were building, I just knew I had to go there to further my career,” he said, after meeting Ranieri for lunch in the Chelsea Harbour Hotel. At no stage was Abramovich involved in the discussions.

Devlin says: “Claudio’s first comment was: ‘I don’t talk about the money, only the football. So, I left them to it and looking back on that week now, everything Chelsea did was impressive. They applied no pressure on Damien but made it clear they wanted him. They knew what the buy-out clause was. They matched that.

“I think they wanted to prove to the Premier League and the football community, that they were serious players. Foreign owners in the Premier League at that time were a rarity (until Abramovich’s takeover, Fulham were the only other club to have one). They wanted to make a big signing. And that was Damien.”

Financially it worked out, The Telegraph reporting that Duff’s wages had doubled to around £80,000-a-week. He signed a five-year deal but left after three. Again Liverpool were interested in that 2006 transfer window, so too Spurs, while Chelsea were prepared to offer improved terms. Instead, he left for Newcastle.

I wanted to go somewhere that liked exciting players and wanted to deliver for them,” Duff said in 2017. “For an outsider, they might think I made a mistake. But people who know me, know I am a simple guy. I couldn’t go to Spurs, because when I play for a team – I become a fan of that club. Spurs were Chelsea’s rivals. I couldn’t join them for that simple reason, even though they were a good team. That was me being too loyal. I also spoke to Liverpool. Benitez was manager at the time. It didn’t feel right. It just didn’t go for well for me at Newcastle. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get going.”

Jose Mourinho didn’t want to lose him. He’d used Duff in 40 games the season before he left and 48 in 2004/05. At Newcastle, Duff – plagued with injuries – averaged 29 games per season. “I sat down with Jose Mourinho,” Duff said in 2017. “They were offering me another two or three years but the way that season finished, I wasn’t at my sharpest, and while I was still playing, for the last 15 games of the season, I was in the stand for about five games and sub for another five matches.

“That summer, Chelsea signed Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko and it seemed as if they were going to change to a diamond formation. We had four wide players at the time – Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Shaun Wright Phillips being the others. I was bottom of the list. I didn’t think he’d play wingers.”

This is Devlin’s take on what happened: “In 2006, my preference was for Damien to stay at Chelsea a bit longer and see if he could win more things. But it was never about me. It was always about Damien and what he wanted. He’s a very strong person, he knows what he wants. My job (as his adviser) is to open doors and we did provide him with options. And once Damien viewed those options, it was his choice from there on in. He is a very bright lad and had the intelligence to make the right decision. You have to remember, people questioned us going to Chelsea in 2003 but look what happened – he won the league twice and a Cup. It was definitely the right choice.

“It’s great looking back on those years. They truly were a brilliant time in our lives.”

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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