Duff going out on a wing and a prayer

Mon, Jun 18, 2012, 01:00

As he gets ready to lead out Ireland for his 100th cap, Damien Duff is hinting that tonight could be his last game for his country, writes EMMET MALONEin Poznan

WHEN DAMIEN Duff is dragged in to face the press “kicking and screaming”, as he says he was in Poznan yesterday, you generally know that something significant is afoot. This time around, it could scarcely have been any bigger with the 33-year-old Dubliner set to make his 100th appearance for Ireland this evening.

As he opened the proceedings, though, Giovanni Trapattoni quickly revealed that to mark the occasion Duff will, with Robbie Keane’s blessing, captain the team, and moments later the player himself hinted pretty strongly that tonight might also mark his last appearance in an Ireland shirt.

“I think I’ve made up my mind,” Duff replied when asked if he knew whether he would be sticking around after this tournament, “but now is not the time to say.”

He subsequently said that he envisaged playing on for a few more years but this was in reply to a question that cited the example of players who gave up international football in order to extend club careers. There was a clear sense that, at least right now, Duff is considering doing something along the same lines.

If he does go then his departure will add to the sense of sadness with which Ireland’s misadventure at these European Championships will be remembered. The myth of Ireland as unconquerable underdog has been well and truly blown apart over the last week or so and the loss of one of the side’s most universally popular figures would only compound the misery of those who relished the prospect of Ireland’s return to one of the game’s great stages with such a keen sense of anticipation.

The ones who travelled have, of course, felt especially deflated, but his captaincy and achievement of a century of caps will give Irish supporters inside the Municipal Stadium some much needed cause to celebrate on a night when Trapattoni’s players will not be attempting to qualify for the next round but rather to restore a severely battered collective reputation.

In a team that has been well beaten twice, Duff has struggled to make a positive impact like the rest of them, and yet his own reputation has been secure for some time. The former Blackburn Rovers and Chelsea winger was, at his height, the greatest Irish player of this generation and continues to endear for his unquestionable commitment to a cause he has served at senior level for just over 14 year now.

His remarkable energy and determined application have long made him a key foundation upon which the team and the optimism of those watching it were constructed. For years, his pace and close control, assets that have been in terribly short supply to a succession of managers before Trapattoni, were entirely central to Ireland’s ability to unlock lesser opponents and pose some sort of meaningful attacking threat against the better ones.

If he has had a particular failing it is, as the current coach has observed more than once with regard to both his wingers, that he does not score enough himself, but his capacity to create for others has always been of absolutely critical importance.

With left back having long been a problem position for the team, Duff’s industry in support of the defence also marked him out as special. When Ian Harte played there, the protection afforded by the Dubliner was invaluable, while Kevin Kilbane and, most recently, Stephen Ward have also routinely had cause to be grateful to him.

Ahead of Trapattoni’s very first game in charge of Ireland, against Serbia four years ago, the visitors’ coach, Miroslav Dukic, suggested that Duff was no longer as feared as he had once been and largely succeeded in containing him, albeit at the cost of tying up an additional defender whenever he had the ball. In the years since, his pace has continued to ebb slowly away and he certainly beats really top class defenders far less often now. But he can still win a succession of frees from the very best of them, which in itself continues to be a defining characteristic of this Ireland team when things are going well.

Perhaps the single most memorable image of his international career to date is the celebration of his goal against Saudi Arabia in Japan when his jubilation won him the hearts of the locals.

Asked for his own highlights from all of those games, however, Duff insisted that it was the disappointments that actually endured most prominently in his memory. “I always seem to remember the lows rather than the highs,” he said before giving prominent mention to that infamous night in Paris a couple of years back.

The last two games of the 99 must also rank pretty high in that list and Duff, with obvious disappointment, acknowledged in relation to Ireland’s performances and results at these European Championships that: “Obviously we weren’t good enough when it came to the crunch.”

Tonight he will play a part in picking the players up for their final challenge of the tournament and the prospect of that, it seems, does not daunt him.

“We used to take turns (giving team talks) back in the Chelsea days. It’s been a while but I don’t think it’s going to take much to rally the troops. I don’t think the lads will even need a team talk to be fair.” It will simply be, he added, “about restoring some pride to the green jersey.”

After that, it seems, he may be about to leave it all to the next generation. James McClean’s emergence at Sunderland has certainly generated some hope that there is a emerging replacement for Duff, but a good first season in the Premier League should only be considered the latest stage in the education of the young Derryman. For all the hype that has surrounded him during the last six months, it seems terribly premature to assume he is actually ready to fill the 33-year-old’s boots on an ongoing basis.

Even Martin O’Neill, one suspects, would quite like Duff to ease McClean into the role so that the 23-year-old could benefit from his vast experience and incredible focus.

Keane paid tribute to his long-time friend yesterday, describing Duff as “a top, top class player – one of the best we’ve ever produced.” Trapattoni said he was “a role model, an example to future generations”.

It is the development of the emerging generation that the Italian will be most concerned with and, one suspects, when the dust has settled and the edge been taken off the disappointment of these championships by the passing of a few weeks or months, Trapattoni will, if Duff really has decided to call it a day, gently seek to persuade the Dubliner to stay.

He owes it to nobody, but somehow you always get the sense he’d answer the call.

IF YOU KNOW YOUR HISTORY: Previous meetings By Emmet Malone

Ireland have won just one of six competitive meetings with the four-times world champions, but then the Italians have only won half of the encounters which might, if you’re inclined to look at it that way, suggest that Trapattoni’s side have a 50-50 chance of getting something out of this evening’s game. Here is what happened in the others . . .

Dec 2nd, 1970

Italy 3 Ireland 0

(Euro qualifier, Florence)

First half goals from Giancarlo De Sisti (a penalty) and Roberto Boninsenga pretty much put the result of the game beyond doubt but Pierino Prati wraps up a comfortable win for the hosts six minutes from time.

May 10th, 1971

Ireland 1 Italy 2

(Euro qualifier, Dublin)

The Irish get themselves into trouble in the return leg early on when they defend a Sandro Mazzola free-kick poorly and Boninsenga strikes again. The hosts get back on level terms for a spell after Jimmy Conway scored on 23 minutes but Prati has the final word again.

June 30th, 1990

Italy 1 Ireland 0

(World Cup quarter-final, Rome)

The Irish had dramatically exceeded expectations to reach the last eight but they found the hosts too much of a handful and their fierce resistance was broken seven minutes before the break by Salvatore Schillaci.

June 10th, 1994

Ireland 1 Italy 0

(World Cup group stages, New Jersey)

One of the sweetest moments in the history of the Irish game with Ray Houghton scoring another goal that became part of sporting folklore. The way the Italians were outnumbered in the stands is rather fondly remembered too.

April 1st, 2009

Italy 1 Ireland 1

(World Cup qualifier, Bari)

The Italians had Giampaolo Pazzini sent off in the opening minutes but still managed to take the lead through Vincenzo Iaquinta just over 10 minutes in. The Irish battled relentlessly for an equaliser and they got it three minutes from time courtesy of Robbie Keane.

October 10th, 2009

Ireland 2 Italy 2

(World Cup qualifier, Dublin)

Glenn Whelan gives the home side the lead and after Mauro Camoranesi scores for the visitors, Sean St Ledger restores it, but the Italians get an equaliser through Alberto Gilardino as the home side rashly appears to push forward in search of a third.