No shying away from the big one


The gluey pitch at the Radnice Stadium hinders his gallop yet when he receives the ball the gloomy little practice ground comes alive with shouts.

"Duffer. Duffer. Duffer. Go yourself Duffer."

He watched these guys on television a million times. Now they don't want him to pass it they want him to scorch and sizzle and do what he can do.

So he rolls the ball in front of Jeff Kenna's feet. A little ritual like trailing a lamb chop past a hungry wolf. Duffer wears one of the green bibs which identify those who will play tonight. Kenna is in an orange bib. Must try harder. Hungry.

And Kenna watches. Follows his opponents bluffing dances with ferocious concentration, adjusting his stance with every twitch of Duffer's foot. And then with the blurry shuffle of a three-card trickster Duffer makes the ball vanish and next Niall Quinn is rising, angular and knowing. Do the easy bit Quinny. The green bibs throw their arms in the air.

Afterwards they wash the mud from their boots under a gushing tap which runs into a concrete trough. The senior pro's slap his back and gee him up. Well done Duffer.

The blond head never rises.

An hour later Damian Duff scuffs his feet as he walks through the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel towards the press room. If he were led in by the ear his reluctance couldn't be more marked. He slouches shyly towards the podium and sits blinking. His face is contorted with embarrassment, his body language plainly expressing his abhorrence at this ordeal.

On and off the field he contrives to make himself smaller than he actually is. He is bigger than fellow midfielders Kinsella and McLoughlin and only a fraction shorter than Roy Keane yet people fret for him when the ball is at his feet.

He deflects attention by reflex, his shoulder always turning away. In the past year though he has crossed threshold after threshold. His upper body has filled out a little bit and the world under-20 championships in Malaysia seem a long way away. No more next big thing. Just responsibility and the Premiership slog.

His four international appearances to date have provided only fleeting glimpses of his ability. He needs a good night in Belgrade tonight. Needs it badly.

"This game is probably the biggest I've played. I'm looking forward to it. I'm playing with some great players. Hopefully the lads will look after me."

Looking after him involves, as Alan McLoughlin who will play nearest to him tonight concedes, getting him the right type of ball.

"Where Damien plays it's important for him to get the right service. If he doesn't get the ball in the right areas he'll struggle, he won't hurt people. We have to get the ball to him and let him do his business."

Duff's eyes are hooded and a little suspicious as he considers the suggestion. For a kid whose manager once described him as the best since George Best he has had a lot to carry on his sloping shoulders. His appearance tonight is something of a watershed. On a left side where Ireland look weak he could become a scapegoat for the evening. Or he could blossom.

His inclusion is a risk, not because he lacks the talent, quite the reverse, but because at this stage of his development he needs a few evenings where he can gambol and acquire the confidence that suits a winger's game. Tonight is structured as slog and toil and discipline. He may emerge bruised, but he leaves the trenches for battle with a youngster's gallantry.

"My confidence is fine at the moment. I got taken off against Croatia but I talked to Mick McCarthy afterwards and told him what I thought was wrong. I'm playing well at club level, but you don't get noticed as much when the results aren't going your way. We haven't done so well at Blackburn this year. My confidence is as good as it has been though."

After his bright start to Premiership life, which included a goal against Sheffield Wednesday which was a candidate for goal of the season last year, Duff has settled now into a struggling Blackburn side, raiding down one wing while Damian Johnson plies the other. A team adjusting to the cramped life of the Premiership basement is no place for expressive wispy wingers. "Yeah. I've got used to that this season at Blackburn, we haven't really done that well but Roy Hodgson has been working on the defensive part of my game. That should be useful against Yugoslavia. I'm looking forward to it."

He shifts his shoulders, set to go again. Rolls his eyes towards Tony the Minder. Nineteen years old, about to play the biggest game of his career and still too shy to talk about it.

"I'll have a few butterflies," he says finally. "It is a huge game. Confident enough to go in and get a result tomorrow. I think I've shown confidence. I've known what I am capable off. I know I'm good enough."

And off he goes leaving nothing behind but the memory of his training pitch shimmy. As he'd want it.