Will Ireland produce a player like Damien Duff again? And if so when? And if so how?
Not for the first time, Duff popped up out of the blue to put a smile on everyone’s faces during the week as he spoke about life after football.
The word "retirement" holds such heavy connotations – cardigans, Today with Maura and Daithí, obsessive gardening, furtive cocaine habits – that it is always difficult to associate it with sports stars in their 30s, especially those as impish and thrilling as Duff was in the days when he was comfortably the most unaffected superstar in Premier League football.
His move from Blackburn to Chelsea in the summer of 2004 for £17 million was among the last moves into the realms of superclub-dom by any Irish player.
He remained blithely unimpressed by his own success or by the atmosphere at Chelsea, which was flooded with the money and ambition of new owner Roman Abramovich. Along with his startlingly quick and inventive style – at once characterised by an ultra-modern trickiness and pure 1950s dash-and-economy – Duff carried a spiky independence through his career. "I don't be out looking for all the hullabaloo," he told Tom Humphries in an interview with this newspaper soon after his move to Stamford Bridge.
He was torn between his delight at playing on such a superb team with the more basic fact of missing the uncomplicatedness of life at joyously unfashionable Blackburn. He particularly missed Blackburn’s training ground.
“Here at Chelsea, the training ground is a bit of a shithole but I can’t wait to get up and go training every day,” he confided.
It wasn’t just his club that came under the gaze of what is a wonderfully caustic eye. “We all got sent one,” he revealed of the Genesis report, the FAI’s self-administered investigation into the ineptitude following the 2002 World Cup. “That thick, it was. We all threw it in the bin.”
And his general opinion on the FAI: “Tight-arsed. We only get one cap each year with all the games we played written on it. The
lads get one cap for each games but that’s us, isn’t it?”
That was Duff 12 years ago, on his way to winning a Premier League medal in a Chelsea team loaded with forceful players in their prime – John Terry, Claude Makélélé, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba. Arjen Robben and Duff provided the gossamer lightness down the flanks.
Now that all of that has passed, Duff lightly poked fun at himself.
And if it was amusing to hear about how he recoiled in horror at some of the tackling he experienced in Enniskerry when he lined out for a recent Leinster Senior Cup game, there was something genuinely poignant about his revelation that he went and hired a pitch for himself recently just so he could do what he has done all his life: kick a football against a wall. He had no reason to be doing it; he is retired. He is a former footballer and he knows it.
But how do you retire from something you love? How do you stop doing something that has become embedded in your muscle memory?
This was at the heart of Duff’s life-after-football chinwag. In 1990, when the entire island was either notionally or actually drunk on the possibilities of that summer’s World Cup, he reckons he was practicing football for about 20-30 hours a week.
Except that it wasn’t “practice”. He was just losing himself in the game – sometimes at club training but more often on the street near his house. For hours and hours. And with due respect to the people who spent their free time coaching him, he reckons that is why he thrived, in his prime, among the best footballers on planet earth. His rationale is simple: “If the kid is doing four-five hours and I’m doing 30 hours, he can’t lace my boots.”
Duff’s theme was vaguely in line with the 10,000 hours theory, which posits that the achievement of excellence in any field requires at least that span of correct practice.
In Duff's case, it also happens to chime with the passionate call-to-arms for Irish football by Graham Barrett published here recently. The former Arsenal player offers a bleak portrait of the state of underage football in Ireland and attributes Duff's celebrated generation of players to the methodology and inspiration by the national under-16 and under-18 coaches of that time, Brian Kerr and Noel King.
He makes a convincing argument that unless the domestic coaching structures undergo a radical overhaul, Irish kids simply won’t have a chance to compete against their English and European counterparts. The culture of a small but steady stream of Irish players somehow making the grade in England – and, for decades, at England’s prestige clubs – could just end.
During the January transfer window, there was a brief outbreak of noise surrounding the possible move of
. Before that, there was prolonged speculation that
would be a target for
. It was encouraging to think of Irish players at clubs which are, theoretically at least, in the business of trying to win league titles.
Still, the idea of Irish names on shirts at United Arsenal or Chelsea seems increasingly fanciful, unless another player like Duff comes out of the woodwork armed with the necessary speed and technical excellence and mental toughness.
Think about the 30 hours which Duff reckons he was giving football as an 11- year-old. How many youngsters are replicating that now? Talk to any coach in any sport and they will soon cite the “choices” of sports available to their young charges.
Talk to any parent and they will assure you about the constant juggling of sports training to French horn lessons to coding class to that optional Chinese grind etc.
Few children have the free time to give themselves to their sport as Damien Duff did, even if they had the mind to. Endless repetition is the invariable source of effortless brilliance. Duff instinctively knew that as a child and it never left him. That's why he found himself haunting a playground as a 37-year-old; much like Harry Angstrom, he will always be hankering after the game for the sake of the game.
Duff was a “product” of a certain era and circumstance – the perfect age to be captivated by the heroics of Italia 90, blessed with athletic speed, coordination and discipline, fortunate to have coaches like King and Kerr. He was Irish to the bone and there he was, among the superstars. So who will climb that high again? And how?