When Duffer ruled the world

How a star was reluctantly born in the summer of 2002

One night in the summer of 2002, Damien Duff came home after a night out and started to cry. 

Duff had returned from the World Cup as a star, but stardom was never the point. “People say fame has its benefits,” he says, sounding doubtful about the proposition. “You can get into restaurants or tickets for something, but I’d rather just pay. I guess it goes hand in hand with being a footballer. Nowadays people like the whole fame thing that goes with it but I just adored football.”

Football had always been the point and Duffer, not quite single-handedly, had made it the point of Ireland’s summer in 2002. For a long time, it looked as if the point of Ireland’s World Cup would be everything other than football, or only football and life as it concerned Roy Keane and the inner workings of his mind.

Duff’s performances would eventually alter that perception, even if an age passed in the time between the meeting in the Hyatt Ballroom in Saipan and Ireland’s first match against Cameroon in Nigata. It was an age of negotiation and stand offs, of player statements and manoeuvring. Private jets were prepared, politicians intervened and the children of Ireland were referenced as the emotional trump card to try to make the World Cup what it was supposed to be. 

This was not the World Cup as Damien Duff imagined it, but this was the World Cup he was a part of. There were meetings, and meetings about meetings, but Duff and Robbie Keane wanted the games to begin. 

Soon, he would make the World Cup as he had always wanted it to be. Later in 2002, he was voted part of uefa.com’s team of the year. “My name doesn’t really sit among them,” he said as he was selected on the left of a midfield containing Clarence Seedorf, Michael Ballack and Zinedine Zidane. But it did, that was the point. The summer of 2002 had taken care of that. Duff did sit among them, but then came fame and, as another great Irish footballer once said, “fame is a pain in the arse”.

Pat Devlin forgot what day it was. He had just returned from watching a game at St Joseph’s in Sallynoggin when he called Kenny Dalglish. Remember the player he had been telling him about? Well, they had to get him over as soon as they could. He had seen him play today and he had no doubt. 

Duff was playing for St Kevin’s Boys on that day and at one point the ball came swirling down out of the sky and Duff controlled it with one touch and went on the attack. “We have to get him to Blackburn, at the very least,” Devlin said.

So there was no doubt. Devlin called Dalglish, who was manager of Blackburn Rovers. Dalglish trusted his friend, but he told him he’d have to talk another time. Devlin had called him on a Saturday afternoon and Dalglish was getting ready for a Premier League game. 

Duff tended to have that effect on football people. They forgot where they were or time took on a different dimension. Brian Kerr wrote that three players have excited him out of his feet: George Best, Lionel Messi and Damien Duff. 

The February evening in 1997 when Kerr saw Duff playing in a Youth Cup match against Nottingham Forest ensured that the player was part of the Ireland underage squad that went to Malaysia that summer.

Duff would make his Ireland debut the following March with another teenager Robbie Keane against the Czech Republic. But if Robbie was immediately at home, swaggering through a game the following month against Argentina, Duff would take longer. 

But nobody doubted he would make it. Devlin first saw Duff on a windy day in Sundrive Park where Lourdes Celtic played and he wanted to see more. Duff was light and frail and when Devlin met Duff and his parents, he discovered he was quiet too. “They were a lovely family and he was a lovely kid.” But Devlin never thought he was laid-back or lacked the drive. There was never any doubt about his ambition to succeed.

As a scout, Devlin’s job was to get him to Blackburn, but he would be more than a scout to the player, becoming an adviser and friend. Devlin was in Japan for the famous night after Ireland drew with Germany, even if by the time Ireland went to Korea to play Spain, he had returned to Ireland. Clubs were making noises and Devlin needed to be at home to deal with the commotion.

Damien Duff made his debut for Blackburn Rovers on the last day of the 1996/97 season. He had just turned 18. Duff would make his Ireland debut the following March alongside Keane in Olomouc. Understood backwards, from a distance of twenty years, it seems as if the ascent was seamless and untroubled. An 18-year-old playing in the Premier League, who then goes on to make his international debut the following spring before starring for his country at the World Cup four years later.

But it didn’t feel like that at the time.

Dalglish and his assistant Ray Harford had left Blackburn by the time Duff made his debut. He had been guided through the youth ranks by Alan Irvine but Blackburn was a club unsure of itself, and Duff, who may have been quiet but didn’t lack self-belief, found himself at the mercy of tactical experiments by those managers who followed Dalglish and Harford.

In 1999, a year after finishing sixth, Blackburn were relegated. “It didn’t hit us until later,” Duff said a couple of years after the experience. “You just wanted to get swallowed up or go away for God knows how long.”

When Ireland conceded a late goal in October 1999 that cost them qualification for the European Championships, Duff wasn’t on the pitch. He came on as a sub during both legs of the play-off that followed against Turkey but he was searching for a role.

“It wasn’t the best of years for me,” he said in 2002. “I was on a real downer at Blackburn and then I lost my place in the Irish team.”

At Blackburn, Graeme Souness had taken over. “He came to me in the middle of the first season and told me he was dropping me. I asked why and he said with the ability I had, he needed to get more out of me, which I suppose made me more determined.”

Blackburn spent two seasons in the first division, as the Championship was then, and Duff spent the start of Ireland’s World Cup campaign as understudy to Kevin Kilbane. 

Blackburn achieved promotion in 2001 and in June of that year, Ireland travelled to Estonia for an end of season qualifier. 

Robbie Keane was struggling at Leeds United. He had gone six games for Ireland without a goal and had missed a month of the season with injury before he played against Portugal and looked out of form. So McCarthy selected Duff to play off Niall Quinn in Tallinn. There was now an alternative route for Duff.

In August, Ireland had a friendly at home against Croatia. McCarthy started with Duff upfront alongside Robbie Keane and Duff scored his first international goal, cutting in from the right and curling the ball into the far corner.

McCarthy played with Keane and Duff upfront again for the game against Holland, on an afternoon which became part of folklore. Roy Keane may have been the driving force on that famous day, but Duff’s darting runs were essential as well.

The victory over two legs against Iran ensured Ireland were at the World Cup and Duff’s potential was now clear to all. Liverpool and Manchester United had been interested in 2001 and it was widely believed he would join one of those clubs.

When Ireland played Denmark at Lansdowne Road in March 2002 in the build up to the World Cup, Duff produced a performance of staggering promise.

"What he did was unbelievable on a surface like that,” Dean Kiely said. “If it had been like a bowling green I could have understood but it was a bit of a cow field so to produce the skills he did was phenomenal."

Ireland would need Duff but in Blackburn, Graeme Souness was furious. “Damien's got a history of hamstring injuries and he picks those up when he's tired like a lot of people do, I know Ryan Giggs does. I hope Mick McCarthy appreciates we've got two hard games coming up in three days. Do I just play Damien for an hour in both to try and protect him now? I'll have to rotate my squad now because Damien's played 87 minutes of a Mickey Mouse friendly.”

Duff was now Blackburn’s prize asset and the World Cup would increase his value, but when Saipan happened, the World Cup no longer felt like the World Cup.

“We were young, we were fearless,” Duff remembers. “And, no disrespect to anyone, if anyone decided to walk home, we just wanted to play football. The more senior lads were having meetings, what should happen, what should we do, help Mick and this and that, whatever. If I was at a meeting, I’d just be daydreaming about beating a full-back.”

Duff was dreaming of the World Cup as we’d like it to be, Saipan had turned into the World Cup as Ireland had never expected it to be. Duff wanted it to be as he had imagined.

“I had ambitions certainly. It was the next notch in the ladder. You want to go to England, have a career, play for Ireland and then go to the World Cup. Everyone remembers Saipan and Roy Keane, for me that was the bottom of the ladder. It was all about the World Cup for me. I remember all the commotion even over there, I was just concentrating on playing.”

When the games began, Ireland found some release. If the first game against Cameroon settled the team when Matt Holland equalised, the result against Germany changed the perception of their tournament. With only a game against Saudi Arabia left, Ireland could start thinking about the second round. 

Robbie Keane’s spectacular late goal had altered the mood and if Duff and Keane represented the future, they were dependent too on the experience of Niall Quinn, who could change the way the game was played. 

Noel O’Reilly, Brian Kerr’s assistant and one of the most loved men in Irish football, described Quinn’s role as that of a big brother who went on to help the two kids on the pitch, Robbie Keane and Duff.

“Damien and Robbie were being battered," O’Reilly said as he reflected on the game in Chiba City. “They were like two fellas playing on the street, being bullied, being boxed around the place. They go and get their big brother and on comes Niall. He says, ‘Come on, pick on me’. Then,” O’Reilly said, “while you’re doing that, these two little lads will rob your pockets.”

The spirit in the squad returned in the aftermath of these victories, although in traditional Ireland style, the victories were, of course, draws.

But on the night it didn’t matter. After the game against Germany, the Irish kitman Johnny Fallon asked Duff if he had swapped shirts with a German player. Duff said he hadn’t, he wasn't too bothered, so Fallon bundled up his shirt, went into the German dressing-room and came back with a Germany shirt. Maybe one day these things would matter.

The night of the Germany game continued into the following dawn at the Ireland team hotel in Makuhari. Noel O’Reilly produced a guitar, Robbie Keane sang ‘Joxer goes to Stuttgart’ and Duff’s brother Jamie also played and sang. 

Devlin calls it “the most fascinating night ever”. Duff remarks that it went the way of so many nights out among Irish people. “The pity is that it ends up in a piss-up, that’s what Irish people do and you end up not really fucking remembering anything. Supposedly I was a top footballer and I had a game in three or four days. I look back on it now and I think it was madness.”

He also notes that it couldn’t take place today. “There’s not one video you can get. That would have been beamed all the way round the world. It was a private evening among friends, family, my little brother. There were a lot of fans there. It was intimate. Nothing is intimate anymore.”

Duff’s world was getting bigger and less intimate. A few nights later as Ireland rolled over Saudi Arabia he scored a goal and made the celebration which, almost as much as the Spain game, defined his tournament.

Ireland moved on to Korea but Devlin returned to Ireland to deal with the clamour from clubs to sign Duff.

Ireland flew to Seoul and prepared for Spain. As they had against Cameroon and Germany, they would need to find a way back into the game after conceding first when Fernando Morientes headed across Shay Given to put Spain ahead.

But Ireland showed no fear, Duff showed no fear. “He was a beast,” Devlin remembers. “They weren’t the team they are now,” Duff says, “but they still had the names. I guess it was that young, naive bit, a couple of us had-we just didn’t give a fuck really who they were, we just wanted to go out and play.”

Duff went out and played. Duff says a few Ireland players including himself had celebrated qualification after the Saudi match with another night out but it didn’t matter. 

It was Juanfran, the Spanish defender, who looked as if he had been tying one on for most of the tournament as Duff tormented him.

“I was a left winger who played in the World Cup as a centre forward but for the last half an hour I played on the right wing, which maybe made people step back and think I had another string to my bow”.

Devlin knew their world had shifted. “The Spanish game catapulted him up there with everyone. He grew up a lot. Everything changed after Japan, and it was never going to be the same. It couldn’t be.”

Manchester United and Liverpool were interested in signing him but a new contract that made him well paid at Blackburn also included a clause in his contract which said it would cost a club £17 million to buy him. But a slowdown in the transfer market subsequently meant that £17 million seemed out of reach. And it was until Roman Abramovich decided that he would invest in football and buy Chelsea.

“I felt I had to leave to further my career,” Duff says. He nearly moved in 2002, but the move to Chelsea happened a year later. “I was probably at the top of my game going into the World Cup anyway so I think people took a step back and start looking at you more.” 

Duff had the world’s attention, even if he didn’t want some of it and the summer of 2002 was when the change became clear.

“I remember that summer being at home and I didn’t even enjoy that because I guess I don’t like being in the public eye. I remember not really enjoying my time when I came back home, that’s one bit that stands out.”

His world had changed and it became difficult to make an accommodation with aspects of the change. 

“I just like chilling out and having my own time. I remember even getting upset one night. I went out for a night out for a few pints and what have you and I came back to my mate’s house and I think I started crying even…I couldn’t get a minute’s peace. The country was still on a high from the World Cup, but I’m not into all that, being recognised. I just loved the game, I wanted to play football, go home and chill out.”

The 1990 World Cup had bewitched Damien Duff and if that was a romantic, sentimental journey, Saipan turned 2002 into something grittier. For a while, there was too much realism until Damien Duff came along and reminded Ireland of football’s transformative powers and alerted the planet to his talent. 

But talent alone hadn’t taken Duff to this point. “He had a remarkable drive in him,” Devlin says. “He wanted to be a professional footballer and he wanted to prove a point. There were obstacles in his way but he had a determination that matched his skill.”

The determination and skill transformed his life, even if fame would always be the intruder he could only barely tolerate.