ALTHOUGH NOT ENTIRELY unexpected, the news of Damien Duff’s international retirement still felt like something of a shock.
While no-one will begrudge Duff his decision in light of his incredible dedication to the Irish cause, the news will still be met with disappointment by many, particularly given recent noises that the player was inclined to carry on.
For supporters of the Irish team, the loss of Duff will feel like an old friend leaving town. The player has endeared himself to the Irish public during his 14 years of service like few others.
Whether it was his unassuming nature, his ability to ignite the crowd at Lansdowne Road, or his dogged desire to give everything for the green jersey, Duff provided us with something unique in the modern era. He was our hero- yes. But he was also a hero we could identify with.
Perhaps that was what led ultimately to his departure. Duff was said to be grief stricken in the aftermath of Ireland’s exit at the European Championships. Having endured the heartbreak of Paris in 2009, Euro 2012 was supposed to offer him the chance to set the record straight, to punctuate an embattled international career with a final, decisive full stop. That he and the team fell so far short would have been hugely painful, and it is difficult to avoid the sense of tragedy in such an ending.
Football supporters like to place great stake at the prospect of a new talent coming through. Like “new season syndrome”, an exciting prospect offers the hope of a brighter future, a feeling that perhaps a new hero can be welcomed into the ranks who will define the team in the years ahead.
Back in 1997, Duff appeared in Brian Kerr’s U-17 side that secured a third place finish at that summer’s World Cup. While there was great hope for the future in the aftermath of that campaign, few of those involved went on to the play at the highest level. It is testament to Duff’s drive and spirit that he would emerge to surpass all the expectations.
Perhaps we will remember him most fondly for Korea in 2002. With a weave here and a jink there Duff slalomed his way to international stardom, helping the Irish side reach a last 16 clash with Spain. The Spanish defensive line-up that day read: Puyol, Helguera, Hierro, and Juanfran. Gilded names of world football were left floundering in his wake, as Duff defiantly carried the fight for an un-fancied Irish side. If ever there was honour in defeat, Duff earned it that night.
During that tournament we also saw the lighter side of Duff. The oriental-style bow after his goal against Saudi Arabia offered a defining image for an Irish campaign which had become overshadowed by darker narratives. With his grace and generosity of spirit, Duff helped ensure it became something else entirely.
His verve and energy at that tournament helped cement his reputation in England, and his £17 million move to Chelsea underlined his growing stature in the game. He went on to become a key component of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, and the two Premier League medals he received were fitting reward for a player whose humility often masked what was a massive hunger for success.
So where does this leave Ireland? In the past two weeks Irish football has lost two of its greatest servants. With the loss of Shay Given and now Duff, the future appears increasingly uncertain. Trapattoni will be praying that Richard Dunne doesn’t follow suit, whose loss the squad would find difficult to absorb at this juncture.
It will be a little strange seeing Ireland without either Duff or Given. Duff has left us with some fantastic memories, and the lingering feeling that the end should have been kinder to him. While supporters will now place their faith in the talents of McClean and McCarthy et al, the reality remains that it is practically impossible to replace a campaigner such as Duff.
We will most likely feel his loss most acutely when he hasn’t been around for a while. That’s usually how it is with old friends.
Follow Sean Duffy on Twitter: @seanied8