WHAT DO JUAN Mata, Robin van Persie and Damien Duff have in common?
Most people certainly wouldn’t say hype, given that Mata and Van Persie are considerably more highly rated than the Irishman.
Indeed, the level of column inches devoted to the latter in contrast with the other two undoubtedly bears no comparison whatsoever.
The answer, in fact, is that they are all in a rare group of players that have seven or more assists to their name in the Premier League this season.
Duff’s presence in this exclusive list is telling, given that such stats are normally dominated by players who star for bigger clubs than Fulham. Moreover, it is further proof of commentators’ tendencies to underestimate the veteran winger, as his excellence is seldom highlighted.
Despite a career dogged by injuries, Duff even at 33 – an age when most one-time pacey wingers have been consigned to obscurity – remains in relatively rude health, literally and figuratively. And news yesterday that he has signed a one-year contract extension with Fulham serves to highlight the substantial esteem in which he continues to be held.
His performances on the pitch this season are a testament to the player’s inherent professionalism and a sign that, even as his career approaches its twilight years, his passion for the game remains undimmed. Furthermore, unlike most Irish footballers his age, he remains an integral part of a Premier League side.
Yet what has defined Duff, as much as his footballing ability, is his unblemished attitude. Largely thanks to the lucrative contract his agent negotiated for his Chelsea move amid the onset of Abramovich-era excess, Duff is one of the highest earning Irish athletes of all time. Yet, to most people’s eyes, he still remains that boy who constantly played football on the streets of Dublin and spoke of a curious penchant for excessive sleeping.
There is thus a palpable level of modesty in the way he invariably conducts himself. In an age where obnoxiousness and controversy, in the form of ill-advised Twitter outbursts (James McClean), tabloid scandals (John Terry) and unseemly race rows (the Evra-Suarez debacle), looms large over Premier League football, Duff remains a shining anomaly, a beacon of dignity in a world where the quality is in conspicuously short supply.
For instance, in contrast with many more selfish players with similar levels of talent, he did not make a transfer request during his respective stints at Blackburn and Newcastle, even in aftermath of both their relegations. Indeed, his eventual move to Chelsea from Blackburn would have been a no-brainer for the average footballer, but it was one Duff thought long and hard over. At the time, it was even revealed that it genuinely pained him to depart the club he had joined as a youngster – if only Peter Odemwingie and other patently disloyal and ostensibly money-obssessed footballers could follow his example.
(Duff won 100 caps for his country – INPHO/Donall Farmer)
Yet Duff is rarely talked of as a sports man that this country should be proud of, in the same way figures such as Brian O’Driscoll and Katie Taylor are routinely and deservedly commended. Neither is he even spoken of in the same awed terms as more divisive characters, such as Roy Keane.
Granted, his success has never been quite as significant as the three aforementioned names. However, two Premier League titles, two League Cup winners’ medals, a Europa League final appearance and several influential games in both the World Cup and the Champions League is nothing to be sneered at, especially in an era in which merely playing in Europe’s biggest club competition is a significant achievement in itself for an Irish player, given the intensive competition for places among the top teams in English football nowadays.
So, the question remains: why is Duff rarely celebrated? His £17million transfer sealed in 2003 is the highest ever paid for an Irish footballer and this, as much as anything else, is surely evidence that he deserves to be considered among the greatest footballers the country has ever produced. And yet, there is a lingering tendency to readily downplay Duff’s achievements. There is a sense that, for all the extraordinary feats he accomplished at Blackburn and Chelsea, he never really reached his full potential.
Nevertheless, those who subscribe to this notion are being somewhat unfair. The primary reason why Duff went from being an exceptional player worthy of competing for title contenders, to a merely very good one capable at best of holding down a place in a mid-table side, is largely down to a series of unfortunate career-hampering injuries he suffered, which robbed him of his lightening pace.
But what makes Duff special is the way in which he has reacted to such setbacks. Far from not living up to his potential, from another perspective, he has maximised his effectiveness under the trying circumstances that he’s been forced to endure of late. Like Brian O’Driscoll and several other sporting icons, he has demonstrated the requisite intelligence to adapt his game as he grows older and more susceptible to wear and tear, in order to maintain a consistency to his game that continues to worry even the top Premier League defences.
Though he won’t thank me for saying it on account of his shy nature, for all he’s achieved both as a footballer and a person, Duff deserves to be treasured as loudly and as vehemently as any other athlete from these shores. Just don’t expect him to join in the cheerleading if it does belatedly transpire.