The thing that’s bought me most pleasure about Fulham’s mid-season revival has been that it has largely coincided with the return to the team of Damien Duff. Right from the start of his Fulham career, the Irish winger had an infectious enthusiasm that endeared him to the fans. As Ray Lewington was preparing his substitution in the Europa League early qualifying rounds against Amkar Perm, Duff was busily sprinting along the touchline and jumping up and down – impatient to get. He didn’t take long to make an impact, quickly crossing for Bobby Zamora to lash home the crucial third goal.
It seemed, until January at least, that Duff’s star was sadly on the wane. He hadn’t featured regularly in Martin Jol’s first six months in charge, which seemed odd seeing as though the new manager had waxed lyrical about wanting to play with wingers at his introductory press conference. Granted, the veteran wide man isn’t as quick as he was in his clinical Chelsea days but he’s certainly no slow coach. A move away from the Cottage was mooted to save his Euro 2012 prospects – the summer championships might be his last international tournament – but thankfully it never materialised.
And, just like that, he was back. First, eagerly tormenting a tiring Charlton defence in the FA Cup and scoring a late, deflected goal. Duff followed that with Fulham’s only goal in a largely forgettable defeat by his first club, then beleaguered Blackburn Rovers. He was excellent on Roy Hodgson’s return with West Brom but couldn’t help Fulham force a winner and kept Bryan Ruiz out of the side at Manchester City. He showed all his silky skills in the 5-0 romp against Wolves, cutting inside to great effect and also beating his man to get to the byline, too. Jol withdrew him with ten minutes to play to a standing ovation. The next week at Aston Villa had one of a number of Duff’s teasing crosses been converted we would’ve been spared the stoppage-time agony.
Duff’s presence in the side isn’t just a boon for the man himself – and anyone who appreciates high-quality wing play – but he makes such a difference to the Fulham team. We no longer look hopelessly narrow and have an effective outlet on the flanks, able to beat a full-back on either side. Rightly, much of the focus after Saturday’s victory over Norwich was on Alex Kacaniklic’s eye-catching debut, but Duff’s display shouldn’t be ignored. He was instrumental in establishing the two-goal cushion that eventually proved critical, taking his goal with aplomb.
The defensive side of Duff’s game isn’t as often remarked upon – but it’s vital. Unlike a lot of modern wingers, given free reign by managers intent on making their mark high up the bench, Duff will work back – tracking his opposite number and the full-back he’s often trying to take the ball past. Indeed, Duff covered more ground than any other Fulham player against Norwich. It’s for this reason that Stephen Kelly’s strongest performances this season have come with Duff in the team. The pair have a fine international understanding and dovetail perfectly on the right flank. When Kelly goes forward, Duff will sit deeper – and that combination almost gave the likeable right back a rare goal on Saturday.
Duff might be one of the experienced players that Jol could be considering letting go in the close season, but on this evidence that would be a real mistake. He’s got plenty of miles left in the tank yet.