After a European Championships that he’s still ‘trying to forget’ and the prospect of young wingers like Alex Kacaniklic and Kerim Frei pushing him hard for a place in Fulham first team, you could have forgiven Damien Duff for taking it easy during pre-season. But relaxing is something the wily winger will do with his young family on the south Dublin mountains when he finally hangs up those boots that graced a top flight touchline for the 350th time yesterday as Duff delivered what’s all too easily expected of him these days – an energetic examination of another unfortunate full back – during Fulham’s fine win over West Brom.
A clinicial team performance, which ended Albion’s outstanding unbeaten start to the new season under Steve Clarke, was enlivened by Duff’s driving runs down the right, where he was joined in attack by the overlapping Sascha Riether. The emergence of Kacaniklic, who is showing all the promise he displayed during his eye-catching stint in Liverpool’s youth team, means that Duff has been switched across to the right flank, where he made such an impact as an inverted winger after being reuinited with Roy Hodgson, who gave a teenage Duff his first extended taste of Premier League football after the Irish youngster had sparkled on his debut on the last day of the 1996/97 season against Leicester.
Some were foolish enough to question whether Duff still had the hunger for the game when he arrived at Motspur Park having endured a difficult end to his time on Tyneside. The man who has won two Premier League titles, two League Cups, the InterToto Cup, reached a European club final and retired from international duty after reaching a century of caps for the Republic of Ireland – having been named in the UEFA team of the year after his terrific 2002 World Cup, – also has to live with being credited with the goal that sent Newcastle down having diverted Gareth Barry’s drive into his own net at Villa Park. Duff, who was pressed into service as a makeshift full-back during Alan Shearer’s desperate attempt to save the Geordies from the drop, jumped at the chance to return to the top flight with Hodgson and was literally jumping with his excitement as he waited to make his Fulham debut against Amkar Perm in the early rounds of that famous European odyssey. His impact was immediate, surging down the right flank and creating a crucial goal for Bobby Zamora.
Duff’s professionalism – and his unquenchable thirst for success – makes him the ideal mentor for the likes of Kacaniklic and Frei, who are still getting used to the high-octane world of Premier League football. That’s not to say that the 33 year-old should solely be thought of an elder statesmen offering advice from the sidelines. He might not quite have the astonishing turn of speed that, when paired with the similarly unstoppable Arjen Robben on the opposite flank, made Jose Mourinho’s debut season in English football so special but someone with Duff’s intelligence has the ability to shine even when shorn of what might appear a criticial attribute. He still has more than enough pace to worry the country’s best defenders and has retained the invaluable asset of delivering a dangerous dead ball.
Perhaps spurred on by the thought of what might have been in Poland, Duff has started this season in sensational form. His clever finish agaisnt Norwich – darting from a conventional right winger’s position to reach John Arne Riise’s crosffield pass in the blink of an eye – got Fulham’s campaign off to a fine start and he produced another accurate strike to put the Whites ahead at Old Trafford before the Manchester United rearguard had woken up. Even when things haven’t gone quite to plan – most notably at Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham – Duff’s work rate is impeccable and the support he offers the full-back behind him remains outstanding.
There was a nice symmetry in the Ballyboden boy being replaced yesterday by Alex Smith, for whom Fulham have such high hopes. The Fulham academy graduate, like many of his contemporaries, could learn an awful lot from just watching Damien Duff. I hope to have the pleasure of watching an old-fashioned winger go about his work from the Hammersmith End for a few more seasons yet.