There were many magical nights in Fulham’s incredible run to the Europa League final but one Craven Cottage evening that doesn’t get discussed as much as it arguably should is the night – eight years ago today – when Bobby Zamora and Damien Duff combined to defeat Wolfsburg in the quarter final first leg.
Going into the game, I remember being particularly worried that the Whites might not be able to match the phenomenal performance levels they produced in the previous round to complete that still scarcely believable comeback against the mighty Juventus. Wolfsburg, the reigning Bundesliga champions, travelled to London in good form despite mounting a poor defence of their title, which saw Felix Magath (remember him?) sacked, having won one of their last ten fixtures.
The first half was a nervy and rather pedestrian affair – as the enormity of the occasion had got to Roy Hodgson’s side. Fulham did well to largely nullify the visitors’ dangerous striking duo of Edin Dzeko and Grafite, but struggled to create many clear-cut chances themselves. It wouldn’t have been difficult to imagine Hodgson plaintively asking his players for more during the half-time team talk – and the Whites obliged with a much more adventurous and penetrative second half showing.
Zamora’s partnership with Zoltan Gera was pivotal to Fulham’s remarkable progress in Europe that year – and the pair combined beautifully to break the deadlock. The Hungarian’s perceptive pass to find Zamora floated fully 30 yards across field. It might not be remembered as instantaneously as his wonder strike against Shakhtar Donetsk, but it was a beautiful piece of finishing all the same – with the forward stirring yet more England talk with another lovely curler off his left side, making the most of a clever decoy run from Duff, who had intelligently drawn defenders away from the Fulham forward.
This correspondent felt Duff’s consistent excellence didn’t get the credit it deserved throughout that European adventure. His experience of the big occasion proved invaluable for an unfancied side who suddenly found themselves in the latter stages of the competition. Duff was always a handful for defenders – and the loss of that trademark pace that made him such a devastating winger at his peak – actually turned him into a more intelligent footballer. Like Zamora, the Irishman was on fire that year. Had the pair been fully fit for the final I firmly believe the outcome would have been different against Atletico Madrid.
It was Duff and Zamora who combined so smartly for the goal that gave Fulham some breathing space. The often underrated Paul Konchesky drove the Whites forward with an ambitious run down the left and Zamora held up the ball brilliantly before cushioning it perfectly into Duff’s pass – and the winger fired home clinically, as he often seemed to do, with a modicum of fuss from twelve yards. The joy was unconfined and the way Fulham were able to turn on at will against one of the continent’s leading sides convinced many that Hodgson’s men belonged at this level. People also forget that Simon Davies, lauded for his efforts later in that European run, turned in a great display at right back that night.
My match report that evening fretted about the consequences of Alex Madlung’s late header from a corner that handed Wolfsburg – whose squad featured future Fulham favourites Sasha Riether and Ashkan Dejagah – a precious away goal, but another Zamora moment of magic seconds into the return leg happily rendered that particular piece of sloppy defending academic. Those European nights at the Cottage were so special – and I’m sure I’m not the only Fulham fan who savours the memories of the Whites putting Europe’s best to the sword even now.
Damien Duff announced his retirement from professional football this afternoon at the age of 36, conceding that ‘my body has won the battle‘. But, my, what a fierce battle he waged. In full flight, Duff was a mesmerising sight – powering past full-backs at will – but, unlike so many wingers in the modern era, he showed the intelligence and adaptability to be remarkably effective once the blistering pace became less devastating. Those who measure success in medals will point to those back-to-back league titles with Chelsea and the League Cup win at his first club, Blackburn Rovers, but Duff’s energy, endeavour and spirit will always mean he’s fondly remembered at Fulham.
Like so many Roy Hodgson signings, news of Duff’s arrival in south west London – confirmed a couple of months into the 2009 season following Newcastle’s relegation from the top flight – was greeted with concern that he might have been past his prime. It took just twenty seconds of his Fulham debut to dispel any doubts. Duff, delighted to be reunited with Hodgson who had introduced him into the Rovers first team, was already bouncing up and down eagerly on the touchline before he replaced Zoltan Gera and wasted little time in introducing himself to the Craven Cottage faithful. He sped past his man and found Erik Nevland with a delicious cross, before Bobby Zamora buried a vital third goal.
The Irishman, a funny and warm figure who nonetheless shunned the limelight, quickly established himself as an indispensable member of Hodgson’s side. His first goal for Fulham was a winner against an Everton side who had threatened to run riot in the first half at Craven Cottage and his second sparked a spirited comeback from 2-0 down at Manchester City. Duff’s desire to prove himself again at the highest level was a driving factor in his effervescent displays – summoning up bundles of energy and working over opposing full-backs with intelligent runs and movement rather than the swift turn of foot that had characterised those days further down the Fulham Road.
Hodgson’s management of his tricky winger was inspired. He swapped him from flank to flank, often several times in a game, dovetailing with Simon Davies, and also made of the most of Duff’s almost insatiable appetite for hard work. Duff’s decisiveness around the opposite box was well known, but a key factor in Fulham’s unexpected European odyssey was his willingness to protect his full-backs, often the unheralded John Pantsil or Stephen Kelly. Whenever the Whites were in a tight spot, you could count on Duff’s uncanny ability to buy a cheap free-kick to relieve the pressure too.
Some of his performances were sensational. Duff was virtually unplayable when the Whites swept aside a depleted Manchester United 3-0 at the Cottage in December 2009, scoring the third goal with a delicious drive from the edge of the box – only days after Fulham had progressed from the Europa League group stages with a win in Basel. Perhaps his most crucial contribution to that most magical of runs came in the quarter-final when he thumped home an unstoppable shot from twelve yards after fine approach play from Zamora. We can only wonder what might have been in Hamburg had both men been anything approaching fully fit.
Duff’s productivity showed few signs of slowing down under Mark Hughes, despite Fulham’s slow start. A typically lung-bursting run down the left supplied the first equaliser in a pulsating draw with Manchester United in the first home game of the new campaign, but Duff really came into his own as Fulham climbed the table in the second half of the season and he came back from a few injury niggles. He scored the winner against his former club Newcastle – celebrating wildly in front of the Hammersmith End after taking an almighty hammering from the travelling fans – and went on to score five times in seven games, including a brace in a 3-2 win against Blackburn.
Under Martin Jol, Duff was one of the wider players to be gradually freed up from the defensive shackles that the Hodgson system had imposed. He scored twice in the early European qualifiers and was a regular in the side during the Dutchman’s first season at the helm. A regular source of assists, Duff found the net often in Europe but scored just three domestic goals throughout the whole campaign, the last of which came against Norwich in March. A week later, his creativity made two goals for Clint Dempsey at Bolton, during his 350th top flight appearance. He started the following season in fine form, beginning Fulham’s five-goal thrashing of Norwich and putting the Whites in front at Old Trafford from a quickly-taken free-kick. He scored the winner at Wigan in September, latching onto a fine pass from substitute Bryan Ruiz to fire home from the edge of the box.
Duff endured an injury-hit final season with Fulham, struggling to feature as the Whites’ thirteen year stay in the top flight came to an end. It was cruel that his final appearance in a white shirt came in that utterly forgettable FA Cup exit at the hands of Sheffield United, but Duff’s longevity as a Fulham player belied the understated manner of his departure; released quietly on a free transfer, admitting to an Irish newspaper that he’d shed tears over Fulham’s relegation and his inability to rescue his team from their plight. The decorated Irish international, who passed the hundred cap barrier whilst with the club, made 173 appearances for the Whites, scoring 22 goals, in five memorable years down by the River Thames.
In a rare interview, Duff described how ‘I like to think that I have found my feet again here at Fulham.’ He went on to laud the club’s ‘character’ and the finest tribute you can pay a footballer of such fine pedigree is that he typified the character at the heart of Fulham’s finest ever side. Some sportsmen lead through their words, Duff did in his actions. He hassled and harried, chased lost causes, skinned full-backs for fun and finished with aplomb. He did it all with a smile on his face – and forged a special bond with the Fulham fans, who might still wonder whether he could do a job on that troublesome right flank. Thanks for the memories, Damien.
Damien Duff has bid an emotional farewell to Fulham, but believes ‘it was the right time for everyone’ to move on.
After five years at Craven Cottage, Duff is to become a free agent at the end of his contract.
He leaves having made close to 200 appearances and with plenty of memories to look back on, including a Europa League final appearance and back-to-back top-half finishes in the Premier League.
Duff admits to having thoroughly enjoyed his time at Fulham, but accepts that it is now time for him to embark on a new challenge.
He told the club’s official website: “I think it was the right time for everyone, for me and the club, to part ways. It’s sad but that’s the way it is.
“I’ve matured as a person and a player at Fulham. Since I’ve been here I’ve got married, I’ve had two kids, so it’s been a special time in my life and I stand by what I’ve said before that my most enjoyable time in football has been at Fulham.
“I’ve had many a great night at the Cottage, whether it be European nights or Premier League games. It’s a wonderful place to play – I don’t think there’s any ground around like it, so it’s a special place.”
Duff’s final season ended on a low, with a knee injury ruling him out of action as Fulham suffered relegation out of the Premier League, but the former Republic of Ireland international leaves with no regrets.
He added: “All the bad emotions hit me in February when I kind of knew I wasn’t going to play again for Fulham, so I had my little cry then.
“It was my last day on Thursday so it was obviously sad saying goodbye to the people who I now call my friends for life. But I knew back in February that I’d played my last game for Fulham so that was a sad time as well.
“It’s been a big part of my life for five years – I’ve loved every minute of it at Fulham Football Club.
“It’s a great club but, as sad as it is to say, we deserved to go down. The table doesn’t lie, whether you win it or you go down, so I love the club but we are where we are.”
Fulham midfielder Damien Duff appears to have played his last game in the Premier League with the 35-year-old Dubliner confirming that he will leave Fulham at the end of the season after which he hopes to play further afield, quite possibly in the MLS, before he returns to Ireland to wrap up his career and settle down with his family.
The long-time Ireland international told The Irish Times yesterday that he is starting to weigh up his options for next season but that his immediate priority is to complete the recovery from a knee operation he underwent after having sustained medial ligament damage in training back in February.
“I’m up at the end of the season,” he said, “the club haven’t spoken to me and I haven’t spoken to the club but we don’t need to speak: I’ll be leaving Fulham. I’ve had a great time here but that’s football. Liverpool players cheap to employ at just over ?4m each
“I’ve had a few whispers from here and there but I’m just trying to get this (his knee) right first. I’ve looked at the Australia or America thing for a bit, it would be a different way of life, a different league; I think life’s too short just to be stuck in the rat race, if that’s the right phrase, over here so I’d maybe like to taste something new before I go back home.”
Asked whether Robbie Keane has recommended a switch to MLS to him, he said: “We’ve had a bit of banter alright. He obviously loves it and every six months I see he’s signed a new deal so he’ll be there for a good while yet.
“We’ll see what happens but I wouldn’t mind trying it to be fair but I have to get back fit first, I’ve got a screw in my knee now and a screw in the knee of a jinky winger doesn’t really go hand in hand . . . but we’ll see what happens. We’d be up for it and we’d like to see the world but it wouldn’t be for a jolly up. I’m still as hungry as ever.”
Duff previously spoke about his desire to return to Ireland last year at a promotional event for Heart Children Ireland, a charity with which he has worked as an ambassador (his own son Woody was born with a small hole in his heart) and he insists that is still his intention even if his route back to Dublin involves a bit of a detour.
“Everybody knows I want to go back and play in Ireland,” he says, “but whether that’s this summer I don’t know. My body feels good so I’d like to do a year or two elsewhere first.”
The former Chelsea star, who made the last of his 18 appearances this season in early February in the FA Cup against Sheffield United, is hopeful that his current club can manage to avoid relegation after winning three of their last five league games.
“Saturday (when they beat Norwich) was massive and I think we have a big chance at this stage after the last week and the two results (they also beat Newcastle and Aston Villa). The place is buzzing, that’s what it’s like at football clubs when you get results.”
He believes his old club may lose out to Liverpool in the title race but that they are capable of springing a surprise and winning the Champions League if only because of Josè Mourinho, who he describes as the “best coach I ever worked with”.
“Just because he’s there I don’t think you can rule them out,” he says of the Stamford Bridge club where he spent three successful seasons. “The striker situation is worse than ever for me and he’s got them up there challenging and that for me is just down to him.
“Maybe the league might be a bit of a push; I think Liverpool just look like they’re steamrolling teams but the Champions League? I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Fulham winger Damien Duff insists he’s got no plans to retire despite being ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
The 35-year-old is out of contract at the end of the campaign and has yet to be offered a new deal at Craven Cottage.
But the former Chelsea man, who wants to end his playing days back in Ireland, says he wants to plough on.
He said: “I’m not planning on hanging up my boots any time soon. I think there’s an awful lot more left in the tank.”
Duff is recovering from a knee operation after getting crocked in training at the beginning of February.
And the Irishman has been a frustrated spectator from the sidelines as the Cottagers edge closer to the drop.
“I got injured about six weeks ago now,” he said.
“I was given four days off but, being an honest pro, I went in and trained on my own and ended up injuring my knee that puts me out until the end of the season, which is unfortunate, especially with all these important games coming up.
“It’s not great. I would like to be out there helping the lads.”
Duff has made more than 150 appearances for Fulham since his move from Newcastle United in 2009.
He added: “It’s been a brilliant club to me for the past five years, so it’s heartbreaking to see the way it’s gone this season. Nothing’s gone right, on or off the pitch, but we’ve still got the games to put it right.”