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Damien Duff: 350 not out

Fulham's Damien Duff made his 350th Premier League appearance yesterday

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.

Duff to captain the Irish against Italy

Damien Duff will captain the Republic of Ireland in their final Euro 2012 fixture against Italy as he reaches 100 caps for his country.

The Fulham winger will become the fifth Irish player to bring up a century of appearances for his country against the Italians in Poznan tomorrow night, following in the footsteps of usual skipper Robbie Keane, Shay Given, Kevin Kilbane and Steve Staunton. Irish coach Giovanni Trapattoni told reporters that LA Galaxy forward Keane had asked for Duff to be allowed to lead the side out during their final group game.

Duff, who made his senior debut against the Czech Republic some fourteen years ago in the same game as Keane, typically wanted to focus on finishing Ireland’s tournament on a high rather than reflecting on his own personal landmark.

It’s something I’ll maybe look back on next week, next year – I know it’s a feat, but at the moment a good result tomorrow is what I want. It’s an awfully proud moment – I know how much it means to myself and my family.

Trapattoni was fulsome in his praise of the 33 year-old.

All of us should express our gratitude to Damien. He is not only an excellent footballer, but is a role model and example to future generations.

Keane expressed his admiration for Duff’s qualities and felt that he deserved to lead the team out on such a special occasion.

Damien Duff has been a massive player. Duff has been a massive player. We’ve been through a hell of a lot together. People speak very highly of him. We’ve been very good friends since we made our debut together. He will go down as one of the best players we’ve ever produced.

Irish eager to spring a surprise

The European Championships might have become more interesting from a Fulham perspective when Roy Hodgson’s appointment into the England hot seat just before the finals. The West Brom manager quickly added his trusted lieutenant and Craven Cottage stalwart Ray Lewington to his backroom staff, but a couple more regulars at Motspur Park have been pretty excited about events in the Ukraine and Poland since last autumn. Much of the commentary surrounding the Republic of Ireland’s chances in the finals has been couched the kind of lazy stereotypes of journeyman keen to make up the numbers (a la 1988 and 1994) but that’s to studiously ignore the quiet progress that they have made since Giovanni Trapattoni arrived as national team boss in 2008.

Widely considered the most successful Italian coach going there’s plenty of his compatriots who would like to see the 73 year-old reprise his role in charge of the Azzuri, where’s definitely some unfinished business. Trapattoni’s Italian side were beaten on penalties by South Korea in 2002 in a game where they controversially had a goal disallowed and saw Francesco Totti controversially sent off. In the following European Championships, the Italians were well below bar but didn’t lose a game and were only eliminated when Sweden and Denmark drew their final game – and both Scandinavian nations progressed. To this day, Trapattoni feels he has something to prove, despite a managerial career that saw him win ten league titles in four different countries and all three major European club competitions.

Ireland’s progression to these finals also feels like payback given the way Thierry Henry used his hand to settle their World Cup play-off tie in Paris three years ago. That might have been the end of the road for a number of senior players, but wily old Trapattoni kept his group together and convinced his key men that they could make Euro 2012. That they did, finishing second to Russia, who have already demonstrated their quality with that blistering opening night dismantling of the Czech Republic. Richard Dunne, the captain and commanding centre-half, might have had to endure barbs about his propensity to put through his own net during a difficult season at Villa Park, but his performance in a backs-to-the-wall goalless draw against the Russians was nothing short of flawless.

After a play-off success against Estonia, set up by a pulsating away win in the first leg, the relief at reaching these finals was tangible. Many see the Irish as the whipping boys in a group that rivals the official ‘Group of death’ for it’s toughness. Tonight’s opener against the talented Croatians will be pivotal, but the task doesn’t get any easier as Italy and Spain lie in wait. Trapattoni insists his side are ready and confident, claiming he wouldn’t have even come to the finals had he not believed his squad contained enough quality to make the last eight. So sure of his plans, Il Trap named his starting eleven more than a week ago and has repeated it obligingly at every press conference since.

The eleven have amassed nearly 700 international caps between them and contains top flight regulars in Shay Given, John O’Shea, Dunne, Glenn Whelan, Kevin Doyle and, of course, Damien Duff. The seemingly ageless winger, with an uncanny ability to manufacture half a yard when surrounded by a phalanx of opposition defenders, has benefited from Trapattoni’s confidence, even when he was struggling to get a game early in Martin Jol’s tenure at the Cottage. The 33 year-old should make his hundredth appearance for his country against the Italians in Poznan next Monday and is desperate to make up for lost time at a major championship, having had to wait more than a decade to build on his terrific campaign in Japan and South Korea at the 2002 World Cup:

It means more to me now than it did 10 years ago. A few of us are in our 30s now and I suppose we are on the home straight, so to speak. You never know, this could be our last tournament, so you have to savour it.

It’s a major tournament so you can’t help but get excited about it. It has been a long wait since 2002 for everybody, not just the players but the fans as well.

Trapattoni’s decision to play Stephen Ward, recently relegated with Wolves at right back, ahead of Stephen Kelly, who has made that berth his own at Fulham since the untimely injury to Zdenek Grygera in early autumn means the former Tottenham and Birmingham City full-back will start his first finals on the bench. But Kelly’s versatility – he operated at left back for a large part of the Whites’ memorable run to the Europa League final in 2010 and has filled in at centre back for his country – has kept him in Trapattoni’s plans and is a fitting reward for a fine campaign that saw him make 33 first-team appearances and establish himself as a regular for the first time since his arrival at the club in 2009.

The Irish believe that could cause a surprise. This side are certainly better than the mere names on paper might suggest and Trapattoni has been careful to avoid the mistakes that hastened the departure of his compatriot and good friend Fabio Capello in England. His side go into this evening’s clash with Croatia on the back of an impressive fourteen match unbeaten run and they’ve not lost a match on the European mainland in five years. They’ll combine organisation and industry with the guile of Robbie Keane, power of Kevin Doyle and the dangerous running of James McClean, likely to be used off the bench after flourishing under Martin O’Neill at Sunderland. You’d be very foolish to count them out.