After exactly a century of caps for his country, two Premier League titles with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and a Europa League final with Roy Hodgson’s Fulham, Damien Duff is a big name in 2000s football in Britain and Ireland. It’s hard to believe, then, that his retirement last year went so far under the radar in England.
After leaving Fulham, Duff spent a season at Melbourne City in Australia’s A-League before returning to Ireland to see out his career with Shamrock Rovers, a suburb of south Dublin. Perhaps a British audience felt that leaving for Australia for a year amounted to retirement in itself, and it’s hard to argue with that. But such is the greatness of Duff’s love of football, he just wanted to keep playing.
Upon his retirement, he told the Irish Independent that when he left Shamrock Rovers, his desire to keep playing was so great that he rented a five-a-side pitch just so he could kick a ball around by himself, “I was at a loose end and I just rented out a pitch on my own. I felt weird going up asking for a pitch for one please,” he said. There’s a sadness to an end like that. A boy who grew up loving the game and wanting to do nothing other than run around with a football at his feet coming to the end of a career at the very top of the game and having genuinely no idea what to do next.
There’s a sadness to an end like that. A boy who grew up loving the game and wanting to do nothing other than run around with a football at his feet coming to the end of a career at the very top of the game and having genuinely no idea what to do next.
The reason why Duff is important, though, isn’t just because of what he’s achieved or what he means – in footballing terms – to Ireland. He also represents a generational shift, a player who started off in an era when English football was coming to terms with the influx of money and its new-found power and ended in the digital age where Premier League players earned vast sums of cash. Life had changed, too.
Duff was born in 1979. For footballers born 10 or 15 years later, life would have been much more digital the whole time. Football in video games are a new normal, as is social media.
“Nowadays they’re on Facebook, taking photos, chatting up girls or whatever. I hadn’t even kissed a girl when I was going to England at 16. It’s sad I know,” Duff explained. And whilst that doesn’t mean things are any better or any worse, it does mean the game changed.
In fact, it could be argued that Playstation changed the course of footballing history: if you play FIFA as a teenager, it means you’re not on a street kicking a real ball. But what you lose in technical skills, you gain in tactical awareness. Duff played in an era when football in Britain was beginning to get more tactically minded.
When Duff moved from Chelsea to Newcastle, he was told by Sam Allardyce not to eat bread and pasta. Always a little on the chubby side, Duff’s early career would have been around the time when carb-loading was the nutritional advice of the day. By the time he’d hit his peak, Duff would have been advised against eating so many carbs. The effect of diet on footballers has changed enormously over the past two decades, and is another reason why the game is more professional.
And yet, was the game any worse or even any better before the era of video analysis and sports nutrition? Was it any better before the Jose Mourinho era, when Duff became one of English football’s best talents?
Duff was a naturally gifted talent, a man who didn’t think too much about his game but just did it. But he was also part of an era when all of that changed, when tactical thought took precedence over skill and heart. Caught between two stools he managed 100 caps for his country and two league titles: there aren’t many Irishmen who can say that.
John O’Shea won five league titles, lobbed Jens Lehmann to score the winner against Arsenal at Highbury, and once nutmegged Luis Figo. But when he retires, will he rent a five-a-side pitch just to practice on his own at getting better with his weak foot?
When Damien Duff retired, football lost a link to a past it should celebrate. And it didn’t even realise it.