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Clock ticking for Duffer

ON A TENSE and nervous night in Dublin, the Czech city of Olomouc seems very far away.

That was where, back in March 1998, Damien Duff made his senior debut for the Republic of Ireland. Thirteen years and 91 caps later, Duff's international career is still a case of broken dreams and roads never taken.

This is Duffer's seventh qualifying campaign with his country but he's played in a major finals only once.

To put that in context, Fulham team-mates like Philippe Senderos and Mark Schwarzer have enjoyed more success on the international stage.

Blank years and empty summers, but with the road to Poland and Ukraine now in sight -- with, of course, the roadblocks of Armenia and then the play-offs in the way -- Duff has again stressed his deep desire to play for his country on the big stage.

"The finals in Poland and Ukraine are there for us now if we can do the job against Armenia first, and we're not taking that as a given. I can't speak for all the lads but for my own point of view, I am gagging to qualify for a finals. It's been a long time since Japan and Korea, 10 years is too long to be not qualifying," Duff told the Herald.

"I know we have a lot of young players in the squad but the senior boys are running out of time and running out of campaigns.

"We're all desperate to do it, the younger boys as much as the senior players. There is a great hunger within the group and that shows when we can go to places like Andorra and get a win, it wasn't pretty the other night but we did the job we had to do and now we move on to this game against Armenia."



Struggled

A draw will of course be sufficient for Ireland to make it into Thursday's draw in Krakow for the play-offs but Duff insists the team won't play for a draw.

"I think the approach remains the same, we have to go out there looking for three points and play our normal game, so that's what we'll do," he says.

"Andorra last week was a potential banana skin for us, teams have struggled there in the past, Russia only won 1-0 there a while back.

"Friday wasn't pretty but at this stage of the campaign it's not about playing pretty football, it's about winning games and we have done that.

"On Friday we were still hoping that we might nick first place, that Slovakia could do us a favour but it wasn't meant to me. We'll just do the business here and then roll on November.

"We can't really expect anything from the other game in the group, I know people use the phrase 'never say never' in football but I think it would be stretching it to expect Russia to lose at home to Andorra.

"So we just have to look after ourselves and finish off the job."

Group B really is a case of 'who'd have thought it?' Back at the start of the qualifiers, it seemed as if Armenia, a struggling side over the past decade, were in for more misery as they lost the opening game -- at home to Ireland -- and then drew away to Macedonia, before hitting form.

"Armenia have come late in the group, they've scored a lot of goals so they are very dangerous. It just shows what a big result it was for us to win out there early on in the campaign," says Duff.

"Armenia have come late and they're gathering momentum.

"They're scoring an awful lot of goals and they are definitely dangerous. Looking back now, our win in Armenia last year was an unbelievable result now."

Many of his compatriots have been quiet and underused this season, with players like Sean St Ledger and Simon Cox struggling to get games at club level, but Duff has been the busiest, making 15 appearances for Fulham already this season and his club manager, Martin Jol, reporting his view that Duff is at peak form. "My own form is okay, even though I've played a lot of games this season, with Fulham and with Ireland. I think I'm up to 19 or 20 games already between club and country and it's only October.

"My dream since I was a kid was to play football for a living so I won't complain," Duff added.

"I'm just working hard, that's all I can do. I don't like talking about my own form. I just work as hard as I can in training and in matches and hope that it's good enough."