Saturday 18 November 2017

'We knew he had talent but Damien took to it right away'

Damien Duff is currently a coach at Shamrock Rovers
Damien Duff is currently a coach at Shamrock Rovers
Damien Duff celebrates scoring for Blackburn back in 1998

It was a meaningless game on the last day of a miserable season so it shouldn't have mattered.

But Damien Duff's performance on his debut in professional football, 20 years ago yesterday, was the start of something great. Duff was voted man of the match on his first team debut.

"You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see that Damien would become a special player. Once he made his debut for us that day, it was just a matter of how far he would go," says Derek Fazackerley, Blackburn coach at the time.

"Once he came to the club as a young boy his talent was never in doubt. Damien had that natural ability to go past players, put in crosses, score goals. It was such a joy to watch him, that day on his debut and for the next 10-15 years or so."

Duff had been on the fringes of things at Blackburn in the 1996/97 season, where a side backboned by players from the title-winning season of just two years earlier (Hendry, Kenna, Sutton, Sherwood) has struggled and finished 13th, a placing that looks respectable on paper . But Rovers were, in the end, just two points away from the relegation zone.

For the last game of the campaign, at home to Leicester on May 11th 1997, Rovers boss Tony Parkes took a chance on the teenager from south Dublin.

Duff's debut in senior football ended in a 4-2 loss. But he made his mark. A week later, Duff was back home in Dublin, playing for Ireland's U18s in a Euro qualifier against Norway.

"Damien won the man of the match award in Blackburn's last game, he has tremendous ability and is destined for a great career," Ireland youth team boss Brian Kerr said at the time.

Take off

Duff's career would rapidly take off. At international level, he made his mark on the world stage as Ireland's U20 side finished in third place at the World Cup finals in Malaysia.

And the next term, his first full season at club level, his return of four goals in 26 Premier League games saw him finish the year as third top scorer in a still-struggling Blackburn side.

As the people at Blackburn gloomily look ahead to a season in the third tier since relegation from the Championship, they can only look back with fondness, maybe even envy, at those years when a teenage Duff was being unleashed.

Tony Parkes was the manager who gave Duff his debut. Parkes is suffering from ill health and was unable to be interviewed for this piece, but his former assistant, Rovers stalwart Fazackerley, was only too happy to recall the days of a young Duff.

He admits it was a gamble putting a teenager in against experienced Premier league players like Neil Lennon, Emile Heskey and Steve Guppy.

"You know about a young player's talent, it's the mental side of it where you have a concern, can a young boy cope on that big stage in the Premier League? But Damien took to it like a duck to water," Fazackerley told The Herald.

"We had a poor season that year, struggled to avoid relegation but we saw the last game of the season as a chance to see what Damien was like as we looked to the following season and when Roy Hodgson came in, he saw instantly what a talent Damien could be. And with the caps and the medals he has with Ireland and Chelsea, you can see what a talent Damien was.

Now on the staff with Oxford United, Fazackerley is sad to see Blackburn drop into League One.

"If Blackburn, and Ireland, were able to have now the kind of player we had in Damien 20 years ago, things would be a lot different. Scoring goals, putting in crosses, beating people, there are not too many Damien Duffs around now, more's the pity."

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