ENGLAND’S Premier League is not a welcoming place these days if you are young and Irish.
And Damien Duff, one of Ireland’s most successful exports of the last two decades, admits he has no idea where the next Damien Duff will come from.
In the season just gone, of the 25 players eligible for the Republic who got game time in the top flight over there, only one player under the age of 22 played Premier League football, and that was a two-minute cameo off the bench in a 4-0 defeat for a club who flirted with relegation, teenager Jack Grealish making his debut for Aston Villa after a spell on loan in the third tier.
It wasn’t always so grim when examined from this side of the Irish sea: in the late 1990s a batch of Irish-born players came through at top-flight clubs as teenagers and stayed there long enough to make an impact.
Lads like Damien Duff, Richard Dunne, Stephen McPhail, Shay Given and Ian Harte all making an impression while in their teens, with others such as Stephen Carr and John O’Shea having a full season of Premier League action on their CVs before they turned 21.
Duff had just turned 18 when he made his Premiership debut and had 50 top-flight league games under his belt before his 21st birthday but with only a handful of young Irish-born players emerging at Premier League level and then staying in the top flight in the last decade, Duff admits to concerns over the future, unless a back-to-basics policy is employed here.
“Maybe we need a drive to get football back again, but all the talk about needing more coaches - that’s a load of shite, really,” Duff said in an interview with the Herald this week as the 35-year-old considers his next career move following his exit from Fulham.
“You hear people talking about how we don’t have the coaches now. That’s a load of nonsense. There are so many distractions now, keeping kids away from kicking a ball on the street.
“There weren’t Playstations and that in my day, but you have that now, TV shows that distract kids, rugby is bigger now than it was when I was young. And parents are reluctant to let their kids out on the street.
“What I used to do every day was to be out, kicking a ball against a wall for hours. Out with a ball for ten hours a day, that’s what I did, that’s what Richard Dunne did, Robbie too, Shay Given.
“If you put in the hours, you can’t but get good at football. I really do think it’s as simple as that, it’s not to do with coaching, it’s about kids being out in the fresh air as much as we did.
“And I don’t think kids today do that. It’s that simple. People talk about the FAI doing something, getting more coaches, but I got to England at 16 not because I had top-level coaching - and that’s no disrespect to people here as I did have good coaches looking after me - but all it is, is kicking a ball all day and dreaming about being a footballer. I don’t think it’s like it was when I was younger.”
Duff has time to reflect on issues like this now as he’s entering a new phase of his career. Out of action since February with a knee injury, he is winding up his contract with Fulham, using their facilities to complete his rehab, but his time there is at an end.
“I will definitely be leaving Fulham. I haven’t spoken to them about it but it’s time to move on, time for something new,” says Duff, regretful that the injury and subsequent surgery left him sidelined for the final weeks of a league campaign that saw Fulham relegated.
“It was a 12-week job since I had the operation so I have 2-3 weeks left. Hopefully by the end of that I will be fully fit and ready for a pre-season somewhere. The focus now is on getting fit, if I don’t get fit no-one is going to take me on. So that’s what I have to do.
“I have no clear idea what the next move is, I just hope to have something sorted in the next few weeks. At this stage of my career something like that would be nice, maybe the USA or something like that. We’ll see where the wind takes me.
“I haven’t ruled out Europe but I wouldn’t mind trying Australia or the US, with a view to coming back home to Ireland then,” he added, aware that former Ireland team-mates have prospered in the US (Robbie Keane, Andy O’Brien) and Australia (Liam Miller) and Duff feels that with a young family now his priority, a move to something new is likely.
“You speak to people who have gone to the US or Australia and they rave about it, I know people who have never looked back after going there.
“I have a bit of crack with Robbie by text and he loves it out in LA, he seems to sign a new contract every six months,” Duff joked.
“He’s on fire over there and I don’t know if he’ll ever come back. He’s still banging in the goals and we’ll need him in the Ireland side come September.”
While he remains in international retirement, Duff feels that fellow Dubs Keane and Richard Dunne still have a lot to offer, and Dunne’s revival with QPR after a career-threatening injury is a good omen for Duff.
“Dunney is a monster of a man and a player. I know QPR took him on but for me it was a no-brainer for any Premier League team to take Dunney.
“I would have snapped him up and I’m not surprised that he’s done so well with QPR, and I think he should still be first name on the teamsheet with Ireland as well,” says Duff.
“I will get back fit and get playing again. I know I have had an injury and people will look at my age as I am 35 now but fitness has never been a problem for me. I have looked after myself better than most so once my knee gets right again I think it shouldn’t be a problem,” he says.
“I have got my head around it now. I had the injury in February so I have had time to deal with it.
“I had a little tear in my eye when I found out I was having the op and would miss the rest of the season.
“I gathered that I had probably played my last Premier League game, but I had a good run, I had 20 years at it and I got my head around it.”