Living in France during the 2002 World Cup, I regularly fielded compliments on behalf of the Irish nation for “votre numero neuf, Buff? Puff? Huff?” The name of Damien Duff had not yet got a firm lodging in the minds of European football fans, but they were paying attention. More so than the Daily Mail writer engaging in a routine bout of Paddybashing prior to the tournament who sneered at the “appropriately named Damien Duff”. (The name, incidentally, comes from dubh, the Irish for black.)
In that tournament the world learned what people in Ireland and Blackburn already knew: that Duff did indeed beat defenders for fun and so much fun he had doing it, he would repeat the act often. There is a retro thrill to be had in seeing the little man from Templeogue dance past two or three opponents without letting the ball once leave his left foot. Each time it happens it seems ever more incredible that professional footballers can be bamboozled by such old-fashioned trickery. It is as if modern armies were winning battles by cavalry charge.
Duff appears to belong to another time: when orange segments were sucked at half-time and fans wielded that strangest of objects, the football rattle. Yet, like the 1930s Arsenal team in the old Harry Enfield sketch, he plays the modern game with such ease that you forever feel there’s a catch somewhere.
Off the field too Duff is a throwback to the days when footballers had few of the absurd trappings of glamour. According to the Irish media, he counts sleeping as one of his favourite pastimes and he looks unlikely to ever make front-page news like such of his fellow players. He’s perfectly content just to make the world’s greatest fullbacks look silly on a regular basis. As the Sultans of Ping FC once sang about the less talented Nigel Clough, “give him a ball and a yard of grass”. That’s not asking much now, is it?
Originally published by The Guardian.