The big interview: Damien Duff – "I cried on the day I left Chelsea – looking back, I should have fought for my place"

Damien Duff

It’s still an hour before we’re due to interview Damien Duff in Dublin city centre, so FFT head for a quiet coffee a few blocks away – only for the man himself to bound through the door.

“I see you’ve found the good coffee shop, then!” Duff laughs at this chance meeting. Soon, we’re on our way to our planned rendezvous point, Hogan’s pub.

“I’ve never really been one for doing interviews – I’m doing this because it’s FourFourTwo and no other reason,” says the 37-year-old, now retired. “I’ve read the magazine since I was a kid when
I was moving over to England, so it’s in my blood! I did a piece with you as a lad coming through, in ’96 or ’97.”

Twenty years on, it’s time to reflect on what became of that Blackburn Rovers teenage prospect. As it turns out, he didn’t do too badly at all...

Is it true teachers laughed when you filled in your careers form at school, and it had only one choice: footballer?
Glen Helliwell, Liverpool

[Laughs] Yes, everyone had put ‘lawyer’ or ‘IT’ and I just put down ‘footballer’. It didn’t go down well – they told my mam! But I wanted it more than any other kid my age. I didn’t need friends. I’d go on the road, playing on my own for hours. That gave me a head start.

During your seven years at Blackburn, I watched you grow from a youngster with potential to a high-class player. What would you put that down to?
Luke Baines, via Facebook

I think Neil Warnock was Huddersfield manager - that was probably the bit that didn’t sell it to me!

I obviously had a fair bit of ability, but I went to Blackburn when they were Premier League champions and the coaching staff were all unbelievable: Kenny Dalglish, Terry Darracott, Alan Irvine, Ray Harford and Tony Parkes. Blackburn’s scouts had spotted me playing in Ireland.

I went over there and it was between Blackburn and Huddersfield. I loved Huddersfield – I think Neil Warnock was manager, that was probably the bit that didn’t sell it to me! – but Blackburn just felt right. Kenny Dalglish took myself, my mam and my dad over to see the new training ground being built and was getting the plans out on the boot of his car. I thought, ‘Is this for real?’.

How great an achievement was winning the Worthington Cup with Blackburn, against Spurs, in 2002?
Tony Barber, Clitheroe

That helped get the club back to where it belonged: winning some silverware. After winning the league, three or four years later we were relegated, which is incredible. Relegation was hard as a young lad, but that’s when you learn the most – I enjoyed it so much that I got relegated three times during my career, at Newcastle and Fulham too! Getting promoted again and then to win the League Cup was very special.

We had a lot of good players, such as David Dunn, [Dwight] Yorke and [Andy] Cole. Mark Hughes played that final in central midfield – he was about 52 at the time and was still man of the match! I loved working with Graeme Souness – he always got stick for not looking after Irish or Catholic players but that was all a load of nonsense. He was always very good with me.



1996-2003 Blackburn

2003-06 Chelsea

2006-09 Newcastle

2009-14 Fulham

2014-15 Melbourne City

2015 Shamrock Rovers

1998-2012 Republic of Ireland

How close were you to joining Liverpool during your career?
Nigel Walters, Birmingham

I came close two or three times. The first was a year or two before I signed for Chelsea. I would have gone there, but Blackburn wanted a big fee so not too many clubs could afford to buy me back then! When I was leaving Chelsea, the same move nearly happened again.

What really went on with Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy at the World Cup?
Van Benis, via Facebook

I guess everyone knows now. It was a barney and Roy went his own way. You have to admire him for sticking to his beliefs. I know it bothered the country but it didn’t really bother me very much – I just wanted to get on with it, although it was a bizarre few days. I can look back on it all with a giggle now, although I’m sure Mick doesn’t! It was unfortunate missing Roy’s talent, and God knows how far we’d have gone with him in the team.

How did your bowing celebration against Saudi Arabia come about?
Michael Smyth, via Twitter

Around the hotel, people were always bowing and they were so polite, so it was a nod to the Japanese

It just came to me in the hotel room. I was brushing my teeth thinking it’d be nice to score at a World Cup – not many Irish people had done it. Around the hotel, people were always bowing and they were so polite, so it was a nod to the Japanese. It was an iconic photo and I had a lot of Asian fans after that. I had quite a few follow me at Chelsea and Fulham – they took a shine to me!

How flattered were you to be one of Roman Abramovich’s first signings?
Emma Stroud, London

I don’t really think about it like that, but I remember lying in bed in the summer, dying with a hangover, when I got the call that they wanted me. It was a bolt out of the blue. I flew over a couple of times because I wasn’t quite sure, but eventually I signed and it was the right decision. Within a month they’d spent £150 million on people like [Hernan] Crespo and [Juan Sebastian] Veron.

Chelsea really should have won the Champions League in 2004, when they lost out to Monaco in the semi-finals, shouldn’t they?
Andrew Lambert, Dorchester

Who knows? But I think Mourinho’s name was on it that year, even if we’d got through the Monaco semi. I don’t think that anyone was going to beat Porto and Mourinho. I was out injured for the Monaco games – I had a jinx with semi-final games in Europe. Missing out on those nights was tough to take.

Given he had created the backbone of the team that won the Premier League, would Claudio Ranieri have won the title if he'd stayed on?
Keith Clarges, via Facebook

You always had a feeling after Abramovich took over that Claudio’s days were numbered, and there was definitely a shift in the mentality once Mourinho had come in.

Possibly. With the quality we had, you would like to think so, and he signed [Petr] Cech and [Arjen] Robben before Jose came in. Claudio was brilliant, all the guys loved him. We may have won the league in that one season I worked with him, but nobody was catching the Invincibles at Arsenal. You always had a feeling after Abramovich took over that Claudio’s days were numbered, and there was definitely a shift in the mentality once Mourinho had come in.

What was Mourinho like to work with?
Devin Vin, Kuala Lumpur

There’s no doubt he’s the best manager I ever worked with. He squeezes every last ounce out of you and the training sessions he put on were unbelievable. He had us believing from day one that we would be champions. We ended up steamrollering everyone in that first season – even when we weren’t playing well, we had a belief that we’d still win.

You and Arjen Robben killed the Premier League for a season. Was that the best form of your career?
Andy Murphy, Gloucester

We were both direct and both comfortable on either wing – we were chopping and changing

Yes, it was a special time and a special team. When Ranieri pre-signed Robben, I’d just dislocated my shoulder and so things weren't going too well – I was worried he was replacing me. It took about three or four games for me to break into Mourinho’s team. It was a wake-up call, it toughened me up, but if you work hard then it always works out in the end.

Once I’d got into the team I stayed in it. I don’t think Jose planned to get both of us in the same team, it just happened. We were both direct and both comfortable on either wing – we were chopping and changing. It is hard to defend.

Can you describe the first 20 minutes against Barcelona in 2005, when you scored to fire Chelsea 3-0 in front?
Louis Atyeo, Liege

We just streamrollered them – that was Mourinho being prepared. He’d told us that he wanted to draw Barcelona. We all thought that was crazy, as they had Ronaldinho and [Samuel] Eto’o, but he was right as usual! It was nice to score a goal, but then Ronaldinho showed us all up with his amazing performance.

Before the first leg at the Camp Nou, Mourinho said that Eidur Gudjohnsen would be playing instead of you. Did you know what was really going on?
Evan Daniels, London

I was struggling with injury and Jose told me: "Don’t train. You’ll be playing, but I’m going to announce a different team." It was just to play a few mind games – at the press conference he named our team and he named their team as well. He was so good at doing things like that. He had me believing that I wasn’t playing until he named the team the next day, so he did me a kipper as well! I started and played a role in a very important away goal.

Did Mourinho really hide in a laundry basket against Bayern Munich?
David Cain, Norwich



High: 1997. Named man of the match on his Blackburn Rovers debut

Low: 1999. Begins two-year spell outside Premier League after relegation

High: 2002. Scores in Ireland’s 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia at the World Cup

Low: 2005. Injury rules him out of Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final

High: 2006. Wins second consecutive Premier League title

Low: 2009. Own goal consigns Newcastle to relegation at Aston Villa

High: 2012. Captains Ireland for his 100th – and final – cap against Italy

[Laughs] I couldn’t possibly mention it, there’d probably be bans coming from UEFA. Read into that what you will! His impact was massive in that tie. He still played his part – don’t you worry about that – but how close he was, I couldn’t tell you. Let’s just say he was close by.

How did it feel when Chelsea won away at Bolton to become Premier League champions for the first time?
Steve Walker, London

The club hadn’t won the title for 50 years so it was an amazing feeling, but that weekend was bittersweet. We trained at Blackburn the next day because we were playing Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final and I tweaked my hamstring. I remember breaking down in tears on the pitch, as I knew I was going to be ruled out.

Do you regret the way your time at Chelsea came to an end in 2006?
Ryan Darby, Torbay

At the time I wanted to play in every game – I didn’t back myself. Chelsea were signing [Michael] Ballack as well as [Andriy] Shevchenko and I was in and out of the team at the tail end of the previous season, so I thought, ‘I’m not going to play'.

To be fair, Jose said: "No, stay, if you play well and you’re fit, you’ll be in the team." It's a regret, it’s something I don’t usually do. I usually stay and fight. I cried on the day I left – looking back, that probably should’ve told me I was making the wrong call, as I never cried when I left Blackburn, Newcastle or Fulham, or even when I retired. But it was my own decision.

How close did you come to joining Tottenham when you left Chelsea?
Gavin Mills, Belfast

I remember getting a message from Martin Jol, but I was a Chelsea fan after winning titles there so it was something I never really looked at. I had friends at Newcastle – Scott Parker, Shay Given – and I wanted to give that a real go, but I went to Newcastle and had a disaster.

Was the own goal to send Newcastle down your lowest moment in football?
Lee Nolan, Newcastle

We only needed a draw to stay up and then to see the scoreboard say, ‘Duff OG’, I thought, ‘What the f**k? What are the chances of that happening?’

When you say it like that, yes. Over the 38 games that season, we deserved to go down. I probably took a lot of flak for scoring the own goal on the last day at Aston Villa. I’ve refused to ever watch it back. We only needed a draw to stay up and then to see the scoreboard say, ‘Duff OG’, I thought, ‘What the f**k? What are the chances of that happening?’ That probably summed up my three years up there. I gave them everything but sometimes moves don’t work out.

What made you choose Fulham over Wolves in 2009? Did Roy Hodgson have any influence in your decision?
Bobby Todd, London

Yes, he gave me my first proper season in the Premier League with Blackburn. I would have walked from Newcastle to go to Fulham. It was never about money – I took a wage cut to go from Chelsea to Newcastle and another one to go to Fulham because I just wanted to be happy. Roy is an amazing coach and he’s an utter gentleman. I am so gutted for him about what happened with England at the Euros. I’d love to see him back involved in the game.

You once said that you liked to sleep. Do you still enjoy a really good kip?
Barry Parkinson, Blackburn

I’d possibly go to bed every afternoon if I didn’t have two kids – they’re both scuppering it! [Laughs] I lived alone from 18 to 28 and every single day after training I’d go home and sleep. The lads knew me. They’d ask, ‘Where’s Duffer gone? More than likely he’s gone back to bed.’ I enjoy it more than most, I won’t lie. That’s why I look so young!

How did you feel after Thierry Henry’s handball in the play-offs denied you a place at the 2010 World Cup finals?
Richard O’Leary, Limerick

It was incredible in this day and age that someone could get away with it, but if it was down the other end I’d have done it

It was incredible in this day and age that someone could get away with it, but if it was down the other end I’d have done it, too. He was playing the game, so I’ve no problem with Thierry Henry. But I was distraught. That’s the hardest I’ve ever been hit by a result. After 2002 I always thought I’d go to another World Cup, but I never did.

Do you remember having a beer with us after the 2010 Europa League Final?
YJ, London

I don’t think anything will beat that night against Juventus: 4-1 down on aggregate with 80 minutes to go at Craven Cottage

[Laughs] I do! I went out in my Fulham tracksuit at 4am, smoking cigarettes and just getting drunk. I guess that’s what good old Irish people do – they drown their sorrows. I was in some little bar and there were Fulham fans in there – I don’t think I even went to bed.

But on the way to that final there were nights the fans will never forget. I don’t think anything will beat that night against Juventus: 4-1 down on aggregate with 80 minutes to go at Craven Cottage. And we also saw off Shakhtar Donetsk, who were one of the best teams I have ever played; Wolfsburg and Hamburg – it was an incredible run. We were so well drilled, and I put an awful lot of that down to Roy. Even Atletico Madrid only scored late on in extra time to win the final.

What prompted you to play in Australia with Melbourne City?
Oliver Jarman, via Twitter

It was a different life experience. Fulham had just been relegated from the Premier League and the people upstairs at the football club should take some responsibility for that because of the way they started to run it – a squad of 20 or 24 players, bringing in loan signings, trying to be too clever – and it bit them. Melbourne City was a great project. They’re part of the City Group and I still look fondly at Manchester City for what they did for me. It was just amazing to get to experience another part of the world.

Do you regret your time playing for Shamrock Rovers in 2015?
David Kent, Ashbourne, Ireland

It was difficult. I wanted to go home and make a contribution, so I signed for a year-and-a-half. But for whatever reason I was getting a minute here, a minute there and I had no interest in doing that. I had just had enough.

You recently said that you hired out a five-a-side pitch just for yourself. Didn’t that feel a little bit weird?
Andrew Smith, Hereford

Yes it did feel a bit weird doing it, but three or four months ago I just fancied a kickabout. All my mates were at work so I went down there for an hour – it’s amazing what you can do on your own! I was still practising away with my right foot and I have retired now – so I’m not sure what the practising was for. But I guess it’s similar to golfers going off to the driving range and hitting balls.

Do you see yourself coaching in the League of Ireland one day?
‘The Final Third’, via Twitter

I’ve been doing work with the Republic of Ireland Under-15s and I was with Shamrock U16s

Possibly. I’ve been having my UEFA A licence assessment and I also need to get my Pro badge, although I am still finding my feet about what I want to do with my life. I’ve been doing work with the Republic of Ireland Under-15s and I was with Shamrock U16s. Now I’m with their first team, so we’ll see where it all goes.

How would you compare the Chelsea team now to the one you played in?
Brian Pearson, London

I would have to go with my one, being biased! Antonio Conte has transformed the team, so I’m not sure what went on with Jose during last season. Mourinho going to Manchester United has helped to reignite my love for United, I used to support them as a kid, but when I went to Chelsea I stopped. [FFT: Do you think he will win the league title with United one day?] It's harder than ever. There are six teams all vying for top spot, but Jose guarantees you trophies. It will be tough but I’d hang my hat on him, yes.

Are you turning into Kim Kardashian? You said it was a retirement worry...
Eddie O’Connell, Dundalk

[Laughs] I don’t know! People retire and they’re on red carpets and going to lots of openings, but I keep my head down. I live out in the hills with my wife and kids and the only time you see me is on Irish TV doing punditry. That’s given me something to focus on. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done by a mile – the pressure of it – but I quite like it in a strange way.

Are you really the owner of Duff Beer, Homer Simpson’s favourite tipple?
Graham Green, via Twitter

A few people have bought me the memorabilia over the years but it’s nothing to do with me! Someone did buy me a beer, but I didn’t try it – no chance. Any marketing opportunities? No, Homer hasn’t called me up yet…

This feature originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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Chris Flanagan
Staff Writer

Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.