LONDON — Somewhere on this planet the man working for Decca Records 40 years ago who told the Beatles they wouldn’t make it and should try another career, may still be alive.
As rejections go that will take some beating, but the assertion by Sir Roy Gardner, chairman of Manchester United, that his club did not think Damien Duff was worth the £17 million Chelsea paid Blackburn for the winger last summer could come back to haunt the Premiership champion on Sunday.
United thought about it but decided Duff was overvalued.
The Irishman has a firsthand chance to show the visitors what they are missing in the domestic game of the season, so far, when United visits Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea, where it would be difficult to find anyone who does not believe Duff was worth every penny of his transfer fee.
Sadly, Seba Veron will not be fit — to add extra spice to a match that hardly needs it — because the Chelsea midfielder has a back problem and will not play against his former club.
Duff, however, will be there as long as Chelsea manager Claudio “Tinkerman” Ranieri does not inexplicably decided to rotate the winger out of the side.
Laid back to the point of comatose, Duff is probably the only person who is not particularly bothered about the hype that will surround him and the match.
If sleeping were an Olympic sport, Duff would win the gold medal. He always seems to look like he has just climbed out of bed, probably because that is the case, and according to Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr “Damo” suffers from adhesive mattress syndrome.
On the pitch, however, Duff is greased lightning. He scored a wonderful solo goal in Chelsea’s 4-0 win over Lazio in Rome earlier this month and last week ran two-thirds of the length of the pitch before sliding the ball in the Canadian net in the Republic of Ireland’s victory.
Duff has the ability to create space where none seems available. He can weave his way out of the tightest of situations with ball control and speed that leave defenders asking “why me?”
Already Duff is a firm favorite at Chelsea, not easy given the collection of superstars at the Bridge, but the fans appreciate his commitment, desire and ability to produce something special from his box of tricks.
He will be up against United right-back Gary Neville, a solid, reliable and experienced defender, though the England international knows he is in for one of his most demanding afternoons.
Duff is happier playing football than talking about it. He is eloquent and intelligent but Duff just doesn’t like any fuss. “Ah well, yeah, everything’s fine, great . . . look lads, I’ve got to go and meet my ma,” he will say to reporters.
Duff has reached a level where he is now one of a handful of players who, when they gain possession, the chances are something exciting will happen, something that will give spectators a moment to talk about after the match or have commentators searching for words to describe what he has done.
Thierry Henry of Arsenal and United’s Ryan Giggs come into this category. Jay-Jay Okocha, Bolton’s Nigerian forward, and occasionally Wayne Rooney of Everton fulfill this criterion, which is to expect the unexpected.
Kerr coached Duff in Ireland’s youth teams and said: “I would give a team talk and then say to Damien, ‘You heard that but forget it — just go out and cause them trouble.’ “
Last year Duff was named in the World Cup XI by FIFA’s technical study group. He is now a regular in one of Europe’s most glamorous sides which has lit up the Champions League.
Duff’s only fear is that he will wake up and find it is all a dream.
ENGLISH FOOTBALL has not had a vintage few months, with high-profile off-field problems compounded by the feel-good factor generated by the Rugby World Cup success of England last weekend.
Rugby was suddenly the in-sport, with football and its ills being compared unfavorably with the oval-ball game.
Then along came Arsenal last Tuesday to wallop Inter Milan 5-1 at San Siro in the Champions League. Italian teams just don’t concede five goals home or away at this level, we thought, but Arsenal’s stunning victory proved reports of the death of English football are exaggerated.
Thierry Henry was almost unstoppable and the player who was rejected by Juventus and turned into a world-class star by Arsene Wenger, must have enjoyed his particular Italian job a year after scoring a hat trick against AS Roma.
“He is irreplaceable,” said Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood. “I was at a dinner the night before the game and someone asked me about Thierry’s price — was it £50 million, £70 million or even £100 million if (Chelsea owner Roman) Abramovich came calling.
“My reply was that we have no intention of selling at any price.
“It was a great coup for us to sign him on a new four-year deal last May. He is not only a great player — probably the most complete I have seen at Arsenal — but he is also a lovely boy.
“Of course we pay him a heck of a lot of money, but he has never come across as a greedy person and it’s been a pleasure dealing with him.”
The correspondents of France Football, the respected weekly magazine, around Europe are currently deliberating on who will be the European Footballer of the Year, with five points for their first choice down to one for fifth choice.
Henry has the strongest of cases. He has been a consistent goalscorer for Arsenal and France throughout 2003 and a player worth the admission price alone.
He would be this correspondent’s choice, but there is a nagging doubt that Paolo Maldini — who led AC Milan to Champions League victory in May — will win on the basis of what Hollywood would call “a lifetime’s service to the industry.”
Maldini has been the best defender of his generation, a wonderful professional and deserves the European Footballer of the Year on his resume.
It is a pity he has not been selected previously and this will be the last chance for the Italian to win it. Sentiment may tip the scales in his favor.
However, there is the chance of a memorable double, after Henry was named as one of the three candidates — Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane and current holder Ronaldo are the others — for the FIFA World Player of the Year award chosen by national coaches.
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