With Damien Duff poised to make his Shamrock Rovers debut, the greater impact his stint in the Airtricity League will have will surely be a positive one. Can we expect more stars of Duff’s stature to follow suit and play out their last few years on home turf? Instead of following the cash to the Far East or across the Atlantic ocean, could a few months spent playing on Irish soil do for the domestic game, what the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are doing for Major League Soccer in America?
While players like Robbie Keane and indeed Duff himself left these shores at a young age, they would have very little affinity to Rovers, Bohemians, St Pats, Dundalk, Cork City et al. Others like Seamus Coleman, Kevin Doyle, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean, on the other hand, cut their playing teeth in the league and would more likely see the value and quality the domestic game can offer to a player in the twilight of his career.
Niall Quinn’s barmy plans to “save” the league aside, in the mid 2000s the former Sunderland chairman was behind a consortium of Irish millionaires to invest in a foreign team in a foreign league in the frigid north of a foreign country. A recent non-event friendly with England in a half empty Aviva Stadium was deemed a great opportunity for Irish people to see their Premier League heroes in the flesh by RTE pundit Ronnie Whelan, desperately trying to put a positive spin on a dour 0-0 draw at the time. These attitudes illustrate how little the League of Ireland registers on the radars of former pros like Quinn and Whelan’s who made their names in the English League, even if Whelan did start his career with Home Farm and his father a celebrated St Patricks Athletic player.
Damien Duff was recently in Dublin earning his UEFA B coaching badges with fellow ex-Ireland international teammates Stephen Hunt and Liam Lawrence. Signing for a League of Ireland club and the opportunity to take on a coaching role would undoubtedly be an appealing prospect for players looking to get into management come the end of their careers.
Having announced his exit from Barcelona, by signing for Al Sadd, Xavi Hernandez chose to accept Qatari millions and ignore the terrible human rights violations occurring there including the deaths of construction workers building the World Cup stadiums. Many pundits believe he has sullied his glorious legacy. The midfield maestro has been toeing the party line since joining, suggesting the Middle East nation will be great hosts in 2022, despite the rest of the world believing it is already a disaster. For a millionaire like Xavi to play out his final few years in the Qatar league to make a reported €10 million for a three-year contract, one of the most revered players in Barcelona’s history seems to confirm that in football, money is the bottom line.
So when a player like Damien Duff announces his desire to return to play in the League of Ireland, and then reveals he will donate his entire salary to charity, it only further cements his good guy reputation. Upon signing, he said:
“I am definitely not just here to see out my time as a player; I intend to make a positive contribution to Shamrock Rovers and to the league”
With a cycle of boom, bust, and bust again as Irish clubs folded and liquidation threatened champions, the goodwill towards Duff and his stint in an often derided league will manifest itself in headlines for the right reasons. When so often it appears a constant wave of negativity generates column inches about the highest level of football in this country, Duff’s homecoming has seen nothing but positivity. The Dubliner’s return to play in his homeland is in stark contrast to Xavi’s seduction by oil money.
Duff’s first steps into coaching could also be a benefit to the league in the future. With a manager merry-go-round in full swing as Bray lurch from crisis to crisis, the same names keep cropping up in a small pool of League of Ireland coaches. Former internationals searching for a place to test out their knowledge and gain a foothold on the managerial ladder could do worse than develop their skills domestically. Teams playing each other three times a season, and short term contracts meaning that players move around to multiple clubs in their League of Ireland careers, sometimes makes the league seem rather incestuous. The injection of new blood and fresh ideas would be a welcome addition to fans and players alike.
In the past, ex-international Jeff Kenna had spells in charge at Galway and St Pats, and Mark Kinsella is currently assistant at Drogheda. Regardless of their performances, the names register with the sporting public beyond the loyal league fanbase. Likewise, Kenny Cunningham’s astute analysis and knowledge of the domestic scene lend the game a credibility to a wider Irish following that always needs to be won over.
Recent years have also seen former internationals Liam Miller, Colin Healy, Keith Fahey and Stephen McPhail return to Ireland far from past their prime, and their professionalism and quality on the field has enhanced the league’s reputation as a whole. A player of Damien Duff’s calibre would fulfill Ronnie Whelan’s description of a Premier League hero, and the opportunity to see him strut his stuff in Tallaght Stadium and around the country will also be a welcome attraction for young fans, and potential newcomers alike. Could Duff spark a new trend of returning players to breathe new life into Ireland’s national league?